Externality in Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien

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This paper is about three writers and one idea which they held in common—an idea with which they were all positively enchanted. The three are C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and J. R. R. Tolkien. The one idea is a certain fairly general (but far from trivial) thesis about meaning or fulfillment in life—that is, in the life of created rational beings. I will state the idea and then comment briefly on some of its parts. It is this: that the fulfillment of rational creatures, in any (positive) degree, involves some activity of the soul which is performed as an end in itself and which has as its contemplated object some external good, where that activity does not entail either arrogating to oneself authority to which one does not have a right, or being remiss in the exercise of authority which one is obliged to exercise. Explanations of a few terms are in order:

(1) “fulfillment”—without precisely defining it, we can say that it involves both subjective enjoyment and objective excellence or greatness, and that it admits of degrees. The highest degree of fulfillment would be characterized by both the highest degree of enjoyment and the highest degree of excellence (of which the person in question is capable).

(2) “involves”—the activity characterized in the stated principle is a necessary condition for creaturely fulfillment; it is left open whether it would also be a sufficient condition.

(3) “contemplated object”—this term is borrowed from Samuel Alexander’s distinction in Space, Time, and Deity between the “contemplated” and the “enjoyed” (which provided the matrix for Lewis’ understanding of his own personal journey1). A person “contemplates” an object but “enjoys” the experience which attends the contemplation of that object. “Enjoyment”, in this sense, need not involve any pleasure, however. One “contemplates” a memory but “enjoys” remembering (whether the memory is pleasant, unpleasant, or indifferent); one “contemplates” an insult received but “enjoys” the feeling of anger; one “contemplates” Fermat’s last theorem but “enjoys” the experience of puzzling over the theorem. A contemplated object can exist or fail to exist. Even if Father Christmas does not exist, a child who is ignorant of that fact can be grateful to him for her new bicycle. In the more standard case, though, the contemplated object does exist and has some causal role in producing a representation of itself in the mind that contemplates it.2

(4) “external”—object A is external to object B if and only if both (i) A is not a part of B, and (ii) B is not a part of A.3 In the case where A does not exist: A is external to B if and only if it is that case that if A were to exist, then both (i) A would not be a part of B, and (ii) B would not be a part of A.4

(5) “authority to which one does not have a right…authority which one is obliged to exercise”—this clause should be understood along the lines of what Lewis calls the “Hierarchical conception.” He states it like this: “According to this conception degrees of value are objectively present in the universe. Everything except God has some natural superior; everything except unformed matter has some natural inferior. The goodness, happiness, and dignity of every being consists in obeying its natural superior and ruling its natural inferiors.”5 It is the idea of an objective order of things in the world; every being that exists fits into this order somehow and has a measure of authority that accords with its station in the order.6 All created beings are under the authority of God, and this clause will be most relevant to activities which represent rebellion against God and His commands.

The principle stated above should by now be reasonably clear, and we can proceed to the more interesting task of seeing what Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien made of it. It will be useful to give the principle a name, though any number of names might fit well enough; let us call it the ‘Principle of Externality’—or ‘PE’ for short. (“Externality” is here used in the sense of “outwardness”—i.e. focus on or attention to objects external to oneself.) I aim, in the rest of the paper, not simply to demonstrate that Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien accepted the PE, but also to give a sense of their enchantment with it, and, further, to illuminate manifestations of the principle in their writings.