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.

Let us begin with Lewis. We should notice first that Lewis explicitly identified himself with the spiritual and literary tradition of the Beatific Vision. In “The Weight of Glory” Lewis speaks of “everlasting life in the vision of God”7 and in The Four Loves of “final union with God, vision of God and enjoyment of God.”8 Whatever else the beatific vision might be, it is certainly the highest degree of creaturely fulfillment, and it is certainly an activity of the soul, performed as an end in itself, that has an external good—the supreme external good—as its contemplated object.

In “The Weight of Glory”, Lewis fleshes out his understanding of beatific fulfillment along the lines of glory as “good report with God, acceptance by God, response, acknowledgement, and welcome into the heart of things.”9 It is “To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son…”10 And this because one has become delightful, being infused with the righteousness of Christ, as Orual in Till We Have Faces becomes delightful when Psyche is formed in her and her bliss made complete as the god addresses her as His beloved: “You also are Psyche.”11 In Lewis’ view, heavenly beatitude consists (at least partly) in contemplation of the divine accolade “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” It is, Lewis writes, “the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures—nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its creator.”12

But Lewis also speaks (in The Four Loves) of beatific fulfillment in terms of a human’s love toward God: “Every Christian would agree that a man’s spiritual health is exactly proportional to his love for God.”13 It follows that the highest degree of spiritual well-being for the human soul is attendant upon the highest degree of love for God. In concluding The Four Loves, Lewis declares that the “true centre of all Human and angelic life” lies in a supernatural appreciative love towards God which humans may be caused to possess by divine grace.14 Love of God, of course, is, in the Christian tradition, an activity that has as its contemplated object something outer and other—the supreme Other.

Lewis’ Screwtape seems also to be aware of the Principle of Externality, at least as it applies to human beings (since Screwtape is a demon, though, he uses this knowledge to attempt to prevent human fulfillment). Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood on strategies for spoiling his “patient’s” prayers: “The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him [God] toward themselves.”15 Screwtape praises Spiritual Pride as “the strongest and most beautiful of the vices.”16 In fact, Screwtape advises that Wormwood’s human patient should be deterred from enjoying anything outside himself simply for its own sake: “The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack.”17 The devils aim to block the externality, which, according to the PE, is necessary for any degree of human fulfillment.

Lewis frequently conceives of human fulfillment as a matter of gaining a personality or a self (or, more metaphorically, a “face”), and the PE characterizes the process by which one comes to have a personality. One does not gain a self by inwardness—for whoever wants to save his life will lose it. “The very first step,” writes Lewis, “is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ’s and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him.”18 Lewis closes Mere Christianity with the prophecy: “Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”19

The Principle of Externality comes up in Lewis’ discussions of several other subjects—the development of Faith,20 originality in literature and art,21 joy and the life of imagination,22 etc. But we must move on. Before doing so, however, we should note that Lewis would not accept the PE without the last clause, which requires that the externally-oriented activity be of a kind that is appropriate to the creature in question. Screwtape teaches Wormwood a two-edged demonic principle: “in all activities of mind which favour our cause [he gives anger and lust as examples], encourage the patient to be un-selfconscious and to concentrate on the object, but in all activities favourable to the Enemy bend his mind back on itself.”23 As Lewis sees it, the demons would happily allow externality, as long as it is of a kind that violates the condition given in the last clause of the PE. But let us turn now to Chesterton.

G. K. Chesterton was enchanted with a great many things, perhaps with everything. It might even be true to say that Chesterton was enchanted with the Principle of Externality because he was enchanted with everything external (and was aware of the fact). In treating Manicheeism in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton emphasizes the statement from the Genesis story of the Creation, “God looked on all things and saw that they were good.”24 This is the basis for the sort of “optimism” which he attributes to St. Thomas—and obviously shares with St. Thomas. In praise of the Angelic Doctor, he writes, “…I have a very peculiar and powerful impression analogous to poetry.”25 His explanation of this impression (insofar as it does explain, and he thought it does not do so very far):

It is the intense rightness of his sense of the relation between the mind and the real thing outside the mind. That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness, or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this great contemplative is the complete contrary of that false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind…In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind.26

The inwardness of the false contemplative Chesterton finds typified in Buddhist religious art; the outwardness of the Thomist he finds in the Christian icons of the cathedrals. “The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive…The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”27 This is not for Chesterton simply an interesting fact of comparative religion; he takes the Christian posture to be normative: “The Christian saint is happy because he has verily been cut off from the world; he is separate from things and is staring at them in astonishment…The pantheist cannot wonder, for he cannot praise God or praise anything as really distinct from himself.”28

Chesterton is blistering in his denunciation of the Quaker doctrine of the ‘Inner Light’ and what would now be called ‘New Age’ religions:

Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within…That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.29

Here we find assertion of the Principle of Externality together with forceful condemnation of its denial. We find justification for these stern warnings in the ninth chapter of Heretics—“The Moods of Mr. George Moore.” “Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy.”30 Even vanity, since it is social, is better than pride. “Self is the gorgon. Vanity sees it in the mirror of other men and lives. Pride studies it for itself and is turned to stone.”31

One qualification should be noted here. Chesterton takes back his offer to let Jones worship cats, crocodiles, and celestial bodies. “Physical nature must not be made the direct object of obedience; it must be enjoyed, not worshipped. Stars and mountains must not be taken seriously.”32 He also adds that nature should not (in all respects) be imitated. Externality is not enough; the outward-facing activity must be of a sort which is appropriate for human beings (as the final clause in the PE indicates). It is good and appropriate for human beings to enjoy cats; it is not appropriate for human beings to worship cats (though most cats will be inclined to disagree).

