St Augustine and CS Lewis on longing and desire

I have recently been reading Professor Alister McGrath’s magisterial textbook of theology, mostly by night on a palm-fringed terrace in Mauritius, where the many mosquitoes did their utmost to keep me from the knowledge of God. It’s fascinating to see philosophy approached from a different angle, to uncover a total system of understanding on the same scale as that of Plato, Aristotle, or Kant. These are the ideas that have defined our civilisation and that continue to shape and colour our lives, whether we appreciate it (in both senses of the term) or not.

Once theologians such as Karl Barth, Jean Calvin, St Aquinas (the Doctor Angelus), or Duns Scotus (the Doctor Subtilis) are placed in their historical and sociocultural context, they become anything but dry and irrelevant, and many of the questions that they raise remain of the greatest and most universal philosophical and psychological import. Indeed, not for nothing does the University of Oxford accord the highest rank to the Doctor of Divinity.

Something that stood out in my reading is the theological interpretation of a common human experience, namely, the curious sense of longing for something undefined. According to St Augustine, this feeling of dissatisfaction arises from man’s fallen condition. Although man has an innate potential to relate to God (substitute ‘the absolute’ or ‘the infinite’ if you are discomfited by the religious connotations of the term ‘God’), this potential can never be fully realised, and so he yearns for other things to substitute for it. Yet these other things do not satisfy, and he is left with an insatiable feeling of longing – longing for something that cannot be defined.

CS Lewis elaborates on Augustine’s maxim that desiderium sinus cordis (‘longing makes the heart deep’) by arguing that no earthly object or experience can satisfy man’s profound and intense feeling of longing. Lewis calls this feeling of longing ‘joy’, which he defines as ‘an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction’. (I kind of see it as our aesthetic reservoir, in the broadest sense.)

This paradox arises from the self-defeating nature of human desire, such that the fulfilling of a desire yet leaves it unsatisfied. Lewis illustrates this from the age-old quest for beauty,

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Duane Powers
    Feb 29, 2012 @ 06:16:16

    You might like the writings of Gary Moon (Homesick for Eden / Falling for God…), John Ortberg (The Life You’ve Always Wanted…), and Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy / The Renovation of the Heart). You will find CS Lewis quoted among their writings. In fact, Dallas Willard has been referred to as America’s CS Lewis. David Benner’s book The Gift of Being of Yourself is far and away the greatest book I’ve ever read on the true and false self, the old man and the new creation found through Jesus, the Incarnation of God.

    Reply

  2. Neel Burton
    Feb 29, 2012 @ 21:35:05

    Thank you so much for all these excellent references. With regards to Benner’s book, I have just written a book called ‘Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception’ which mostly adopts a psychoanalytic rather than theological approach to the problem of self-knowledge and authenticity. I would be very interested to read about the subject from a different angle. Thank you again.

    Reply

    • Duane Powers
      Mar 02, 2012 @ 09:35:38

      Hi Neel,
      I sense I would enjoy your book(s) as well. “There is no healing in hiding” as Ortberg put it so succinctly. On the basis of what you just shared I feel you are in for a beautiful experience with Benner’s work. He did post-doc work at the Chicago Institute of Psychoanalysis, btw. Please see the following link for Benner’s biography. When I get these next two months behind me I look forward to some summer reading and it looks like you will be on my desk as well. :-) Presently, for Lent, I am reading Searching for Truth~Lenten Meditations on Science & Faith by John Polkinghorne. John’s been a guide in so many ways for me…..Have a great weekend!!!

      Reply

  3. cindykk
    Apr 16, 2012 @ 01:57:44

    Dr. Burton, love the Lewis quote above. Stumbled upon your TEDx talk (depression good for us…) and found it presented such a wonderfully refreshing perspective. Thank you for your thoughts, research; I plan to delve into some of your books. Out of curiosity, if I may be intrusive, what is your spiritual stance?

    Reply

  4. Neel Burton
    Apr 16, 2012 @ 02:07:41

    My spiritual stance is not straightforward, and some day I intend to write (and publish) an essay on my conception of ‘God’. Generally speaking, I feel that debate about the existence of God is neither here nor there: the real question is, what do you define as God? At the very least, ‘He’ is a metaphor for the forces of nature or laws of physics. Thank you for reading my blog: if you move on to my books, I would recommend starting with ‘Hide and Seek’ from which the TED talk is extracted. All best, Neel

    Reply

  5. Mariam
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 07:56:18

    It seems to me there can never be a definite attitude about hat longing does to a person. While it’s true that ‘longing makes the heart deep’, it is also true, at least to me, that longing sometimes makes the heart small and weak.

    Reply

    • Neel Burton
      Aug 14, 2014 @ 10:16:38

      Hi Mariam, I quote you Nietzsche on this subject: Those who degenerate are of the highest importance wherever progress is to take place; every great progress must be preceded by partial weakening. The strongest natures hold fast to the type, the weaker ones help to develop it further. It is somewhat the same with the individual: rarely is degeneration, a crippling, even a vice or any physical or moral damage, unaccompanied by some gain on the other side. The sicker man in a warlike and restless tribe, for example, may have more occasion to be by himself and may thus become calmer and wiser; the one-eyed will have one stronger eye; the blind will see more deeply within, and in any case have a keener sense of hearing. So the famous struggle for existence does not seem to me to be the only point of view from which to explain the progress or the strengthening of a human being or a race. Rather, two things must come together: first, the increase of stable power through close spiritual ties such as faith and communal feeling; then, the possibility of reaching higher goals through the appearance of degenerate types and, as a consequence, a partial weakening and wounding of the stable power: it is precisely the weaker natures who, being more delicate and freer, make progress possible.

      Reply

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