The Four Loves (book review)

CS Lewis’ dissection of love

The Four Loves is a work which looks at the four types of love, and their subtypes. My strongest impression of this book is that Lewis comes across as one who has performed an almost autistic dissection of this phenomenon called “love”. He approaches it in a very clean and methodical manner, as one trying to understand the thing so as to learn it. In so doing, he exposes the essentials of what love is, in its various types, and produces such wonderful observations as could otherwise go unproclaimed and unappreciated.

Many of his observations serve to express in tangible terms what we already know tacitly. His work delves deep and extracts the very threads which define the thing, and he points out the tumors and the things which can pollute and twist the good loves of friendship, for example. Eros is another which exhibits plenty of danger if not subject to certain moralities and other love. Affection, likewise, is a powerful love which can be so easily skewed.

Here are some striking quotes from the book:

On Affection: I have said that almost anyone may be the object of Affection. Yes; and almost everyone expects to be.
On Gift-love: the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching. Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” should be our reward. But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law. The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love — a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes — must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication… If we are any good we must always be working towards the moment at which our pupils are fit to become our critics and rivals.
On Friendship: Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend… That is why those pathetic people who simply “want friends” can never make any. The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be “I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a Friend”, no Friendship can arise — though Affection of course may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.

Not many of us today would dare call anyone pathetic, but I think this is written not with a callous heart, but rather a sad one.

But the dangers are perfectly real. Friendship (as the ancients saw) can be a school of virtue; but also (as they did not see) a school of vice. It is ambivalent. It makes good men better and bad men worse.
On Eros becoming an ultimate cause: Eros by his nature invites it. Of all loves he is, at his height, most god-like; therefore most prone to demand our worship. Of himself he always tends to turn “being in love” into a sort of religion.
We must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present. This all good lovers know,
On Jesus “hating” Peter: But how are we to understand the word hate? That Love Himself should be commanding what we ordinarily mean by hatred — commanding us to cherish resentment, to gloat over another’s misery, to delight in injuring him — is almost a contradiction in terms. I think Our Lord, in the sense here intended, “hated” St. Peter when he said, “Get thee behind me.” To hate is to reject, to set one’s face against, to make no concession to, the Beloved when the Beloved utters, however sweetly and however pitiably, the suggestions of the Devil.
How difficult it is to receive, and to go on receiving, from others a love that does not depend on our own attraction,
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