The Forms of Shadows: Part 2


[This post is the second in a three part series on CS Lewis and the Protestant Church in America. See Part 1 here. Also, this explanation is quick and dirty, so if my more recently experienced with philosophy readers have a correction, go right ahead and leave me a comment.] Let’s start with a basic philosophy lesson – you need to know what Platonic forms and ideals are. Plato proposed that the world we live in a mere copy of a grander, more ideal world – our world is the world of forms. Therefore, when you see, say, a chair, you know what that object’s function is because you have some innate idea lurking in the back of your mind of what the ideal form of a “chair” would be, even though you have never actually seen the ideal. It’s an epistemological explanation – it is an explanation of how we know certain things. (Epistemology is the study of knowledge and how we know what we know).

According to Plato, we did have full knowledge of all of these ideal forms before birth, but the trauma of being pushed through the birth canal into the real world destroys all of that knowledge (which begs the question of what that means for C-Section babies like yours truly).

CS Lewis’ term “Shadowlands” comes from a specific Platonic story that most college freshmen have to read – the Allegory of the Cave []. The story is that there are a number of people in a cave who are chained into one position, so all they see, every day, is these shadows on the wall of the cave. Except (here’s the twist!) they don’t know that they’re looking at shadows. They think it’s reality, until one day, one of the prisoners in the cave gets the idea to stand up and turn around. He discovers a fire, which is casting the shadows – these shadows are of the prisoner himself! After that, he discovers that the fire itself is a substitute or shadow of real light, when he wanders out of the cave and discovers sunlight (the ideal).

There’s a lot of ways this can be made into a Christianized metaphor (indeed, many, including Lewis, have done so). But, at its fundamentals, it is a pre-Christian, secular Greek philosophy. So when you, as a Christian, refer to shadows in the sense that CS Lewis used them, you are referring, fundamentally, to Platonic forms, not the Bible. Lewis moves Plato's philosophy from an epistemological area to an eschatological one, a leap I'm not confident one can or should make.

This is, always and forever, extremely important to remember when reading CS Lewis. His use of Platonic forms shows up all over the place. The inspiring statements from Aslan about Narnia being a mere shadow of the “true” world? Platonic forms.  The beautiful picture of heaven that occurs in the final chapters of The Last Battle? Platonic forms. Hell, the Professor in The Magician’s Nephew explains the concepts of forms, identifies it as Plato, and basically calls the children stupid for not knowing it!

The influence of Plato on Lewis could not be more obvious.

To be fair, one could easily argue that Paul himself knew a lot of Plato and was influenced by his work (the scene of him arguing with the philosophers in Acts speaks to this). In fact, knowing that makes a lot of things click into place; however, the idea of Platonic forms does not show up nearly as much in Paul as it does in Lewis.

Paul is Kingdom-focused, but he does not disparage the world we currently live in.

Paul properly acknowledges the influence of sin as creation groaning, and sees the completed kingdom of Heaven not as an ideal that this world is a mere copy of, but the realization of perfection that this world will become. Paul’s visions are consistent in Christian eschatology (and they should be, as they are canonical visions from which we get out eschatological teachings).

It’s a slim difference, but it is incredibly, incredibly important. It is from Paul that theologians pull the idea of the “already and not yet” kingdom. Lewis eschews that in his Platonic thinking, especially clear in the Narnian Chronicles.

Here's the sleight of hand that makes Lewis' thinking different from Paul's: for Lewis, all material things of this created world disappear in favor of the ideal form. We get this (admittedly beautiful!) image at the end of The Last Battle which is supposed to be analogous to the dividing of the sheep from the goats. Aslan opens a door to the "true" Narnia, and the animals (because animals are not the dumb creatures of our earth, as you know) are sent one of two ways - through the door into real Narnia, or out into the abyss, where the stars and land are slowly disappearing in a blanket of darkness. Narnia as the children first experienced it in the world of forms does not enter into the groanings of creation, but instead is merely winked out of existence. Poof! Gone.

And, eschatologically? That's problematic. God did not create this world to be a a mere copy of some other better, more ideal one. This is the ideal world! All of it. It will be renewed, recreated, and reformed into the ideal, but it is not merely a placeholder for the ideal in the meantime. It is the ideal - just a broken one. For all the talk of the new heaven and new earth, it is always through the lens of "your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." For Lewis, "earth" as it is now matters not. In an almost Gnostic sense, Earth That Was is a mere blade of grass in the field of perfect that is the ideal.

This is an incredibly important thing to remember as we go into tomorrow's discussion of how we apply Lewis' dualistic metaphors to our understandings of ancient theological concept, especially, say, to sex and marriage. The source of Lewis' visions are Platonic, not Biblical.