And The Greatest of These…: A Review of C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves

This year I introduced an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own vault or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie”that I think needs a bit of spin time.

This relatively uncontroversial review is my 5th most popular C.S. Lewis post ever. I have read The Four Loves a few times since I first made this post back in 2012. I am now far more aware of the flaws in this book, as well as some of the material that horrifies people. But I am also more and more keenly aware of how prophetic this book is, calling us to a certain character of love and showing where that can go wrong. I think of North American Christians read this book faithfully and tried to live in the world this way, our entire culture would be transformed. Just like the preacher who preached the same sermon several times defended his repetition by the lives of his congregation, so my church, evangelicals, needs to root our public lives in transformative love. So I post again of my first experience reading The Four Loves back in 2011.

The Four Loves is one of C.S. Lewis’ last Christian books. Of his popular nonfiction, this is the book that is closest to his field of study. His Allegory of Love (1936) was the most popular of his work in literary criticism and was a kind of break-out book for him. The Four Loves is also a book that I haven’t even pretended to read before. In a lecture for my “Myths of Love, Sex and Marriage” class in Fall 2010 I kept stumbling across references to this book in footnotes and weblinks. I am doing the same lecture again this Fall, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to finally read this famous book.

Lewis explores the topic of love by looking at the four ancient Greek words for love: eros (romantic love), storge (affection), philia (friendship), agape (charity). After separating love into two categories—Need-love, where something is received; Gift-love, its altruistic opposite—Lewis chooses not to begin at the top of the mountain by exploring the idea of the love of God, but starts at the base and works upwards. He first explores the idea of liking, fondness for pets and a love of nature and country. When he has set out his definitions and has explored the terrain in the foothills of love, he dedicates a chapter each for navigating the Greek loves. The summit, for Lewis, is God’s love, which animates and perfects all other loves.

Lewis deals first with Affection, from the Greek storge (two syllables, a hard g). In the Greek context, Affection—except for Eros, he hardly ever uses the Greek words in the book—is used most of familial love. It can be the Gift-love of a mother to a child, or the Need-love of a little girl to her daddy. We see this love between a man and his dog, or even, when the cat condescends, between a humble dog and the household cat.

Affection is a modest, inclusive love. One does not typically select to whom we lend our Affection. We don’t pick our family, after all. But more than that, we don’t choose who we like based on beauty or interests or goals. We find a lover from those we are attracted to, and we develop our deep friendships with those who can walk beside us in a common interest, but Affection doesn’t work that way. A teenager’s Affection for a wrinkled old neighbour or an awe-tinged smile at the class clown are not selective: they fall to us, or emerge out of us. I can remember when I was falling in love, or when my great friendships developed, but I can’t remember when I became so curious about the octogenarian nun from up the street.

In this way, Affection is not exactly a completely separate love, but works in all our loves—what would friendship or erotic love be without affection? And unlike the other loves, Affection lives quietly in our existence, slinking through our lives without notice. Erotic love could not stand this—can you imagine how a wife would feel if her husband was embarrassed when they accidentally brushed hands in public?—and friendship requires some moments of pause and reflection. Lewis captures the difference of Affection well:

It [affection] would not be affection if it was loudly and frequently expressed; to produce it in public is like getting your household furniture out for a move. It did very well in its place, but it looks shabby or tawdry or grotesque in the sunshine. Affection almost slinks or seeps through our lives. It lives with humble, un-dress, private things; soft slippers, old clothes, old jokes, the thump of a sleepy dog’s tail on the kitchen floor, the sound of a sewing-machine, a gollywog left on the lawn. (56-57)

I’m not sure what a gollywog is, but we can see the mundane nature of Affection; at the same time, we can see its deep value.

