Self and Other in Lewis and Levinas

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So far as I can tell, virtually no has commented on the connections between C. S. Lewis and Emmanuel Levinas-one possible exception being Pope John Paul II, a great admirer of both writers (see Hooper xii; John Paul II 36). But the connections are profound and undeniable. I’ve found no evidence that Levinas read Lewis’s work, nor any that Lewis was acquainted directly with the thought of Levinas, though Levinas became an important figure in French philosophical circles following World War II. The affinity between Lewis and Levinas must be explained in some way other than direct influence. For one thing, both of them knew the philosophical tradition thoroughly. Lewis, in fact, took a degree in philosophy as well as in classics and English and began his teaching career at Oxford as a tutor in philosophy for most of a year before obtaining a position in English literature. One of Lewis’s early Christian works-The Pilgrim’s Regress-traces his journey through, as well as his critique of, several schools of philosophy, including the philosophical idealism that dominated during the early twentieth century. Though Lewis did not take a direct part in the main developments within professional philosophy in the later twentieth century, particularly the movement known as postmodernism, he certainly had at least a general sense of such developments and even had something of an affinity with Personalism, a movement within twentieth-century thought associated with such writers as Borden Parker Bowne, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Václav Havel, and a figure I’ve already mentioned, Pope John Paul II. As will become clear, Levinas has affinities with this movement as well (see Caygill 86-88), though he is more often called the leading proponent of postmodern ethical philosophy.

The connection between Lewis and Levinas I want to focus on is more specific than this general affinity I’ve referred to. Without in all probability knowing each other’s work, they nevertheless write in strikingly similar terms about what it means to be a “self” and how the self relates to others. The emphasis on “self” is perhaps not surprising, given that this concept had been a central concern of philosophy at least beginning with Descartes in the seventeenth century, with much earlier ponderings on the subject by Saint Augustine having had a continuing influence from late antiquity to the present. The “self” became an especially vital concern in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century thought as idealist philosophers came to identify the “self” with the “Absolute.” Reactions to this move came in various forms. Materialists and logical positivists sought to reduce the self to a merely temporary or even illusory phenomenon completely dependent on a more fundamental impersonal, material reality. Others reacted in a different direction: for instance, Kierkegaard, protesting against Hegelian philosophy (perhaps the most extreme expression of absolute idealism), maintained the fundamental reality of individual, personal existence, irreducible to an all-encompassing absolute Spirit or essence. Various forms of existentialism would pursue similar intuitions. Still later, with the advent of what we call postmodernism, some have sought to interpret “selfhood” as contingent or illusory not because material reality is more fundamental, but because nothing is fundamental-because the “self” along with everything else is only a function of social, psychological, or linguistic forces. The story of the varying fortunes of “the self”-from the ultimate reality to something like an illusion-has been brilliantly recounted in a book by Robert Solomon titled Continental Philosophy since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self.

The place of Emmanuel Levinas in this story, and in particular in the development of postmodern thought, is interesting. On the one hand, he accepts much of the postmodern critique of the philosophical tradition including its questioning of a certain view of the self-namely, the view identifying the self as an entity “who would be a substantial or mastering center of meaning, an idealist, self-sufficient cogito” (“Dialogue” 27). Yet he also rejects some versions of postmodernism as ironically retaining what is most problematic in that tradition, especially the tendency to “totalize”: to reduce all that manifests itself to a single reality or process that can be encompassed by the contemplating vision of the philosophical observer. Thus, Levinas objects not only to traditional monisms, such as Hegel’s Absolute Spirit, but also to Heidegger’s reduction of everything to impersonal Being (with a capital “B”), a process of continual manifestation and disappearance that swallows up all individual entities. Levinas even suggests that to reduce all of reality to a free play of differences, as his friend Jacques Derrida appears to do, amounts to much the same thing. Levinas proposes instead that existence arises from the irreducible relation between the Same and the Other. We can roughly identify “the Same” with “the self”-that is, with my experience, my consciousness, my existence. When Levinas writes of “the Other,” he means above all the personal other, the other person. He notes, in fact, that while I can eliminate or negate the otherness of most of what is outside of myself (by reducing it to my possession or an element of my thought), I cannot successfully do that with another person. “While the object is integrated into the identity of the Same,” he writes, “the Other [who is not merely an object] manifests [himself] by the absolute resistance of [his] defenceless eyes” (“Signature” 294). The Other “disturbs [my] being at home with [myself]. . . . Over him I have no power. He escapes my grasp by an essential dimension, even if I have him at my disposal. He is not wholly in my site” (Totality 39). The Other is infinite in the sense that I cannot put bounds on him, cannot bring him under my control or reduce him to a concept. The Other thus remains absolutely other.

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.

