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What C. S. Lewis Had to Say About Romantic Love ('Eros')


Eros in Greek Mythology was the god of love, the son of Aphrodite. His Roman equivalent, known to us as a blind cherub with wings and a bow and arrow, was Cupid. ‘Eros’ has come to mean sexual love or desire. In Freudian theory, Eros is the life instinct, often contrasted with Thanatos. The word is Latin, from Greek, literally ‘sexual love’. In his book The Four Loves, Lewis takes pains in the chapter on Eros or romantic love to make it very clear what he is talking about, and what he is not talking about: ‘By Eros I mean of course that state which we call “being in love”; or, if you prefer, that kind of love which lovers are “in”… I am not going to be concerned with human sexuality simply as such. Sexuality makes part of our subject only when it becomes an ingredient in the complex state of “being in love”.’

It is apparent to Lewis, and must be apparent to us, that sexual sensation can exist quite apart from the rest of the relationship described as ‘being in love’, and that ‘being in love’ isn’t just about sex. Lewis points out that marriage used to be based on Christian values of obedience to one’s parents and that the elevation of ‘Love’ above simple and honest virtues, turning it into a tyrant that must be obeyed despite law, common sense and previous commitments, can lead to even more trouble than a ‘loveless’ marriage.

Lewis rules out any discussion of sexuality without the rest of a romantic relationship on the grounds that it is not something he sets out to treat: he is interested in the wider relationship, not just the sex. However, as we will see, many of the principles which this discussion will turn up will have much bearing on the subject of sex alone.

To modern thought, it might seem that Eros, involving emotion and other considerations, is something which has grown out of sexual sensation and desire as a purely biological impulse. Lewis suggests that, even if this were true on a biological level, this doesn’t happen for individuals psychologically or experientially:

Very often what comes first is simply a delighted pre-occupation with the Beloved - a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality. A man in this state really hasn't leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself. He is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned. If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, ‘To go on thinking of her.’

From the perspective of Eros, one person wants another person and sex is part of the ‘package’, not the aim; from the point of view of sex alone, the sex itself is what is wanted, and the person becomes almost irrelevant. As Lewis says, ‘Sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved.’ If we hadn’t spotted it already, we can immediately deduce that sexual desire is a very straightforward and simple Need-love: it is based on a vacuum which, once filled, ceases to exist and ceases to prompt action on our part:

The thing is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one's own body. We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he ‘wants a woman’. Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus.

True Eros, on the other hand, makes us want a particular individual. This isn’t because we coldly calculate that this person will provide us with more pleasure than any other person; rather it is a fascination with a person as a whole. Eros turns towards being a Gift-love: though we may ‘need’ the person with whom we feel we are ‘in love’ - the inward-pointing end of the arrow - our attention is directed outward at them: ‘But in Eros, a Need, at its most intense, sees the object most intensely as a thing admirable in herself, important far beyond her relation to the lover's need.’ On the face of it, this is logically difficult: we seek someone, not because of a need that they might satisfy for us, but because they are who they are. Eros at its best has almost nothing to do with pleasure as such: we aren’t interested in ‘pleasure’ or sexual sensation or even emotional fulfilment as much as we are interested in another person apart from ourselves:

That is why Eros, though the king of pleasures, always (at his height) has the air of regarding pleasure as a by-product. To think about it would plunge us back in ourselves, in our own nervous system. It would kill Eros, as you can ‘kill’ the finest mountain prospect by locating it all in your own retina and optic nerves. Anyway, whose pleasure? For one of the first things Eros does is to obliterate the distinction between giving and receiving.

Putting our attention on the outward-pointing end of the arrow fulfils in some way the inward-pointing end - the distinction blurs.

Lewis then makes the key point that Eros can interfere with our relationship with God because it is so demanding - we can become preoccupied with our lover and his or her immediate needs to the detriment of intellectual love or religious importances. In other words, the vacuums associated with Eros are particularly intense. The leads to another phenomenon concerning sex - Lewis says that we have grown to take the whole matter far too seriously. ’We must not attempt to find an absolute in the flesh,’ he writes. ‘Banish play and laughter from the bed of love and you may let in a false goddess.’

Lewis also spends some time discussing the ‘roles’ that a man and woman take on in an erotic relationship - a man becoming ‘masculinity’ and a woman ‘femininity’ in a drama larger than the particular couple themselves - which leads into controversial remarks about the asymmetrical nature of the relationship between man and woman. But then he turns to the broader subject of Eros, as opposed to the narrow topic of sexual relationships within it. And the interesting point here is that Eros, when in full flight, just like the purely sexual impulse, doesn’t seem interested in logic: couples who rationality suggests should be apart are, when gripped by Eros, often kept together. It doesn’t seem to matter what anyone else says, or even what their own reason tells them:

Even if the two lovers are mature and experienced people who know that broken hearts heal in the end and can clearly foresee that, if they once steeled themselves to go through the present agony of parting, they would almost certainly be happier ten years hence than marriage is at all likely to make them even then, they would not part….Even when it becomes clear beyond all evasion that marriage with the Beloved cannot possibly lead to happiness - when it cannot even profess to offer any other life than that of tending an incurable invalid, of hopeless poverty, of exile, or of disgrace - Eros never hesitates to say, ‘Better this than parting. Better to be miserable with her than happy without her. Let our hearts break provided they break together.’

