Nothing in this World: C.S. Lewis’ “Argument from Desire” Through the Lens of History
In the mid-twentieth century, in his classic little book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, a beloved author and Oxford scholar, summarized and defended a key aspect of the Christian anthropological outlook.
Lewis introduced his “Argument from Desire,” an apologia concluding that God and heaven are real. “The Christian,” explained Lewis, “says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.’”
Throughout history, humans exhibit behaviors suggesting an evidently natural longing for something “which no experience in this world can satisfy” time and again. We show that we crave the perfect relationship with the perfect being in a perfect reality — the love of God in heaven. The most probable logical explanation for such a natural, but seemingly over-the-top longing, is not, Lewis insisted, that we naturally desire that which does not exist in nature, or reality, but that reality itself is bigger than we may realize. That “true country” heaven that we seek even if not fully instanced here, nonetheless exists “there” — in a further reality, beyond this present world and age.
Philosophers and theologians have been debating the validity of Lewis’ argument for decades. Historians have generally ignored it. Given epistemic norms in our discipline, it is easy to think of objections — from the validly academic to the merely political — that would be raised against any serious scholarly attempt to test Lewis’ anthropological claims against inductive evidence from global history.
This much however, is clear: there are many instances in history that might be cited in support of Lewis’s provocative argument.
People across cultures, from ancient Sumer to today, have regularly betrayed the sort of angst that Lewis argued is essentially human.
We observe this theme in the ancient Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh” that “being human holds a special grief of privacy within the universe.”
Chinese philosopher Confucius’ taught: “Great as the universe is, man is yet not always satisfied with it.”
In western civilization, Lucretius, a Roman philosopher, observed that “While what we crave is wanting, it seems to transcend all the rest; then, when it has been gotten, we crave something else,” and discover to our chagrin that we are “not better off.”
The Ancient Greek tragedy, “Prometheus Bound,” by Aeschylus leads the character of Hermes to declare, “Look for no ending to this agony, until a god will freely suffer for you, will take on him your pain, and in your stead, descend to where the sun is turned to darkness, the black depths of death.”
This is exactly what Scripture says that the incarnate-God, in the person of Jesus Christ, did for us in real space-time history.
The early North African theologian Augustine of Hippo advised, “Seek what you seek, but not where you seek it,” and: “Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in thee.”
This siren song of cosmic human restlessness’ continues into modernity.
Notice the remarkable confession of the atheist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre: “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured,…a being whom only a creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.”
Historically, this realization is not odd at all, and if Lewis’ “Argument from Desire” is right, it is altogether telling.
1 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 1952), 136–37.
2 A particularly compelling, and thorough, philosophical consideration of Lewis’s argument is: Peter Kreeft, Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989).
3 Herbert Mason, trans., Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), 54–55;
4 Qian Sima, Yutang Lin, and Ming La, trans. Kongzi de zhi hui = The Wisdom of Confucius, Vol. 1, Lin Yutang Chinese-English Bilingual 2d ed. (New York: Random House, 2009), 129;
5 Lucretius, as quoted in The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of the Great Books of the Western World, vol. 2 of The Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 1952), 329;
6 Edith Hamilton, trans. Aeschylus, and Euripides,Three Greek Plays: Prometheus Bound, Agamemnon, the Trojan Women (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1937), 141;
7 Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, 1.1, 4; Sartre, as quoted in Norman L. Geisler, Is Man the Measure: An Evaluation of Contemporary Humanism (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1983), 46'
Dr. Keith Beutler, professor of history, teaches history and political science courses at MBU, including upper-level courses in his specialty, the United States’ Founding era. Beutler received his Ph.D. in History from Washington University in St. Louis. His teaching awards include a 2003 Dean’s award for Teaching Excellence from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Washington University and Missouri Baptist University Distinguished Professor in 2009.
This story was originally published in MBU Magazine: Winter 2017.