CS Lewis on nature


CS Lewis has some pointed remarks that challenge the Romantic view, still very prevalent today,  that wisdom and knowledge can be found in nature. I gave an example of this, with some cynicism it is true, in the post on ‘Faith in nature and psychic crocodiles’. Lewis says something quite different about what people find in nature:

If you take nature as a teacher she will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn; this is only another way of saying that nature does not teach. The tendency to take her as a teacher is obviously very easily grafted on to the experience we call ‘love of nature.’ But it is only a graft. While we are actually subjected to them, the ‘moods’ and ‘spirits’ of nature point no morals. Overwhelming gaiety, insupportable grandeur, somber desolation are flung at you. Make what you can of them, if you must make at all. The only imperative that nature utters is, ‘Look. Listen. Attend’.” (CS Lewis, The four loves).

Then Lewis goes on and makes a specific comment on the Romantics and their love of nature…

“Nature ‘dies’ on those who try to live for a love of nature. Coleridge ended by being insensible to her; Wordsworth, by lamenting that the glory had passed away.”

Lewis is not saying that nature is evil, or bad in any sense, but the problem arises when we expect of her more than she can give. Nature will frustrate those who make of her a god (or goddess). I have made a similar observation in the paper ‘How the Puritans Killed Chris McCandless” to be published soon. In the experiences of McCandless, Muir and Abbey we see this sense of subtle frustration with nature and its teachings. For us, living in a culture still infused with Romantic values, this warning is still very pertinent.

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8 thoughts on “CS Lewis on nature

  1. CS Lewis never fails to make important points. As an apologist, his works always make me think. His comments on nature remind us not to worship nature or make a god of the “tooth and fang” as the pantheists would have us do. Nature can not teach moraiity as Lewis infers but at the same time, we need to recognize what nature can offer us.
    John Paul II stated” The first stage of divine revelation is the marvelous book of nature which when read can lead to knowledge of God the Creator. Nature, therefore becomes a Gospel that speaks to us of God “. Yes, there are some things that nature can teach.

    • Agreed Tom. Thanks for the comment. I think Lewis’ comments could be more nuanced as you say, perhaps he puts it this way to make a point. But I think it is interesting how in one sense what nature can teach us best is to things that point beyond itself. The interest is found in the contrast between what people seek in nature (so much) and in fact what in can offer (so little in comparison).

  2. I understand where he starts, that nature can only teach you what you already hope to learn, but I cannot help but wonder if that perspective could be implied on virtually any metaphorical “teacher.” For example, the girl who stays in an abusive relationship only learns what she wants to learn. Even in class, I only learn what I choose to listen to. Clearly, Lewis has never run out of water in the desert or been pinned on the side of a mountain in a hail storm. Some lessons are very pointed and cannot be lost in translation. Correct me if I’m wrong, but his overlying point is that “love of nature”relates more directly to another type of Romantic love, meaning love of nature does not fit in the framework of his four loves. Overall, I like his warning to understand that humanity should not worship nature, but I think he should maybe look at nature through the lens of finding God in all things – that nature can lead you to a relationship with its Creator.

    • Thanks for the comment. Again, like what Tom said, I think Lewis could have been more nuanced, but fundamentally I think he is right. Part of the reason I think these words of Lewis get responses is because they are counter cultural and provocative. I think maybe a theological approach can make the distinction of what Lewis is trying to say. If we take reconciliation for example, which is a theological approach that considers that human beings can be reconciled at 4 levels, God, oneself, others and creation which assumes there is also a fourfold relationship. I do think human beings can have a relationship with creation, but it is a different kind of relationship that you have with another human being, yourself or God. In a sense you can encounter creation, but when you encounter nature, does it encounter you? I can encounter a sunset for example or a mountain, and be moved by it, ‘get it’, but does the sunset or mountain encounter me? I don’t think so. So in this sense, out of all 4 levels of relationship, ‘nature’ is the only one that doesn’t give back, or ‘teach’ in the sense that Lewis is speaking. But it is real, and meaningful, and as you very well say, “can lead you to a relationship with its Creator”. But precisely in revealing something other than itself lies its utmost greatness. Make sense?

      • I like what you are saying, and wholeheartedly agree with you. In a way, we can look at domesticated dogs as an example. Caring for a pet can teach you quite a bit about the value of responsibility as well as the value of life. Those lessons, you are not predisposed to learn of, however. We experience the dog, and I would say the dog experiences us, but not to the same level of consciousness that we experience him. Lewis’ warning is spectacular in responding to the level of care and concern so many people place on their dogs, but we must always remember that at the end of the day, they are dogs. Just like, at the end of the day, a tree is a tree.

        In order to create his criticism, Lewis falls off the thin line on the other direction – he does not give enough credit to creation. We must always be mindful of the reality of an object or creature’s meaning in existence, but we must not discredit them. Ignatius of Loyola tells us to search for God in ALL things – meaning that we can learn something about God from each member of creation.

        Overall, I wish Lewis would have researched two more things to strengthen his argument. First of all, I wish he would have dove into the levels of existence that Aquinas observes, then secondly, I wish he would have built his argument out of this idea that nature does not experience you – you experience nature just as you mentioned.

      • Good point, especially about the dog. I agree wholeheartedly, the dog just can’t experience me at the same level. But as Lewis points out, we can force our experience on a created being, yet it will never have the capacity of being reciprocal. When we do it, it becomes a problem. I should only expect from a dog what a dog can give. Which is great by the way, but it is all he can give.

        On Lewis falling short, I am not sure he discredits creation. Yes we should search for God in all things, but that doesn’t mean all things can teach the same about God. Again, what I can find in an experience of encounter, say friendship, in a human person, is closer to the experience of God than the deepest experiences I can have with my dog. The loyalty, beauty, intelligence even of my relationship with my dog remind me of the wonder of creation, the ordered complexity of the world, fun and joy but still it is a distant reality from the ‘heart of God’. I think Lewis’ point is that precisely because the dog, or any created beings, don’t encounter me as another being with freedom, intelligence and will, I get out of them what I am predisposed to learn. When I encounter a friend (human) I may share and pour my heart out like I would to a beautiful sunset, but while the sunset responds in respectful silence, my friend can express a similar compassion and understanding, but from his own being go deeper, challenge me further, change the course of events – ultimately ‘speak to me’ and teach me something new, in a way the sunset can’t. And in this way creation can teach me somethings about God but in an indirect way.

  3. Pingback: Nature, Nostalgia and Art « Faith & Environment

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