This is a central aspect of the intensity of the vacuums surrounding Eros - they have the power to distort and even destroy common logic. Eros is most dangerous when he seems most god-like: total commitment, total disregard for well-being, total and ruthless selflessness, sounds as though it is above the human world, but Eros can lead to cruelty, lies, suicide and death not when he is at his weakest, but when he is strongest. Because of this apparently undeniable and inhuman power, philosophers have believed that ‘being in love’ is somehow divine in origin: Plato thought that ‘falling in love’ meant that souls had been singled out for one another on a previous and celestial plane - they loved before they were born. This is admirable, in itself, Lewis says, but it implies that the universe is constructed along unhappy lines, as many of these so-called ‘heavenly’ matches turn out unhappily.

Another movement in human thought has been considered to be a driving force behind ‘being in love’, favoured by authors such as George Bernard Shaw: Romanticism, according to which the voice of Eros is the voice of the ‘élan vital’ or Life Force. Lewis is scornful of the notion:

In overwhelming a particular couple it is seeking parents (or ancestors) for the superman. It is indifferent both to their personal happiness and to the rules of morality because it aims at something which Shaw thinks very much more important: the future perfection of our species. But if all this were true it hardly makes clear whether - and if so, why - we should obey it… So far as we can see the existence or intensity of Eros between two people is no warrant that their offspring will be especially satisfactory, or even that they will have offspring at all. Two good strains’ (in the stockbreeders' sense), not two good lovers, is the recipe for fine children. And what on earth was the Life Force doing through all those countless generations when the begetting of children depended very little on mutual Eros and very much on arranged marriages, slavery and rape? Has it only just thought of this bright idea for improving the species?

Lewis concludes that we must neither unconditionally listen to Eros, with its logic-crushing power, nor can we completely ignore its god-like quality, as it seems to be truly like the love of God:

In it there is a real nearness to God (by Resemblance); but not, therefore and necessarily, a nearness of Approach. Eros, honoured so far as love of God and charity to our fellows will allow, may become for us a means of Approach. His total commitment is a paradigm or example, built into our natures, of the love we ought to exercise towards God and Man.

Eros, though, Lewis goes on to say, ‘honoured without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon.’ But Eros is naturally like that: he demands worship. ‘Being in love’ can become - and arguably in our society, has already become - a sort of religion. The main peril seems to Lewis to be not that lovers will idolise each other but that they will tend to make an idol out of the condition of ‘being in love’ itself. The excuse ‘Love made us do it’ seems to be the most powerful excuse of all, not even like an excuse but a full justification, sanctioning things that often should not have been attempted, ‘like proofs of piety and zeal towards Eros.’ People neglect others, break promises, abandon families, fail in their duties - but consider it almost a holy obligation to have done so ‘in the name of Love’. Conscience itself can be sacrificed.

Eros demands immediate eternal promises - think of how many love songs contain the words ‘always’, ‘forever’ and ‘true’. And yet, Eros ‘is notoriously the most mortal of our loves.’ Though he stresses permanence, he can vanish in an instant.

We have all heard of people who are in love again every few years; each time sincerely convinced that ‘this time it's the real thing’, that their wanderings are over, that they have found their true love and will themselves be true till death.

Lewis doesn’t think that this is necessarily wrong:

The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory. In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the centre of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (towards one person) by loving our neighbour as ourselves. It is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival. It is even (well used) a preparation for that.

But he is convinced that Eros can only be intermittent.

Can we be in this selfless liberation for a lifetime? Hardly for a week. Between the best possible lovers this high condition is intermittent. The old self soon turns out to be not so dead as he pretended - as after a religious conversion. In either he may be momentarily knocked flat; he will soon be up again; if not on his feet, at least on his elbow, if not roaring, at least back to his surly grumbling or his mendicant whine. And Venus will often slip back into mere sexuality.

Having said that, Lewis believes that a couple who are reasonably sensible can survive - only those who have turned Eros into a god are likely to blame Eros himself, or each other, when things crash. The emphasis in terms of keeping Eros alive on a day-to-day basis must be ours: ‘this programme; modest as it sounds, will not be carried out except by humility, charity and divine grace; that it is indeed the whole Christian life seen from one particular angle.’

In Lewis’s view, then, Eros dies or becomes a demon unless he obeys God. The alternative is that, in his demonic tyranny, he will consume people alive.

What will happen in the immediate future with relationships based purely on Eros, as we have seen, is usually that Eros departs, or doesn’t maintain his concentration. Far from being an excitement based upon an unknown, the assumption with Eros is that the thing that will happen next will be a continuing ecstasy of ‘being in love’; what actually occurs is that the mundane world intrudes, or tries to. Staying ‘in love’ depends partly on recognising that Eros is a fleeting visitor: then something else takes over. Whereas sex seems to depend upon the ‘thrill of the chase’ to some extent, Eros insists that there isn’t a chase at all, but a predestined, eternal, unchanging partnership.

What is really going on with Eros? Does it have any depth? Relationships gain all kinds of mystical cloaks when the individuals ask those questions: are they lovers who have met before, in a past life? Is there some kind of divine power at work in their meeting, and the way they feel about each other? Mystery glues them together; the more wonderful and dream-like the theory behind why they are together, the more magical the moment. If this is all there is, experience suggests that it will be punctured soon enough. For Eros to survive, he needs a better foundation.

What is right and wrong in Eros? Making moral decisions usually involve people having to ‘step out of themselves’ to some degree to make a right moral choice. This isn't likely in a relationship based on Eros, which is based on having the couple stare only at each other, all attention absorbed. Moral rightness isn’t part of the Eros equation, as we can often see from experience.

The question ‘What is the purpose of this relationship?’ usually explodes erotic relationships. The product of sex, for example, is children - but this is often denied or bypassed to get the sub-product, pleasure. The product of romance is a continuing romance, but that might need firmer foundations than it can itself provide. For an Eros-based relationship to succeed, there must be something else for it to hold onto.

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