Thursday, July 24, 2008

CS Lewis on Hedonism

Alice C. Linsley

I'm reading an excellent book edited by Gregory Bassham and Jerry L. Walls. It is titled The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy. Bassham is a philosophy professor at Kings College in Pennsylvania and the author of a book I use with my Critical Thinking classes.

Chapter seven of The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy addresses "Work, Vocation and the Good Life in Narnia." In this chapter, written by Devin Brown, the character of Eustace Scrubb is examined. Here is an excerpt from that chapter. Devon Brown writes:

Epicurus, a Greek philosopher who lived from 342 to 270 B.C., taught that the goal of life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, a philosophy that is called hedonism. You may have heard of the modern-day resort named Hedonism that claims to be "a lush garden of pure pleasure," and in fact the Greek word hedones means pleasures. As Epicurus explained to a young disciple, "We recognize pleasure as the first and natural good; starting from pleasure we accept or reject; and we return to this as we judge every good thing, trusting this feeling of pleasure as our guide." (Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus")

Like Kleenex, Epicurus has the distinction of having had his name made into a general noun, although one not as well-known. If you look up epicure in the dictionary, you'll find that it refers to a person who takes great pleasure in eating, drinking, or other bodily pleasures.

There is more complexity to Epicureanism than you might think, however. For example, what if what you think of as the height of pleasure - staying in bed all day, eating Turkish Delight, and watching MTV - ends up being, well, not all that pleasurable? As a point of fact, Epicurus didn't advocate a life of wild sex and parties, as many people wrongly assume. But the goal of pleasure is certainly central to his thought, and in this sense we can see Epicurus as the great-grandfather of what we might call the Tom Sawyer philosophy of work.

In the second chapter of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom appears on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash in one hand, a long-handled brush in the other, and a "deep melancholy" in his heart. Aunt Polly has ordered him to paint the fence. In the end, he convinces every boy who passes by that painting a fence is actually a privilege, not a chore. But Tom doesn't fool us for a minute.

We know Tom hates work, any kind of work. At the merest thought of work, we are told, "all gladness left him," life "seemed hollow," and "existence a burden." Tom, normally a very upbeat guy, doesn't see whitewashing the fence as a privilege. He sees it, and work in general (including going to school) as an obstacle to the fun things he would rather be doing.

In The Chronicles of Narnia we find a character that, while not as lovable as Tom, definitely adheres to Tom's philosophy of work. Through him we can see what Lewis's view of work, vocation, and the good life is not. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace Scrubb is clearly one who practices his own brand of hedonism and sees his highest good as his own comfort and pleasure. Eustace, like Tom, looks on any kind of work, even what is rightfully his own share, with dread and foreboding because it interferes with his selfish pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. (Note that these comments apply only to the early Eustace because, as you know if you have read the book, he later becomes quite a different character, which of course is Lewis's point.)

One of the best examples of Eustace's hedonism occurs when the Dawn Treader puts ashore on Dragon Island. At this point, the ship is a bit of a wreck. Casks have to be brought ashore, fixed, and refilled. A tree has to be cut down and made into a new mast. Sails must be repaired, a hunting party organized, and clothes washed and mended. In short, "there was everything to be done" (VDT, Chapter 5, p. 459).

Everyone immediately jumps in and begins working - everyone, that is, except Eustace. Here's what Lewis says about him:

A Eustace lay under a tree and heard all these plans being discussed his heart sank. Was there going to be no rest? It looked as if their first day on the longed-for land was going to be quite as hard work as a day at sea. Then a delightful idea occurred to him. Nobody was looking - they were all chattering about their ship as if they actually liked the beastly thing. Why shouldn't he simply slip away? He would take a stroll inland, find a cool, airy place up in the mountains, have a good long sleep, and not rejoin the others till the day's work was over (VTD, Chapter 5, p. 459).

The other crew members - who begin working not only without complaining but even with a sense of a happiness - have a vastly different philosophy of work, vocation, and the good life than Eustace does.

By having Eustace grow and develop, from someone who at first cares only about his own pleasure, Lewis suggests that this pleasure-seeking state is an immature one. It's a position that might be understandable in a child but not in someone who has grown up. After his transformation, Eustace remarks, "I'm afraid I've been pretty beastly" (VDT, Chapter 7, p. 475). In associating the word beastly with Eustace's first condition, Lewis further suggests that if the love of pleasure is something we share with the animals, being human requires that we acquire a purpose in life that is greater than just our own hedonistic desires.


Anonymous said...

Hello, Alice,

This is Devin Brown checking in just to say that I am glad you enjoyed my chapter on Vocation in Narnia. There are lots of other very fine chapters on a wide variety of topics written by a wide variety of contributors to the book.

Lewis had much to say about our calling in this life, and I have learned a great deal from him.

Best Wishes with your Blog!

Alice C. Linsley said...

Thanks, Devin, for checking in. I've enjoyed all the contributors' writing. The book is a great read!

I selected this section from your chapter because I teach College Ethics and we've had some discussion of what is meant by the phrase "work ethic."

Please visit my other blog on ethics, here: