C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves is a book that is building in popularity. My original review of the book 8 years ago remains one of the top posts on this blog, and I have returned to the ideas again and again. I still think he says some important and powerful things about friendship, and I think his main thesis is right, that agape love–divine, unconditional love–fills out, lifts up, and perfects all other kinds of natural love.
While there are limitations to the book–it really is a pretty ad hoc exploration of ideas, an expansion of a lecture series and the fruit of a couple of decades of thought–I like the use of different kinds of love enough to build a literature class around it. This fall I am teaching at Signum University a class called “C.S. Lewis and Mythologies of Love and Sex.” In this masters-level course, I use C.S. Lewis’ concept of four loves to structure a course about the great myths at the foundation of our culture. Ranging from the ancient world until now, these are the moments where stories of friendship, love, sex, marriage, fidelity, and devotion have intersected with the hinges of history. With great students and a strong reading list (see below), it has already promised to be a great semester.
But there are clearly some limitations in the course. One is the deeply Christian nature of The Four Loves. Students from other traditions and with other worldviews will need to do some adjusting to get value out of the book. Another point is that Lewis makes some comments about gender and sexuality–including homosexuality and marriage–that sound strange or even troublesome to today’s ears. Yet it is a uniquely situated book, written not long after Lewis had fallen in love, and written in conversation with Joy Davidman.
There is no area of Lewis’ life and thought that is more scrutinized than that of gender and sexuality. Yet the conversation is worth having. So we are opening up the Signum classroom a little wider this coming Tuesday, inviting you to join us for a discussion about Lewis & Gender. As a Lewis scholar, I can speak to his lifetime of thought on the matter; as Lewis readers, you can bring your own questions, critiques, and curiosities. I also think that this discussion can make us sharper as readers and challenge our own assumptions (i.e., biases) when we read.
The discussion is open and free, Tues, Sep 17, 7pm Eastern. You can sign up here. I’ve left details about the class below, for those interested.
Signum University believes education should be accessible, dynamic, and affordable. Signum is committed to establishing a completely virtual campus that will cultivate fruitful intellectual exchange between students and teachers, prolific vocational growth for our staff, and a vibrant academic community among our students.
Signum University and Mythgard Institute offer a unique digital campus environment in which students all over the world can engage throughout the course. Each class encourages rigorous academic conversation through multiple points of instruction and dialogue. Classes are available as part of the MA program, or as an inexpensive audit.
- The Signum Classroom provides a convenient interface for live, direct interaction with instructors
- A Class Forum provides a place for students and instructors to hold in-depth conversations about class-related topics
- Discussion Sections offer a moderated setting where M.A. students can talk with each other on a weekly basis
- Lecturer and preceptor Office Hours allow further conference opportunities to ask questions, clarify ideas, and present paper topics
Taught by Brenton Dickieson
This course explores some of the great mythologies of love that provide a background to today’s culture. Sketched out along the twin paths of C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves and a chronological development of the idea of romantic love, we explore foundational stories of love, sex, fidelity and betrayal, romance, loss, marriage, and divine and devotional love.
This treatment of love and sex has six movements. In the prologue we ask questions about the conversations of sex and love today, we begin in the civilizational nursery by looking at some of the ideas of love in ancient Mediterranean cultures. As we move into the first chapter, we look at the emergence of Greek and Jewish understanding of love, and the Christian idea of agape, or unconditional love.
In the second chapter, we will see the development—and in some cases a recovery—of the myth of romantic love in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, including themes of devotional, courtly, forbidden, and erotic loves, as well as the forms of storytelling that blended them all. Once love stories have shed their allegorical undertones, Shakespeare is an accessible starting point to discuss the place of romantic love in culture. Shakespeare is in this way the inventor of the modern romantic tradition, though his work suggests an inversion of that tradition. While Goethe captures romantic love in all its poignancy, we see Jane Austen’s inversive mind expand the theme, and turn to the four loves with a powerful cultural treatment in Pride & Prejudice.
