C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce
St. Mary of the Angels
September 10, 2021
Aristotelian Metaphysics: The universe is inherently teleological (purposeful). Everything that happens, be it the motion of the stars or the growth of a tree, is explainable by a very specific and preexisting purpose, goal, or end that is working its way through nature. Aristotle called this the “final cause” of all phenomena. The soul is the animating principle by which something is driven by its final cause back toward its final end. Stated another way, because matter has soul, matter has purpose and remains oriented toward its purpose. Matter cannot exist without soul (nothing can be, unless it is for some purpose), and soul cannot exist without the matter it is animating (nothingness cannot be driven toward a teleological end). Therefore, there is no dualism: God is One, and apart from God (i.e. the created universe) mind and body (soul and matter) are intrinsically interrelated and cannot properly exist apart from one another.
Modernism: When Rene Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am,” he is saying that in essence he is his mind, for his mind alone is indivisible: “When I consider the mind, or myself insofar as I am merely a thinking thing, I am unable to distinguish any part within myself. I know myself to be quite single and complete.” For Descartes, man is a composite entity of mind and body, for the mind can exist without the body, but not the body without the mind. Or the soul can exist without matter, but not matter without the soul. The mind/soul is properly self-existing (that is without intrinsic recourse to body/matter), and so the deification of the human mind is a logical extrapolation from this view. Instead of a God, the human mind is the foundation of knowledge (collective opinion is “truth”), morality (culture determines what is “good”), and ultimately even being (“What the Bleep Do We Know!?” pseudo-science).
Post-Modernism: Immanuel Kant distinguishes “phenomena” from “noumena.” The former is what occurs in our minds when we filter sense perception through our consciousness which in turn is a product of our intelligence, personality, cultural biases, etc. The latter is the world that is outside of our minds being perceived. Because the consciousness filter invariably changes the thing as it is understood in our minds, we can never know anything as it is in itself. Man cannot know facts without having an opinion on those facts. Moreover, the opinion emerges not from those facts but from our preexisting consciousness influencing how those facts are filtered prior to reaching our minds. Our consciousness creates and preserves our echo chamber: Facts when perceived will be colored by consciousness to conform to that echo chamber. Facts that cannot be conformed to that echo chamber will be preselected out of consideration.
Deconstructionism: If we cannot know the world apart from our opinion of the world, then we cannot know truth apart from our opinion of the truth. A logical extrapolation is that there is no truth but only collective opinions. See Marcus Aurelius: “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” Only the human will is real. Any ideas or institutions imposing limits on the human will are false. Moreover, those ideas or institutions can and should be deconstructed even if only to reassert the primacy of the will. See George Orwell’s “1984” as an illustration of deconstructionism: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
Ideologies: The modernist conceit is that “higher things” are copies of or extrapolations from “lower things.” Since knowledge, morality, and even being start from mind, what is “true,” or what is the “collective opinion” that gives rise to “governing principles,” starts from the mind of man and the conclusions he draws from his filtered sense perceptions. It is then systematically synthesized with correlative “truths” into an ideology, or even a vague “worldview,” that then is maintained and passed on by the coercive instruments of will (state action, peer pressure, etc.). This ideology or “worldview” is given the veneer of being a “higher thing” from man’s mind, but in fact it is nothing more than the exaltation of the corresponding strength of the will of those upholding this ideology or “worldview” versus the will of those opposing it.
Examples of ideologies arising from “higher things” just being copies of or extrapolations from “lower things”: Marxism claiming that ideology reflects underlying economic forces. Darwinism claiming that complex life forms evolve from less complex life forms – Social Darwinism as such claiming that more sophisticated cultures will (and should) overtake less sophisticated cultures. Freud claiming that love and charity are simply sublimations (change of form, but not essence) of lust – Sexual Revolution as such claiming that committed love must not restrain the exercise of “free love” or lust.
In “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis is challenging modernism (and its derivatives postmodernism, deconstructionism, and ideologies):
Quoting from George MacDonald: “No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it – no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather.”
The modernist idea that mind/body, or soul/matter, is a kind of composite (rather than the two being intrinsically interconnected as Aristotle posits) suggests a compromising of the mind with the body and of the body with the mind. This implies that heaven and hell can be composited to one another – that even in heaven there will be some sin and despair and even in hell there will be some grace and hope. Man is not completely redeemed, but neither is he completely judged for all time. There are no absolutes in man’s character, purpose, nor end. Man is robbed of that nobility implied in the fact that he is made in God’s image and likeness, and he is freed from his moral responsibility in a way that robs him of his moral agency. Modernism deifies the human mind, but by doing so it ironically lowers man to the level of a composited being (a compromise of mind and of body that does justice to neither) who is forever lost in his own intellectual pride and, robbed of moral agency, subject to his passions.
Lewis reverses this. By arguing that there can be no marriage of heaven and hell, he is saying that man must be in one or the other. Man is not a compromising of mind with body and body with mind. Man is not forever in a middling position, neither redeemed nor condemned. He is rather meant for heaven, but is free to choose hell. Just as there is no middling position we can take about Christ Jesus (Christ Jesus is the Incarnate God, or He is a fraudulent madman, but He cannot be a good teacher somewhere between the extremes), so is there no middling position we can take about man.
From “The Great Divorce”: “Earth, I think in the end, will not be found by anyone to be a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of heaven, will turn out to be, all along, only a region in hell. Earth, if put second to heaven, will have been, from the beginning, a part of heaven itself.”
This refutes the modernist idea that there is no teleological (purposeful) component to the created world (“Earth”). Contrary to modernism, there is a “final cause” – namely, the final realization that we have been all along in a region in hell or in a part of heaven.
Because this is a “final cause,” there is no avoiding it. “Earth” is moving toward heaven, or it is moving toward hell, but it is impossible to say that it is not going anywhere at all. For those of us who embrace heaven first, it is moving toward heaven. For those of us who embrace hell or the earth first, it is moving toward hell.
In Christ Jesus, the “earth” is moving toward heaven. See Romans 8:22: “For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until [the coming of the Lord].” This is the imagery of giving birth, and so creation is progressing from the womb to her birth in Christ Jesus. In Adam, because of his sin, the “earth” is moving toward hell. See Romans 5:12: “As by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin [meaning that because of sin the world is descending towards death/hell], and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.”
Because the “Earth” is moving toward heaven and toward hell simultaneously, a man cannot just “ride the wave.” He has to make a choice – for heaven, or for hell. Thus, in every one of the encounters between the hellish shades and the heavenly men, the shade has to make a choice to let go of whatever obsession or self-righteous predisposition is keeping him in hell. He will not be dragged against his will into heaven, but must embrace heaven freely.
From “The Great Divorce”: “Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is heavenly. Heaven is everything, and Hell is the state of mind/being where Heaven is not.”
This refutes the modernist idea that “higher things” are copies of or extrapolations from “lower things.” In modernism, heaven is the “idea,” and it is based on facts we discern and interpret in the created universe. But for Lewis, heaven is real, and what we discern and interpret down on “earth” is little more than a shade in comparison. This is why heavenly things are rock hard and unbreakable from the perspective of the shade. This is why there are presences in heaven that are not human – angels, giants, unicorns, etc. – for in heaven man is not the god and his mind is not deified. Man’s “profound ideologies” (like the Bishop’s academic paper doubting the reality of the Resurrection) are shown to be naïve and beside the point in comparison to what is real.