Behind C.S. Lewis’ famous Narnian chronicles was his experience as a teacher of English literature, a writer about the history of literary movements, and a tinker in other forms of fiction. In that tinkering, and in his letters and essays, he would sometimes create new turns of phrase when it was needed. This is the eighth in the series on words that C.S. Lewis coined.
First delivered as a lecture series for radio, then turned into a book, C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves was considered to be a bit too hot to touch for American listeners in 1958. The producers of The Episcopal Radio Hour from Atlanta had fair warning. When asked if he would consider recording some talks, Lewis agreed:
The subject I want to say something about in the near future, in some form or other, is the four Loves–Storge, Philia, Eros, and Agape.This seems to bring in nearly the whole of Christian ethics. Wd. this be suitable for your purpose? Of course I shd. do it on the ‘popular’ level–not (as the four words perhaps suggest) philologically (1 May 1958 letter to Bishop Henry I. Louttit).
What might they have thought Lewis would have talked about when addressing Eros if it wasn’t erotic love? Perhaps it was Lewis’ positive vision of sexuality that disturbed the editors–a vision that became sharper for Lewis when that love was gone:
For those few years [Joy] and I feasted on love, every mode of it—solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, 17).
While we don’t easily blush at a statement like this today, the 1950s were different. Perhaps it was talking about sex at all that was problematic for the Americans. In any case, Lewis’ frank talk about sex caused the series to be shelved. The CD was released decades later; the sex content was left unadulterated but his cigarette was photoshopped out of the picture. American sentiments about morality really have shaped the journey of this lecture series on love.
Why did Lewis turn to the subject of love in 1958? As he says in his letter to Bishop Louttit, his interest in ethics had kept the idea of different kinds of love active in his mind–and he had been thinking about the Greek loves since the 1930s with his The Allegory of Love and his encounter with Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros. Lewis at this time was also lecturing on “Some Difficult Words,” the kind of lectures that moved into his book, Studies in Words, published in 1960 as the book form of The Four Loves was coming to print. Lewis had been writing in his letters about different kinds of Greek ideas of love since 1954, just a couple of months after Joy Davidman moved to England with her sons.
While the connection may be coincidental, it is no doubt that by the summer of 1958 Lewis had fallen in love in a way that he never imagined was possible–or perhaps even desirable–for him. The ideas of romantic love and sex in The Four Loves are not merely theoretical, and certainly not just philological.
In The Four Loves, Lewis discusses the kinds of promises our heart makes to us and others when we fall in love. “This is true love,” our heart says to us. “It cannot be broken. Love is real this time, no matter what happened before. And though love fades for others, it will always feel this way to us.” It is in the nature of Eros to promise us that this love will never be transitory. Rather than looking down on lovers, or chastising them for their ignorance, Lewis steps back from the experience of falling love and observes its effects:
The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory. In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the centre of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbour as ourselves. Simply to relapse from it, merely to “fall out of” love again is—if I may coin the ugly word—a sort of disredemption (The Four Loves, 158).
Falling out of love, then, is “a sort of disredemption.” The word’s meaning is obvious: falling out of love is like playing the drama of redemption in reverse. The word has a heartbreaking quality to it, but Lewis goes on to show the true love roots Eros in a relationship. It is Agape, the love that is self-sacrificial love, that completes Eros and creates space for its operation. Because, in the end, it will be that leap over the wall of our selfhood that will be the most challenging aspect of our relationship. When that altruistic appetite which transforms love begins to fade, it is Agape that turns the enacted drama of redemption into lifelong love.
“Disredemption” really is an ugly word–not just poetically, but in the concept itself. I am glad that the word “redemption” has no real opposite in the English language, and Lewis’ phrase here has not really caught on. Yet that sad, disredemptive potential of falling out of love no doubt remains after the word or the concept is forgotten.
The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up