C. S. Lewis on pain

In 1940, writer C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) published a little book titled The Problem of Pain. Written as a Christian apology, the work addresses its topic in an entirely popular and literal way, assuming the theological arguments of a medieval scholastic, uninformed of any other intellectual movements, even within Christianity, let alone contemporary issues such as anthropology, philosophy, hermeneutics, or psychology. The reader is relegated to a list of arguments constructed on original sin, free will, hell, angels, the Devil, the nature of God, the divinity of Christ, etc., all from the point of view of a traditionalism and scriptural literalism that is sweepingly insufficient from an intellectual source.

Lewis is most animated when he acknowledges the existence of the Numinous (citing Rudolph Otto) as the universal source of religion in all its forms but quickly qualifies the sense of the Numinous by interjecting a criterion: that only in Judaism is the sense of the Numinous identified not only as Yahweh but that it is identified with a moral standard (the commandments) which defines the behavior of those who acknowledge this absolute manifestation of the Numinous. Thus, Lewis is able to argue that because no other sense of the Numinous clearly identifies a moral standard to complement its divinity, only the Judeo-Christian religion breaks through to the complete nature of the Numinous — and therefore constitutes the true religion. But contrary to Lewis’s ahistorical sense is the equal universality of the perennial philosophy, which Lewis seems to anticipate in alluding to Aldous Huxley (whose book The Perennial Philosophy argues that the Numinous is universally present and not merely in one culture but simply expressed variantly) was published in 1945.

Ironically, Lewis very clearly sets out the “opposing” view on pain and suffering early in the book, saying that this view is what he would have argued before his conversion to Christianity. These arguments are never really addressed in the course of Lewis’s book but are subsumed under the author’s necessity to have the reader accept Christianity and its theology. In any case, the straw argument is from an “atheist” point of view and does not acknowledge a perennial philosophy, so that Lewis has constructed a theist/atheist frame around what is in fact a larger view of religion in Otto, Huxley, and contemporary studies.

Look at the universe we live in. By far the greatest part of it consists of empty space, completely dark and unimaginably cold. The bodies which move in this space are so few and so small in comparison with the space itself that even if everyone of them were known to be crowded as full as it could hold with perfectly happy creatures, it would still be difficult to believe that life and happiness were more than a bye-product to the power that made the universe. As it is, however, the scientists think it likely that very few of the suns of space – perhaps none of them except our own — have any planets; and in our own system it is improbable that any planet except the Earth sustains life. And Earth herself existed without life for millions of years and may exist for millions more when life has left her. And what is it like while it lasts? It is so arranged that all the forms of it can live only by preying upon one another. In the lower forms this process entails only death, but inthe higher there appears a new quality called consciousness which enables it to be attended with pain. The creatures cause pain by being born, and live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die.

In the most complex of all the creatures, Man, yet another quality appears, which we call reason, whereby he is enabled to foresee his own pain which henceforth is preceded with acute mental suffering, and to foresee his own death while keenly desiring permanence. It also enables men by a hundred ingenious contrivances to inflict a great deal more pain than they otherwise could have done on one another and on the irrational creatures. This power they have exploited to the full. Their history is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonised apprehension of losing it, and, when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering. Every now and then they improve their condition a little and what we call a civilisation appears. But all civilisations pass away and, even whilethey remain, inflict peculiar sufferings of their own probably
sufficient to outweigh what alleviations they may have brought to the normal pains of man. That our own civilisation has done so, no one will dispute; that it will pass away like all its predecessors is surely probable. Even if it should not, what then? The race is doomed. Every race that comes into being in any part of the universe is doomed; for the universe, they tell us, is running down, and will sometime be a uniform infinity of homogeneous matter at a low temperature. All stories will come to nothing: all life will turn out in the end to have been a transitory and senseless contortion upon the idiotic face of infinite matter. If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.