. . . But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away ‘blindly’ so to speak. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that. As long as your own personality is what you are bothering about you are not going to Him at all. The very first step 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. . . . The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. 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. (226-27; Book 4, chapter 11)

By contrast, the focus on self is damning. The characters in The Great Divorce who return to hell are those who choose pride, dignity, their “rights,” self-pity-in a word, “self”-over the joy and reality of heaven. That focus on self leads to a diminishment, a shriveling up of the self. As the fictional George Macdonald explains to Lewis in that book: “[A] damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see” (139).

To enable them to avoid this fate, the visitors in the foothills of heaven are invited to let go of their focus on self, to have “a good laugh at [themselves]” and become like little children (73). By letting go of themselves, the saved become true selves, as they acknowledge in these words of a song addressed to God: “Overcome us that, so overcome, we may be ourselves” (113). The way to salvation, which includes true selfhood, is summed up in a poignant moment when a bright Spirit says to a frightfully self-conscious woman: “Friend. . . . Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?” (62).

God’s very nature-and the nature we are promised will be ours as we submit ourselves to God-is the opposite of selfish and self-centered. In The Screwtape Letters, we learn that, while the devils “want to suck in,” God “wants to give out. . . . He is full and flows over.” For the devils, every self is in competition with every other and sees the others as obstacles, tools for self-advancement, or entities to be consumed. What that ultimately means is that the devils are seeking to reduce all selves to a single self-a condition in which Satan “has drawn all other beings into himself.” This process corresponds to what Levinas calls “totalizing.” By contrast, the unity God desires does not annihilate the otherness of others. God, according to Lewis, would have every self connected to him and each other with freely chosen bonds of love. He “wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct”-still, that is, other than himself (39). What God contemplates when he invites us to give up ourselves is not, in other words, a submerging of our identity into his. “When he talks of [humans’] losing their selves,” Screwtape affirms, “He only means abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts . . . that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever” (65).

Lewis applies the same principle to art and literature. Reading itself, by being both “an enlargement” and “a temporary annihilation of the self,” partakes of the “paradox: ‘he that loseth his life shall save it.'” “We want to see with other eyes,” Lewis says, “to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own.” “[I]n the reading of great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. . . . Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (An Experiment in Criticism 137, 138, 141).

Levinas would not in fact go quite this far, arguing as he does that aesthetic and intellectual transcendence is never complete. What we merely know or appreciate as an object is essentially integrated into our own being; such knowledge or appreciation, though it may remind us of the otherness of others, does not allow a genuine escape from bondage to self. Yet Levinas would agree that the other avenues Lewis writes of-worship, love, and moral action, all closely linked, as Levinas sees it-do in fact allow for genuine transcendence. In the end, Lewis too gives precedence to such avenues, for his most engaging discussions of self-transcendence involve religious and ethical experience, not merely intellectual or aesthetic cognition. Furthermore, Lewis and Levinas agree that genuine transcendence involves self-fulfillment rather than self-annihilation-that our existence as genuinely distinct beings is in fact a prerequisite for ethical and spiritual transcendence of self.

Where Lewis comes closest to Levinas is in his view that personal relationships, with God or with our fellow human beings, are the primary way in which we can transcend ourselves. The Four Loves parallels The Great Divorce in identifying damnation with self-centeredness and salvation with self-transcendence, and both books, especially The Four Loves, identify our relationships with others as the arena in which these alternatives work themselves out. Love of any kind is a potential escape from self, whereas lovelessness-as Lewis puts it, “a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness”-puts us at odds with God’s will. “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. . . . lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket-safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable”-a condition Lewis explicitly identifies with “damnation” (121-22). Lewis pursues the same theme in Till We Have Faces, where Orual overcomes her self-centeredness, her selfish, possessive love, her “craving” nature, by submitting herself so that she can be redeemed and even, like her sister, turned into a goddess.

To me the most powerful of Lewis’s meditations on self and other come in his autobiographical writing, especially A Grief Observed, where he reflects on his marriage and the profoundly redemptive effect it had on him. “The most precious gift that marriage gave me,” he wrote, “was [the] constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant-in a word, real.” He fears that, with his wife’s death, he may be “doomed to crawl back-to be sucked back-into” the shell God had forced him out of through marriage (18-19). Like Levinas, Lewis suggests here that our natural condition is self-centered but that we are called by others-by our very encounter with their otherness-to transcend ourselves.

Lewis also resembles Levinas in contrasting the genuine otherness of others with the reductive view of these others we are prone to create. Lewis records in A Grief Observed that he does not want the woman he knew to be reduced to “an image in [his] own mind” (20). “The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her” (66). All of reality, Lewis argues-especially as manifest in the people we truly encounter-“is iconoclastic”: that is, it shatters the images or ideas to which we try to reduce it. Levinas uses similar language: the Other-the other person-“at each instant . . . overflows the idea” to which our minds try to reduce his presence (51); “The face of the Other [or what Levinas sometimes calls, the ‘living presence’ of the Other] at each moment destroys and overflows the . . . image it leaves me (50-51). The presence of the Other thus shatters my image of the Other. To use Lewis’s language, the Other is “iconoclastic.”

