The C. S. Lewis Quote That Everybody Gets Wrong

As I mentioned last week in my review of C. S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, the book contains one of the more famous Lewis quotes. You’ve probably seen it before:

Source.

It certainly sounds like good advice, and read in isolation, it is open to the interpretation that most people give it. Oddly enough though, Lewis was making the exact opposite point when he wrote it.

Near the beginning of chapter six of The Four Loves, Lewis references the following passage from Book 4 of St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine recalls his reaction to the death of his dear friend Nebridius:

Wretched I was; and wretched is every soul bound by the friendship of perishable things; he is torn asunder when he loses them, and then he feels the wretchedness which he had ere yet he lost them.

Rather than quote Augustine directly, Lewis instead summarized his point with the famous quote. But his whole reason for summarizing it was so that he could argue against it. From The Four Loves:

There is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.”

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground—because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the ground for loving? Would you choose a wife or a friend—if it comes to that, would you choose a dog—in this spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love himself than this.1

Lewis also refers to Augustine’s original idea as “less a part of St. Augustine’s Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up.”2 Ouch.


1 Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves New York: Mariner Books, 2012. Pg. 120-121.

2 Ibid. Pg. 121.

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9 thoughts on “The C. S. Lewis Quote That Everybody Gets Wrong

  1. That’s a really good point Lewis makes – I hadn’t thought of this idea in that context before.
    Of course, there is also a point to be made that you shouldn’t build so much on someone or something that it becomes an idol. How do you tell the difference? According to Tim Keller, if you lose something that you love, you’re understandably upset. If you lose your idol, you want to die. Only God should fill the position of “life is not worth living if I can’t have…”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve been hearing a lot of great things from/about Tim Keller (that quote included), but I haven’t read any of his books yet. Any suggestions on where to start?

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  2. Thanks for this excellent post. It always disappoints me when I see that quote out of context, because the appeal Lewis makes in The Four Loves–that we should love extravagantly because Christ loves us extravagantly–is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever read. It’s had a profound effect on my attitudes and behaviour–so seeing it used to encourage the absolute opposite really bothers me.

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    1. I had seen it several times before I heard of this book, and I always assumed that it probably had something to do with Joy Davidman: I thought that, similar to Augustine after Nebridius’s death, Lewis came to the conclusion that it was wrong for him to love her as much as he did. So I was really surprised when I actually read the quote in its proper context!

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  3. I wrote a whole rant/blog post about this exact thing, a few years ago, here:
    https://treadingpaper.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/c-s-lewis-out-of-context-and-the-four-loves/
    It really bothered me that it was going around the internet and receiving so much popularity/notoriety in that format when C. S. Lewis was saying the exact opposite.
    I’ve been checking out your blog. So far, it looks like we may have quite similar tastes/interests when it come to writers and reading, it’s quite a rare thing for me to come across. 🙂 Looking forward to checking out more of your blog, when I have the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ps. If you’re interested in Tim Keller, I suggest you start with Counterfeit Gods (which is where he makes the point that making anything other than God your god, will lead to problems. But that is a different point than the one C. S. Lewis is making in this quote in The Four Loves. Though Lewis does make a similar point to Keller’s early on in the Four Loves about making love an idol and thereby turning it to a demon) or Prodigal God. I used to really like him, but I’m not as crazy about him now. I still thing those two books are solid books, for any Christian. I really liked The Reason for God, when I first read it, but there was something about it that wasn’t quite satisfactory for me and I’ve come to question some of his points and the way he makes them and I don’t find it as compelling now as I would like it to be, though I still think he has some solid points. Generous Justice took me forever to read, I found it almost a chore to get through, I don’t suggest you start with it.

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