In chapter three we turn to familial loves. Perhaps no more rapid change in relationships has come in the family loves, particularly those between parents and children. We will read pieces that suggest that the reassertion of this parental love makes for new problems as romantic, religious, and vocational love sit in uncomfortable tension with that earliest of all loves. Problematizing parental love, then, serves as an opportunity to return to the messages and stories of love in culture today.
Chapter four’s consideration of friendship love leaves us in a difficult situation. Though popular culture is beset with friends on facebook and television, the deep traditions of friendship are largely lost to us. So we turn to some children’s literature to discuss this almost forgotten love.
As an epilogue to the class, we ask some questions about love and culture today. Are we really in a renewed romanticism? What is love in a digital age? What happens when love fails—or when the mythologies of love fail? Which is the most important of the loves? We will close by returning to an ancient theme of “calling,” meant to open questions as to where the reader sits in the world.
Week 1: “Art is a Lie Which Makes us Realize the Truth”
Week 2: Introduction to Love, Religion, and Mythology
- Read: Song of Solomon; Lewis, The Four Loves
- Recommended: The Epic of Gilgamesh; Homer, The Iliad, The Odyssey; the Cupid and Psyche cycle in Books 4 – 6 of The Golden Ass
Chapter One: The Emergence of Agape
Week 3: Greek and Christian Inventions of Love
Week 4: Form, Flesh and Fidelity: The Art of Courtly Love
Week 5: Shakespeare: The Invention (and Inversion?) of Romantic Love
- Read: Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Sonnets handout
- Recommended: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet
Week 6: Goethe and the Romantic Tradition
- Read: The Sorrows of Young Werther
- Recommended: Orlando
Week 7: Jane Austen and the Change of the Heart
Week 8: The Forbidden Love of Asher Lev
- Read: Potok, My Name is Asher Lev
Week 9: When Love is No Better than Hate
Chapter Four: Can We Recover Philia?
Week 11: Where did Friendship Go?
- Read: Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia
- Recommended: King, The Body, Stand by Me
Week 12: Plastic Bodies and Broken Hearts: Myths of Love Today
- Read: Coelho, The Alchemist
- Watch: Lars and the Real Girl, Easy A
- Recommended: Lewis, A Grief Observed
Most of these books are widely available in local libraries or in inexpensive editions. Any edition of the books is fine. Translation in parentheses; it is okay to choose a different translation. In some cases, handouts will be provided in class, as noted below.
We’ve linked to free online resources where possible. Where no legally free version is available, links point to the Amazon page where a copy of the text may be purchased. Purchases made through these links help Signum University at no additional cost to you.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia” (1931, widely available online)
- The Bible (handout provided)
- C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (1960)
- Plato, The Symposium (4 th c. BCE, Christopher Gill)
- Selections from C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (1936)
- Selections from Patristic and Medieval Writings(handout provided)
- Selections from The Letters of Abelard & Héloïse (12th c., William Levitan)
- Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet (1597)
- Selections from Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609, provided online)
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774, Michael Hulse)
- Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice (1813)
- C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (1956)
- Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev (1972)
- Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia (1977)
- Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist (1988)
- The Princess Bride(1987)
- Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet(1996)
- Bridge to Terabithia(2007)
- Stand by Me(1986)
- Lars and the Real Girl(2007)
- Easy A(2010)
- Selections from Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love in The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: Volume 1: The Medieval Period(Ed. Joseph Black et al, 2 nd ed., 2009)
- Virginia Woolf, Orlando(1927)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” (also in Tree and Leaf, The Tolkien Reader, and Essays Presented to Charles Williams, ed. C.S. Lewis)
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings(1955-56)
- C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe(1950)
- C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce(1945)
- C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed(1961)
- Stephen King, The Body(1982) (also in Different Seasons)
Note: Course schedules, texts and other details are subject to change. Upon enrolling, students should refer to the syllabus and Moodle course page for the most current information.