What is true of marriage is true as well of our relationship with God and with our neighbor. “My idea of God,” Lewis writes, “is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast”-the great shatterer of images (The Great Divorce 66). Why is this so important? Because, Lewis testifies, the meaning of our lives, the transformation of our selves, depends on our relationship with others who are genuinely other, who are irreducible to concepts. “I need Christ,” he writes, “not something that resembles Him. I want [my wife], not something that is like her. . . . Not my idea of God, but God. Not my idea of [my wife], but [my wife]. Yes, and also not my idea of my neighbour, but my neighbour” (65, 67).

For those acquainted with contemporary philosophy, it is hard to read these passages from A Grief Observed without thinking of Levinas. Like Lewis, Levinas writes of the transformation that takes place as we offer ourselves to others or as we lose our self-concern in concern for them. It is “as responsible [to others that] I am brought to my final reality,” Levinas writes (Totality 178). I become most fully myself, according to Levinas, as my existence shifts from satisfying my own needs to concern for others. Being for others “places the center of gravitation of a being outside of that being” (183). But it is only as it shifts “its center outside of itself” that a being attains a genuinely meaningful existence (236). “The I [the self], which we have seen arise in enjoyment as a separated being having apart, in itself, the center around which its existence gravitates, is confirmed in its singularity by purging itself of this gravitation, purges itself interminably, and is confirmed precisely in this incessant effort to purge itself. This is termed goodness” (244-45). “This existence for the Other, this Desire of the other, this goodness liberated from the egoist gravitation, nonetheless retains a personal character”-that is, it is only an individual being separate from the Other who can achieve this kind of goodness, who can offer itself to the other (236). In short, only a self can offer itself.

At times, Levinas uses specifically religious language to describe this transcendence of self that brings a true fulfillment of self. He once explained his views as follows: “I am defined as a subjectivity, as a singular person, as an ‘I,’ precisely because I am exposed to the other. It is my inescapable and incontrovertible answerability to the other that makes me an individual ‘I.’ So that I become a responsible or ethical ‘I’ to the extent that I agree to depose or dethrone myself-to abdicate my position of centrality-in favor of the vulnerable other.” I must overcome my self-centered way of being so that the other person becomes central for me. And yet, paradoxically, it is by overcoming my self-centeredness that I become a fully individual and responsible self. Levinas, though Jewish, goes on to paraphrase the New Testament: “As the Bible says: ‘He who loses his soul gains it'” (“Dialogue” 26-27).

I have only scratched the surface of the thought of either Lewis or Levinas. But it’s clear enough that, with all the differences in their language and the general orientation of their thought, there are also profound similarities. I earlier attributed those similarities to their acquaintance with the philosophical tradition. But more important, I think, is the influence of the Bible and of their keen observation of human experience.

Though Levinas emphasizes our ethical relationship with others while Lewis speaks more directly of our relationship with God, that difference in emphasis may not be as important as it seems. Lewis writes about both this world and the world beyond this one in which our feeble attempts to transcend ourselves can be fulfilled if we put ourselves in God’s hands. Levinas emphasizes the present world but sees God as very much at work here. When Levinas asserts that God manifests himself in the faces of others, calling us to service and responsibility, what he says is not far from Jesus’s own teaching that when we encounter and serve others, even “the least of his brethren,” we are serving him. For both Lewis and Levinas, our becoming true selves is an activity that amounts to a continual offering, a continual being beyond ourselves, what both refer to as a kind of continual dying and being reborn. Both affirm that to be truly ourselves-to attain the highest kind of meaning, reality, and fulfillment-we must offer ourselves and be beyond ourselves so as to exist in a deeply significance sense in and for others.

Works Cited

Caygill, Howard. “Levinas’s Political Judgement: the Esprit articles 1934-1983.” Emmanuel Levinas: Critical Assessments of Leading Philosophers. Ed. Claire Elise Katz. Abingdon, UK; New York: Routledge, 2005.

Hooper, Walter. C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

John Paul II [Karol Wojtyla]. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Levinas, Emmanuel. “Signature.” Difficult Freedom: Essays on Judaism. Trans. Seán Hand. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 291-95.

—. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh: Duquesne UP, 1969.

Levinas, Emmanuel, and Richard Kearney. “Dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas.” Face to Face with Levinas. Ed. Richard A. Cohen. Albany: SUNY Press, 1986. 13-33.

Lewis, C. S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1961.

—. The Four Loves. 1960. San Diego; New York; London: Harvest-Harcourt Brace, 1991.

—. The Great Divorce. 1946. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

—. A Grief Observed. 1961. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

—. Mere Christianity. 1952. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

—. The Screwtape Letters. 1942. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

—. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. San Diego; New York: Harcourt, 1956.

Solomon, Robert C. Continental Philosophy since 1750: The Rise and Fall of the Self. Oxford; New York: Oxford UP, 1988.