Enjoyment and Contemplation

Last Friday was pay-day, so I treated myself to a copy of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, by Michael Ward. In this book, Ward argues that the “secret key” to the Narnia books is the medieval cosmological concept of the “seven heavens”. More details here. I may blog on Ward’s thesis as I get further through the book, but this post looks at a preliminary point that caught my attention.

In the opening chapter, Ward describes the influence that Samuel Alexander’s book Space, Time and Deity had on the young Lewis, in particular as regards the contrast drawn by Alexander between “Enjoyment” and “Contemplation”.

As Ward explains (p.17), “Enjoyment” is “participant, inhabited, personal, committed knowledge”, while “Contemplation” is “abstract, eternal, impersonal, uninvolved knowledge”. Lewis himself described Alexander’s distinction as “an indispensable tool of thought”, and wrote:

Instead of the twofold division into Conscious and Unconscious, we need a threefold division: the Unconscious, the Enjoyed, and the Contemplated.

Lewis explained the distinction more fully in his essay, Meditation in a Toolshed, which opens with the following:

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun.

Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

As Lewis writes, the assumption of modern society has been (and remains to this day) that only “looking at” – the external, so-called objective view – can provide a “‘true’ or ‘valid’ experience”. The experiences of those who look at a phenomenon (whether that be religion or anything else) from the inside, who “look along” it, are discounted:

The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten. It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or “debunks” the account given from inside.

By contrast, Lewis insists that:

We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything.

This essay, and Lewis’ distinction between “looking at” and “looking along” has been hugely influential on my own way of thinking about things, so I was glad to have the opportunity both to Enjoy and to Contemplate the philosophical background to this as described by Ward. 🙂

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2 Responses to Enjoyment and Contemplation

  1. luskwater says:

    I’m not sure Ward got it right in his synopsis. What I remember from Lewis’ Surprised by Joy is the distinction that the thing contemplated (say, a melon) is not the thing enjoyed (which in this case may be botany, dinner, or even physics–if I am replacing Newton’s apple with a melon for some reason). In that book, at least, he makes the point that one cannot immediately turn to contemplating (focusing one’s thoughts on) the contemplation of the melon without the enjoyment changing from say botany to philosophy (as I contemplate my thoughts of contemplation). One sees not the thoughts (of the melon) themselves, but just their traces since they’ve fled the scene.

    Of course, if I’d read Alexander’s book, my thoughts from Surprised by Joy might have been corrected.

  2. Richard says:

    I think you are correct luskwater, the previous comment I think was heavily influenced by Ward and not by Lewis’s most parsed out statements found in Surprised.

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