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01 Dec

C.S. Lewis, Irish philosopher?

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A photograph of C. S. Lewis hanging in The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford

A photograph of C. S. Lewis hanging in The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford
(c) Freddie Phillips/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

C. S. Lewis was born in Belfast on 29th November 1898, and a festival in that city celebrating him is in its second year.

So for the purposes of this, he’s Irish. But is C. S. Lewis a philosopher? A piece in the University of Oxford Practical Ethics blog argues that he is, in C. S Lewis as a moral philosopher:

All decent people believe essentially the same things, he thought. There is, in other words, not just a Universal Moral Grammar, but a Universal Moral Vocabulary. This is an old idea. It’s inherent in the idea and language of natural law. ‘[T]aking the race as a whole’, wrote Lewis, those who referred to the “Law of Nature’ ‘thought that the human idea of decent behaviour was obvious to every one. And I believe they were right.’ Our moral norms are hardwired. ‘It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong. But they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.’

Readers may see a certain similarity to the ethical theory of another Ulster man, Francis Hutcheson.

In his theology, there are parallels to another Irish philosopher, Eriugena. Listening to the History of Philosophy podcasts on Eriugena, I was reminded of Lewis. The Great Divorce, a fantasy about souls daytripping from Hell to the borders of Heaven has a similar view to salvation as Eriugena writing on predestination. God offers to save everyone, but not everyone takes the lifebelt thrown to them.

Similarly, Lewis’s view of all returning to God, yet remaining themselves is similar to the view of Eriugena outlined in the Periphyseon. Lewis is often called a Platonist, more strictly, perhaps he should be called a neoPlatonist. Not so much “it’s all in Plato” as “it’s all in Pseudo Dionysis”.

Further Reading

Biography of C. S. Lewis

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