Book Review: The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

Year of First Publication: 1960

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2012

Number of Pages: 141

Publisher: Mariner Books

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Theology, Philosophy


I think it was the C. S. Lewis scholar William O’Flaherty who called The Four Loves one of Lewis’s least-read books. I call that a crying shame. Not only is it a great book, it’s also an important one, I think. Especially now, when it’s easier than ever for our ideas about love to run awry, books like this are helpful in eliminating some of our misconceptions and teaching us to love in a more God-honoring way.

Before going on to the actual review, I thought I might write a bit about how this book came to be written in the first place. I enjoy odd trivia like that, and I thought some of you guys might too, but none of this information is necessary for understanding the book, so if you want to skip straight to the review, go right ahead.

Background

Similar to Lewis’s earlier book Mere Christianity, The Four Loves began life as a series of radio addresses. In 1957, the US-based Episcopal Radio-Television Foundation (ERTF) asked Lewis to record a series of talks for their network on any topic he chose. Lewis recorded ten episodes on “the Four Loves” over two days in London, though not quite to the producers’ satisfaction. As Abigail Santamaria records in her excellent biography of Joy Davidman, the network didn’t care for the matter-of-fact style of presentation that Lewis had perfected in his 1940’s “Broadcast Talks” for the BBC. “But we want you to give the feeling of embracing [the audience],” one of the producers told him, to which Lewis replied with, “If they wanted an embracer, they had the wrong man.”

It wasn’t just Lewis’s tone that upset the station: his casual references to alcohol and tobacco use did nothing to endear him to the very conservative producers, and when he came to the section on erotic love, the network was so scandalized that they didn’t even air the program as originally intended, deciding to publish the transcripts of the talks as pamphlets instead. Three years later in 1960, Lewis published The Four Loves as we know it today, expanding upon the original radio talks and adding both an introduction and a chapter on “Likings and Loves for the Sub-Human.”

A side-note: copies of the original ERTF recordings are pretty easy to find these days, but beware that these are the original talks without all of the material that Lewis added to the book The Four Loves. So if you want his complete thoughts on the topic, you’ll have to read the book.

Now, the review…

Reading The Four Loves, I was again amazed at the agility of Lewis’s mind, as he jumps from point to point without missing a beat. Everything is clear, above-board, and in the open. And as always, Lewis’s prose is concise, stylish, and eminently quotable. (Speaking of quotes, stayed tuned Wednesday for a post on one of the most misquoted passages in Lewis’s oeuvre.)

It’s a great book overall, but I was especially drawn to the chapter on “Friendship,” likely because I can’t remember the last time I heard a Christian teacher treat the topic with any amount of seriousness. And that’s a problem, because friendship is one of those topics a person never stops learning about.

The older I get, the more it seems to me that society as a whole is losing the concept of friendship. It appears to have forgotten what friendship is, what it looks like, and what its purpose is. Part of this, no doubt, has to do with the sexualization of pretty much everything. I know from personal experience how confused some people are by the idea that two people of opposite sexes can discuss things with each other without wanting to date each other. And even some of the pairs of same sex friends I know are sometimes mistaken for couples, simply because they appear to enjoy each other’s company. In the culture’s obsession with Eros, it has lost Friendship almost entirely by declaring it just another manifestation of Eros.

Another part of it, I think, has to do with a devaluation of friendship. More often than not, I think we tend to view friendship mostly as a type of insurance against future boredom—friends are the people you go shopping with or gossip with, never anything more. What Lewis presents in this book is a much grander vision of friendship, one whose primary goal is not sex, networking, or temporary amusement, but rather to “seek the same truth.” Seeing as Lewis knew quite a lot about having good friends, I was glad to get his perspective on this woefully neglected topic.

***

The book ends with a chapter on agape, or “Charity,” which encompasses God’s love toward us, our love toward Him, and our love for our neighbors. It’s the “charity” that the Apostle Paul spoke about in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. And of all the loves that humans are capable of experiencing, this is the one that brings us nearest to “Love Himself,” to use Lewis’s phrase.

The great thing about this chapter is that, while it is truly and completely impossible to write about heaven in a way that does it any justice, Lewis is able to discuss the future communion with God that awaits all Christians in a way that feels more immediate than descriptions of heaven often do. The problem with writing about heaven is that, while it is the most attractive thing existing other than God Himself, its attractiveness is so other and so unworldly that we are not able to comprehend it. As Dr. Karen Swallow Prior noted in a recent talk (drawn in part from another Lewis book, The Weight of Glory), “we cannot desire what we cannot imagine and we cannot imagine what we have not seen.” It’s hard to really be excited about heaven when we can barely even understand what it is or what it means.

If you’ve read Lewis’s memoir Surprised by Joy (or my review of it), you know how important the concept of “Joy” was to Lewis. This “Joy,” this longing for the completeness and the perfection that could only be found in God, is a constant theme running through Lewis’s writing, and it makes its appearance in The Four Loves as well. Rather than try to describe heaven and the presence of “Love Himself” in abstract terms, Lewis instead makes his appeal to Joy, to the innate conviction that, much as we love our fellow creatures, such earthly pleasures can never be enough to satisfy us completely. In the book’s final pages, Lewis taps into that sense of incompleteness and helps to point it in the right direction. He describes not the hoped-for thing itself, but rather its absence, and in doing this, gives us a much better idea of the thing itself than we might have had otherwise.

For such a short book, The Four Loves has given me a lot to think about regarding not just love between people, but also the love between people and God, the ways we talk about God, and how He works in and through our loves. I highly recommend this very underrated book to any and all.

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7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis

  1. I just finished Perelandra, and he works a lot of the themes you’re talking about here into that work as well.

    I totally agree with you that our society has almost entirely lost its grasp on the true meaning of friendship—in large part because of its obsession with sex. We need to regain our understanding that men and women can maintain close friendships without becoming romantically involved and that men and women can show affection (even physical affection) to others of the same gender without it being sexual.

    Thanks for this great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s cool about Perelandra. I love how easily Lewis seems to go back and forth between artistic and argumentative writing, while keeping the same ideas in view.

      Regarding what you said about society gaining a new perspective on friendship: from your keyboard to God’s ears.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s weird because I didn’t post a link. :/ I’ve noticed WordPress doing that lately, where if I view a comment in the app or in the notifications tab, it also shows a link that just gives me a bunch of text. Still haven’t figured out why that happens.

          Like

  2. Thanks for the great review. This was one of my earliest Lewis finds, although my copy is on audio, read by the author. I am interested, now, to see if my copy has the additional material. It’s been a few years.

    I agree, also, with the ideas expressed about friendship, and, maybe, social media is a symptom. It certainly isn’t entirely the cause of the downward spiral of meaningful and Godly friendship.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I thought about mentioning social media too (how Facebook has pretty much co-opted the word “friend”), but I wondered if that might be read as a reiteration of the point I had already made: that in the eyes of many, friendship is frivolous.

      Glad you liked the review!

      Like

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