I have talked about Affection in a longer way because it is less recognized or understood in our world. When was the last time you heard a pop song that captures the Affection we see described here? Lewis goes on to describe Friendship, Greek philia for brotherly love or a sense of sisterhood, and Erotic Love. While “we picture lovers face to face” in eye-locked embrace, we imagine friends walking “side by side; their eyes look ahead” (98). Lewis places great value on friendship. Look at the Narnia series. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Eustace is saved from his liberal school and its class-based bully system by a warm circle of friends. Eustace Scrubbs and Jill Pole become deep friends in The Silver Chair, just as we see the lock of friendship with Shasta and Aravis in The Horse and His Boy. Likewise, Lewis surrounded himself with a handful of friends who could challenge and encourage him.

A great example is the deep friendship that developed between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis within the literary circle called the Inklings—a kind of high-end back-of-the-pub writing group. Lewis and “Tollers”—as he was called by “Jack” Lewis—loved the same things, particularly the great Northern myths and worlds of fantasy. Tolkien, the older man, helped Lewis see the value of myth, how it shares deep truths of the world. Ultimately Tolkien showed Lewis the last intellectual steps he needed to take in his conversion.

The relationship, however, was not a one-way experience of a mentor and his prodigy. When Tolkien was self-consciously working on a little children’s story, Lewis saw its potential and encouraged Tolkien to have it published. By himself, Tolkien may never have had the courage to seek out a publisher—he was an extreme perfectionist and always shy about his work. The little children’s story was The Hobbit, and set the stage for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the entire Silmarillion mythology. As we see in Lewis’ own life, Friendship Love is of great importance.

Of the chapters, Lewis’ treatment of Eros is by far the most interesting, but also the obscure. Much of his critique is within a context that has changed pretty dramatically. He is struggling against a population that has a strange, conservative propriety about Eros on the one hand, but almost worships it in a secret sexual license on the other. There are some points of explanation and critique that are relevant to us. For example, he distinguishes between Eros, the love of the beloved, and Venus, the act of sex. And he really hits the nail on the head when he talks about the limitation of Eros:

In reality, however, Eros, having made his gigantic promise and shown you in glimpses what its performance would be like, has “done his stuff”. He, like a godparent, makes the vows; it is we who must keep them. It is we who must labour to bring our daily life into even closer accordance with what the glimpses have revealed. We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present. This all good lovers know, though those who are not reflective or articulate will be able to express it only in a few conventional phrases about “taking the rough along with the smooth”, not “expecting too much”, having “a little common sense”, and the  like. And all good Christian lovers know that this programme; modest as it sounds, will not be carried out except by humility, charity and divine grace; that it is indeed the whole Christian life seen from one particular angle. (159-160)

By way of critique, I would have liked to see Lewis spend more time in Plato’s understanding of Eros—he passes it briefly, as if we all know it already—and struggle with Augustine’s argument that our love of God is best captured in Eros: it is Eros that sees the Beloved as Other, and then worships and serves the other. But his strength is showing the limitations of each of these loves: Affection, Friendship, and Eros.

Thus Eros, like the other loves, but more strikingly because of his strength, sweetness, terror and high port, reveals his true status. He cannot of himself be what, nevertheless, he must be if he is to remain Eros. He needs help; therefore needs to be ruled. The god dies or becomes a demon unless he obeys God. (160)

It is in the fourth love that we meet God Love that subdues and completes and lifts up all the other loves. North American Christians may know the Greek word for this love as agape (three syllables, a hard g). Lewis, however, uses the old English word “Charity,” which is the translation of the love poem in 1 Corinthians 13 in the King James:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Charity never faileth

I like the NIV better, but Charity for Lewis and Shakespeare’s generation is far beyond what we call charity—a helping hand of pity and piety. Charity is Agape, that deep, unconditional Gift-love that God has for us and that completes all the other loves.

His argument is far more complicated than I have presented here. Actually, it is a pretty complex book, a 200-page argument, an inch-by-inch trek to a summit that is obscured by a bright setting sun. We know that at the end of the book we haven’t quite grasped Love fully. But we do understand some key things. There is no safety in love; it is risk. And only in hell can we escape it. And, as always in Lewis, it is about the will. Agape love demands that we give our will to God, for we cannot serve two masters without hating one of them. We do not give our will to God because he needs it—God needs nothing, so his love for us is entirely for us: we are God’s beloved. And in God’s great Love, we will be given back the “us” that we had given to God, so that in abandoning our will in God’s Love, we gain so much more of who we are.

