Baptizing The Dragon-Boy:
C.S. Lewis In Conversation With Plato
If C.S. Lewis were to appear as something close to himself in his fiction, perhaps no character could bear a greater resemblance to him than Professor Digory. Digory is a man of books, pipes, and whimsical wit. More importantly, Digory is a literate man, well-read in those kinds of books which should be read. It is with a teasing wink, therefore, that Lewis, speaking through Digory in The Last Battle, says “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools” (pg 195) — almost as if to ask the reader why he has not seen the Platonic influence in the books. But if the reader has not seen Plato hiding in the shadows of Narnia, this just means that the reader is like Eustace, who, we are we told, “had only read the wrong sort of book.” (The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, pg. 87).
One episode within the Narnia narrative where Lewis sits in conversation with Plato involves Eustace’s own adventures. Eustace stumbles upon a dragon’s lair, greedily fills his pockets with treasure, and places a golden bracelet on his arm. When he awakes and sees his own reflection in a pond, to his horror, he has become a dragon.
“Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself” (Dawn Treader, pg 91).
And lest one think that becoming a dragon would be a wonderful experience, Lewis assures us that it is not. No, being a dragon means being a monster and behaving as monsters do. This is why Eustace immediately consumes the flesh of a dead dragon;
“for, you see, though his mind was the mind of Eustace, his tastes and his digestion were dragonish” (Dawn Treader, pg. 92)
To be trapped in a monstrous, evil body, unable to escape, and subject to the tastes and digestion of the body, this is the language of Plato. In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates says: “As long as we have a body and our soul is fused with such an evil we shall never adequately attain what we desire, which we affirm to be the truth. It is the body and the care of it, to which we are enslaved” (Phaedo, 66b-d) Thus, the chief hope of the philosopher, whose proper aim in doing philosophy is practicing for death (64a), is that in death, the soul will be freed from the body (67a-e).
Nevertheless, Plato does not say that death will be equally freeing for everyone. On the contrary: “It would be a great boon to the wicked to get rid of the body of wickedness together with their soul. But now that the soul appears to be immortal, there is no escape from evil or salvation for it except by becoming as good and wise as possible” (107c-d) At death, says Plato, each person is led by a guardian spirit to the underworld to be judged, and the rending of judgment determines the fate. He writes: “When the dead arrive at the place to which each has been led by his guardian spirit, they are first judged as to whether they have led a good and pious life” (113d).
Plato goes on to describe how those who have lived an average life undergo purification through penalties, whereas the incurably wicked are cast immediately into Tartarus. He then writes of the extremely pious who are:
“freed and released from the regions of the earth as from a prison; they make their way up to a pure dwelling place and live on the surface of the earth. Those who have purified themselves sufficiently by philosophy live in the future altogether without a body; they make their way to even more beautiful dwelling places which is hard to describe clearly” (114c).
With a few minor tweaks, Plato’s writing is very much in keeping with C.S. Lewis’ own eschatological theology. First, consider Lewis’ description of Heaven in The Last Battle. When Eustace struggles to understand how this Narnia-that-is-Heaven is both so familiar and so different, Digory explains that the Narnia before was “not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will” (The Last Battle, pg 195) And in case the reader misses the Platonic reference, Lewis repeats the phrase regarding real things and shadows again in the same paragraph.
Second, consider that Lewis affirms purgatory as a place of suffering for the sake of purification, writing: “I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don’t think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much” (Letters to Malcolm, pg 109).
Suffering to purify is thus a method that both Plato and Lewis accept readily. This brings us back to Eustace, who when last we visited him, was a dragon. Eustace is quite unable to transform himself or to free himself from the evil that is the dragon body. It is only when Aslan the Lion, the image of the Divine, peels away the dragon skin — a process the boy describes as being more painful than anything he’s ever experienced (Dawn Treader, pg 109) — that the boy can be freed. Likewise, Plato affirms that we are imprisoned to whatever extent “until the god himself frees us” (Phaedo, 67a).
Nevertheless, for as much as Lewis is influenced by Plato’s writing, the two thinkers part ways in their understanding of salvation. For Plato, salvation is rooted in freeing the soul from the body but for Lewis, salvation is rooted fundamentally in the Incarnation wherein God takes on human form and body.
And whereas Plato sees us working out our salvation by disassociating with body and material world, Lewis requires body and material world as fundamental to saving sacrament.
Thus, Plato writes, “While we live, we shall be closest to knowledge if we refrain as much as possible from association with the body and do not join with it more than we must, if we are not infected with is nature but purify ourselves from it” (67a). Whereas, Lewis has Aslan throw Eustace into the water, wherein Eustace emerges, transformed into a boy again and is given new clothes by Aslan — an obvious image of baptism, particularly because the end of the chapter refers to the event as the beginning (but only the beginning) of a cure for Eustace’s sin nature.
Lewis, of course, is grounded in orthodox Pauline theology which itself is rooted in the Incarnation. To wit: “Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life” (Romans 6:4) and “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Galatians 3:27)
This is no small difference of thought between Lewis and Plato and thus what has been stated bears repeating. Plato believed that the material world and the material body are inherently evil, that salvation comes through dissociation with the material, that salvation is total freedom from the material. Lewis presents an entirely opposite viewpoint wherein salvation comes through Christ’s bodily incarnation, wherein divine, sacramental, saving grace is in and through the material (water) to body and soul, and where the very hope of salvation is rooted in bodily Resurrection and bodily immortality.
In conclusion, the conversation between Plato and Lewis is enlightening. Plato’s desire to seek truth led him to often profound understandings of the world, the human condition, and the hope of future glory. Lewis is indebted to Plato but ultimately surpasses him, taking the good of Platonic philosophy, rejecting the bad, and doing both as indicated by Lewis’ Christian theology. If we might hope to avoid the mistakes of Eustace by reading the right books, it will no doubt be of service to us to read both Plato and Lewis and to converse with these two great men as we explore the Western canon and the Great Tradition handed down to us.
Lewis, C. S. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. Print.
Lewis, C. S., and Pauline Baynes. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1964. N.
Lewis, C. S., and Pauline Baynes. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. New York: HarperCollins, 1952. N.
Plato, John M. Cooper, and D. S. Hutchinson. “Phaedo.” Complete Works. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett
Pub., 1997. N. pag. Print.