It remains only to consider Tolkien. We will do well to begin with “On Fairy Stories”; if we were to begin with The Lord of the Rings, some might wonder whether the Principle of Externality that we meet there is not simply a fiction sub-created for that world (along with Ents and Elves and magic Rings). But one quickly learns from “On Fairy Stories” that Tolkien links health and fulfillment with the capacity for externality and the dispositions which are conducive to it. In fact, in Tolkien’s view, an important virtue of fairy stories is their power to restore the capacity for externality. Tolkien writes in explanation:

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say ‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness…This triteness is really the penalty of ‘appropriation’: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally.33

The salutary effect of fairy stories is to restore otherness or strangeness to familiar things. Tolkien is quick to point out, though, that “…fairy-stories are not the only means of recovery, or prophylactic against loss. Humility is enough.”34 We must become as little children to receive the kingdom of heaven (or to receive the county of Oxfordshire), and a taste for fairy stories, Tolkien proposes, “may make us, or keep us, childish.”35

If we find the Principle of Externality in Middle-earth, we should not disbelieve our eyes, for we know on other grounds that Tolkien accepts the PE. But “On Fairy Stories” actually lets us go even further: we should expect to find the PE in Middle-earth. The reason is that on Tolkien’s view, “…fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting.”36 If Tolkien intended The Lord of the Rings to be a good fairy story (and surely he did!), he could be expected to leave untouched such fundamental things as the nature of good and evil and the character of creaturely fulfillment. Tolkien adds, “Fairy-stories may invent monsters that fly in the air or dwell in the deep, but at least they do not try to escape from heaven or the sea.”37

And indeed The Lord of the Rings is faithful to this rule. The geography is invented, but the geological formations are familiar; the languages are foreign, but they are susceptible of translation into “natural” languages; there are races which are sub-created, but psychologically they are kindred to us. The fundamental things are all in place; the ethics and metaphysics are the same as in the primary world (our world). There is but one uncreated being, and all else depends on Him for existence. The Hierarchical conception is in place. And creaturely fulfillment involves (as a necessary condition) activity that is an end in itself and that has some external good as its contemplated object.

The race of beings whose fulfillment is most conspicuous (though perhaps not of the highest degree or quality) in The Lord of the Rings is the race of Hobbits. The first scene of Book I is a grand Hobbit party with food and dancing and pipe-weed and merriment, and in the last scene but one of Book VI, the Shire (now put back in order) is flowing with fine beer—‘proper fourteen-twenty’—and the Hobbits are sprawled on the grass savoring strawberries and cream. Hobbits do not normally contemplate weighty matters; they do not ‘live long on the heights’ as do Elrond and Galadriel and Aragorn and Gandalf. There is a striking scene in Book VI, however, when Frodo and Sam, nearing Mount Doom, have stopped to rest for the night. Sam crawls out of their hiding place and is watching the clouded night sky.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him.38

This self-forgetful awe should be seen in contradistinction to the grasping, clawing hands of Gollum, and the dreadful monosyllable “Mine!” of the bearers of the One Ring (or “Ours!” in the case of Sméagol-Gollum). But it is not appropriation as such that Tolkien condemns. Aragorn has the right to take and use a palantir; Denethor does not. Here enters the last clause of the PE. Externality is not enough; the metaethics of The Lord of the Rings also involves the assumption that one cannot be fulfilled by activity which one does not have the right to engage in. True, Gollum might seek and possess the One Ring as an end in itself; true, there might be some measure of externality to the activity (since the Ring is at least not physically part of Gollum, or vice versa—though possession might be thought to compromise distinctness of identity to some degree). But it is clear that possession of the Ring will not bring fulfillment to Gollum, only misery. And this is because Gollum does not have the authority to possess the Ring (not even Gandalf has that authority). It seems clear that Tolkien accepts the PE in every detail: the creatures he sub-creates are fulfilled by activity directed toward external goods, but not if the activity is of a kind which is illicit for those creatures.

We have dealt now with three writers and one idea held in common between them. Each contributes original insights to the discussion; each approaches the matter with his own distinctive personality and charm. But there is here a genuine meeting of the minds and a fundamental agreement. Each values the otherness of the external; each holds that it is good to become small so that one’s world can become large. Each desires to see every being for the being that it is. But one thing further must be noticed: each of these three men went beyond cool consideration or heated defense of the Principle of Externality. Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien seem, by all accounts, to have put the Principle to the test. Each (if I may put it in these terms) became the ‘guinea pig’ in his own experiment to verify the Principle. And in each of these three test cases, the Principle of Externality seems to have fared rather well.