This is a good book. The writing is evocative; Lewis is knowledgeable, a guide for the mountain path, and he is brief. But I don’t think this is his best book—or at least not the one most likely to endure. Despite the fact that this edition comes after he has fallen in love and experienced the loss of that love, it still has a detached tone. Moreover, some of the monsters he slays in the journey no longer haunt our world, so it is hard sometimes to know precisely what the implications of his thought are.

Most of all, I miss his stories, especially his caricatures. He has a couple of famous ones: Dr. Quartz, the professor who “collected” students, but dropped them if they challenged his ideas in any way (surely Prof. Horace Slughorn in Harry Potter is based on him) and Mrs. Fidget, who loves her family to pieces—almost literally (I’ve told her alter-ego’s story in my review of The Great Divorce). But for the most part, stories are kept to a minimum. The effect, for me, is that we get a scent of the sea on the wind, but we never fully see its depths.

I read the book with an eye to detail, taking 11 pages of notes on a 200-page book, so perhaps I am a little too critical. Stepping back for a moment, I can see the value of this book in teaching us about love that we might not recognize in our lives. It also offers a critique of love in our culture, which I can’t help but think is profoundly broken. And, most of all, for the believer, we see the full impact of the phrase, “God is Love” (1 John 4:8), the Ultimate Love of all.

Note: for a fuller explanation of the four Greek loves and this book in a Christian context, see Earl Palmer’s talk on the Kindlings podcast here. He really is an engaging speaker–I got to interview him once a few years ago–and he draws much more out of the book than I have been able to here. He also points out that agape was hardly used in the Greek world outside of Judaism and Christianity. I have some doubts but I think it is clear that Christianity did deepen and transform that word in the Greek world.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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13 Responses to And The Greatest of These…: A Review of C.S. Lewis’ Four Loves

  1. louloureads says:

    This review makes me want to reread The Four Loves. At the time, I mostly enjoyed it and was challenged in a helpful way, and I especially appreciated the seriousness with which he treated affection and friendship, which I think that the church as a whole would really benefit from taking more seriously. Some of his comments about friendships between men and women left a rather sour taste in my mouth, which is why I haven’t picked it up again, but reading your review makes me think that I might like revisiting it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, they would taste sour, but he is also saying that it is culture keeps women in little boxes that limits their education and makes married couples inequal. I don’t see that as much today, and when couples aren’t both intellectual, in my life it might be either the guy or the gal that lacks the lingo Lewis would have dug at a party.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. L.A. Smith says:

    Thank you for this, Brenton. I read this book a long time ago, and would be interested to see if a re-read brings about any more insights than I had the first time. Especially since the first time I read it I was a young, unmarried University student (or maybe even high school). and a lot of water has gone metaphorically under my bridge since then. 🙂 I remember being intrigued and impressed by this book, however. It gave me a way to think about love in a way that I had never done so before, and deepened my appreciation for all the types of loves Lewis covers in the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Yep, you nicely leave me wanting to reread it, too – and thinking I should at least read around in The Allegory of Love, again (and try Earl Palmer’s talk, and browse some good Greek dictionaries, and see which word turns up in the Vulgate Latin and Septuagint and New Testament Greek when English translations have ‘love’).

    And, indeed, “spend more time in Plato’s understanding of Eros” – and compare… who was it, R.G. Collingwood?, and, I think some discussion of his thought by Lewis in a letter…

    Anyway, thanks for so lively an account, sending us out eager to learn!

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Nice, that Affection quotation, too – leaving me wanting to see just what he says (or doesn’t say, explicitly) about love for particular ‘things’, as if some ‘I-It’ relations were very like ‘I -Thou’ ones…

      And that Denis de Rougemont quotation he takes up – I really ought to finally get around to reading his famous Courtly Love book (translated into English by a friend of Charles Williams).


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