Self and Other in Lewis and Levinas

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Yet, while I find others to be absolutely other than myself and while I am conversely absolutely separate from others, nevertheless, my relation with others-other persons-is primordial, is at the root of my existence. This relation with others precedes my consciousness; in fact, it is this relation that arouses my awareness of myself and of my place in the world. Thus, though my existence as an individual being involves maintaining my separation from all that is other, as if I were a self-contained, self-sustaining entity, in reality I am sustained by and am utterly dependent on what is other than myself, above all by my relation with other persons. The remarkable situation in which I find myself is that, while I am absolutely separate from others, yet my very existence depends on my relation with these others who cannot be reduced to objects or concepts, who remain in a sense infinitely other than myself. It is in fact the absolute otherness of others that reveals and guarantees the otherness of the external world in general, that, in a sense, endows the world with genuine reality. According to Levinas, the relation between self and other is thus fundamental. Our singularity and our humanity are functions of our relationship with “the Other.”

As I have noted, “the Other” means the other person. But though Levinas rarely uses religious language in his early writing, at times (especially in his later works) he makes clear his identification of “the Other” with God. God, according to Levinas, manifests himself to us-and calls us to service and responsibility-through scripture, through our own inward witness of this call, and most visibly through the faces of other people. In our encounter with God-with “the absolute Other,” as Levinas sometimes puts it-we encounter otherness in a superlative way, and, as in our other encounters with otherness, we experience a paradoxical combination of separation and relationship.  In his book Totally and Infinity, Levinas makes a remarkable statement suggesting that God desired the existence of others truly and absolutely other than himself: “It is certainly a great glory for the creator to have set up a being capable of atheism, a being which, without having been causa sui, has an independent view and word and is at home with itself” (58-59). Yet to become fully human, to come to the fullness of our reality, we must transcend this independence and illusion of self-sufficiency by acknowledging, welcoming, and serving “the Other”-that is, God himself, as well as the other people we encounter.

For C. S. Lewis, as well, especially after his conversion to Christianity, the self and its relation to what is other became major concerns, and he discussed these concerns in terms that correspond roughly to at least some aspects of Levinas’s thought. Lewis viewed God as the one absolutely real being yet a being who has chosen, because of his very nature, to create a world and other persons that cannot be reduced to himself. God’s project, according to Lewis, is to enable these others to become truly real, something that can happen only if they give up what they think are their personalities (and which are in fact largely the effects of environment) and allow him to give them true personalities-or, as he puts it elsewhere, if they allow him to transform them from feeble, imperfect beings into something approaching his nature.

For Lewis, “selfhood” is a great gift but also perhaps our greatest danger. Among other things, it is the source of our fallen condition. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity that “The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first-wanting to be the centre-wanting to be God, in fact” (49; Book 2, chapter 3). Yet God decided this was a risk worth taking. In an intriguing passage later in the book, Lewis wonders whether the whole point of creating “Nature-space and time and matter-[was] to make many-ness possible,” whether there was “perhaps no other way of getting many eternal spirits except by first making many natural creatures, in a universe, and then spiritualising them” (185; Book 4, chapter 6). The process of becoming truly spiritual creatures involves a transformation that comes when these creatures willingly offer themselves, submit themselves to God, lose themselves in a sense, and by so doing become selves in the truest sense. Lewis describes this process in his theological books and portrays it in his fiction so often that it must be considered one of his two or three most important themes. A few examples will make clear both the importance of this process and Lewis’s understanding of its nature.

The last four chapters of Mere Christianity-the book’s climactic section-describes self-transcendence in such terms as these:

Christ says ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. . . . Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked-the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours. (196-97; Book 4, chapter 8)

To become new men means losing what we now call “ourselves.” (224; Book 4, chapter 11)

It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.