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.


1 See especially Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1984), pp. 217-22.
2 Clearly much more needs to be said to render this notion precise, and much has been said in the Philosophy of Mind about mental content and ‘intentional objects’. (The ‘contemplated object’ of Alexander corresponds roughly to the ‘intentional object’ of Husserl; I have used Alexander’s terms because they are the terms with which Lewis was working.) It is an important question what we should say about the case in which the contemplated object does not exist, perhaps chiefly because it bears on the question what we should say if the contemplated object does exist. Should we count the mental representation of the existing object as the contemplated object, even in the case where that representation does correspond to, and perhaps is produced by, an object in the external world (as we seem forced to do in the case where the contemplated object does not exist)? The question is too large to be settled here, and I will go no further in examining it in the present paper. I will use the expedient of assuming that a contemplated object may or may not exist and that when it does exist, the object itself, and not its mental representation, is rightly called ‘the contemplated object’; but the reader should not take this assumption-for-the-sake-of-argument to have settled the issue.
3 It follows that the “is external to” relation is symmetric. This relation has not to do with spatial enclosure; the “is external to” relation in “the fridge is external to the beer” is not symmetric. It has to do, rather, with independence of identity.
4 The stated principle could not be made precise without saying whether a part of my body is external to me. Interesting as that discussion would be, I must pass it up in the present paper. A physicalist will, of course, contend that my body is part of me (is indeed an improper part of me). Many dualists will deny that my body is a part of me; many dualists will not. My sympathies are with the latter kind of dualist. But as I am unsure what Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien would have said on the issue, I leave it open in this paper.
5 A Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), ch. XI, p. 72.
6 A being might be promoted or demoted in the order, but only in a way that maintains the order (e.g. a higher being might promote a lower being from one position to another, but only so long as the first being has authority to grant the latter position).
7 “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1980), p. 5.
8 The Four Loves, (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002), p. 5.
9 “Weight of Glory”, p. 15.
10 Ibid., p. 13.
11 Till We have Faces: A Myth Retold (San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1984), p. 308.
12 “Weight of Glory”, p. 12.
13 Four Loves, p. 3.
14 Ibid., p. 169. It might also be noticed on this head that in Mere Christianity Lewis contends that God created free creatures because freedom is a necessary condition for love, and love is a necessary condition for “infinite happiness”. See Mere Christianity, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980), bk. IV, ch. 6, p. 159: “…mere automata could never love and therefore never know infinite happiness.”
15 The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil (Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1942), p. 25.
16 Ibid., p. 122.
17 Ibid., p. 69.
18 Mere Christianity, bk. IV, ch. 11, p. 191.
19 Ibid.
20 Mere Christianity, bk. III, ch. 12, p. 129-30
21 Preface to Paradise Lost, ch. I, p. 3; Mere Christianity, p. 191; The Great Divorce: A Dream (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1945), p. 74.
22 Surprised by Joy, pp. 165-69; 217-22.
23 The Screwtape Letters, p. 35.
24 St. Thomas Aquinas (Suffolk: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1943), p. 85.
25 Ibid., p. 146.
26 Ibid., p. 147.
27 Orthodoxy, in Heretics/Orthodoxy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), p. 283.
28 Ibid., p. 285.
29 Ibid., p. 232.
30 Heretics, in Heretics/Orthodoxy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), p. 66.
31 Ibid., p. 67.
32 Orthodoxy, p. 233.
33 “On Fairy Stories,” , p. 20.
34 Ibid., p. 20. Incidentally, Tolkien also prescribes Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy, which presents familiar objects from a new angle (like the word “coffee-room” from the inside of a glass door).
35 Ibid., p. 19.
36 Ibid., p. 20.
37 Ibid., p. 22.
38 The Lord of the Rings, Part Three: The Return of the King. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983), p. 220.

Works Cited

Chesterton, G. K. Heretics/Orthodoxy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000.

____________. St. Thomas Aquinas. Suffolk: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1943.

Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002.

__________. The Great Divorce. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1945.

__________. Mere Christianity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.

__________. A Preface to Paradise Lost. London: Oxford University Press, 1942.

__________. The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil. Glasgow: Fount Paperbacks, 1942.

__________. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. San Diego: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1984.

__________. Till We have Faces: A Myth Retold. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1984.

__________. “The Weight of Glory.” In The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, edited by Walter Hooper, 3-19. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1980.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings, Part One: The Fellowship of the Ring. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1966.

_____________. The Lord of the Rings, Part Two: The Two Towers. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966.

_____________. The Lord of the Rings, Part Three: The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983.

_____________. “On Fairy Stories.” <http://larsen-family.us/~1066/onfairystories.html> Accessed July 2005.