Those that know me know that I have a soft spot for C.S. Lewis. As a kid, I loved the Narnia books and as an adult I have been discovering some of his apologetics. I read Mere Christianity in my late teens though I recall being unimpressed with it and finding it a little limp-wristed. The Screwtape Letters, on the other hand, is one of my favourite allegorical writings. So I turned my attention to this fairly short book of his (the edition I have is from Harper Collins and is 170 pages long with a fairly large typeface). I know a few people who think of it as one of his best.
The book does have a sort of introduction, but it thrusts the reader straight into Lewis’ argument making it more like a first chapter than an outline of what the book is about. He wrestles a little with different types of loves as he defines them. He then goes on to try and break these down in relation to the likings and loves for things which are not human, with a particular focus given to the notion of patriotism.
He goes along the lines that patriotism is generally a good thing, but can become destructive if one views one’s own country or race as being in some way superior to another. So while the English may delight in tea and crumpets for breakfast, the French can equally be proud of coffee and croissants for theirs. I would slightly disagree with his idea that patriotism is fine as a de facto state of mind unless there are other factors which may cause us to think negatively of our country and its actions.
Personally, I regard patriotism as wholly irrational and ought only to exist in joviality when it comes to sporting events. Lewis defends his position by asking what would replace patriotism were it to be abandoned. I think this is a false logic that Lewis employs though he goes even further wrong, in my opinion, to suggest that justice is an inferior notion.
The bulk of the book, though, is concerned with the 4 particular loves which the title implies. Namely, these are Affection, Friendship, Eros and Charity.
Each of these is quite tightly argued by Lewis, very much in the same style as he wrote The Problem of Pain. They are also slightly surprising. In other writings from Lewis, he had always come across as very conservative, yet this collection has smatterings of some refreshingly liberal thought, particularly when it comes to sexuality.
The essay on friendship is the longest, at around 40 pages, with each of the others around the 30 page mark. It’s not easy to summarise each one, so I won’t try. But I’d recommend them to you. They are by no means holistic, but they are immensely thought provoking; for that alone, they are well worth the price of the book.
Yet I couldn’t help feeling that the last chapter was a bit of a let-down. Through the first three essays, Lewis was keen to emphasise that for all the good that these loves are and do, that there is a risk of them ‘becoming gods’ in our lives, which was leading up the last chapter where all would be subjugated under charity. Yet the chapter seemed to lack coherence and the argument seemed to fall apart. I may just be too thick to understand it, but I put the book down feeling a bit disappointed, though not as much as I did with The Great Divorce.
That said, there is plenty of good, thoughtful writing here and I would recommend it. It’s just that I had extremely high expectations and it fell short of it, like a high jumper failing to get over the pole vault bar.