C.S. Lewis and the Power of Imagination

Published November 21, 2013

Commentary Magazine

Fifty years ago–on November 22, 1963–C.S. Lewis passed away. His death then, like the anniversary of his death now, was overshadowed by the assassination of President Kennedy. But Lewis–a medieval and renaissance scholar, professor, poet, novelist, a writer of children’s fantasy stories, and the most important Christian apologetics writer of the 20th century–was quite an extraordinary figure. And he, too, is worthy of remembrance.

There’s no disputing that Lewis was blessed with a brilliant mind. At a young age he studied under William T. Kirkpatrick, “a hard, satirical atheist who taught me to think,” according to Lewis. He learned, supremely well, the art of argumentation from Kirkpatrick. And Lewis, a gifted and elegant writer, authored such books as The Abolition of ManMere ChristianityThe Problem of Pain, and A Preface to Paradise Lost. He was president of the Oxford Socratic Club and a long-time participant in The Inklings, an informal literary group whose members included Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.

The English literary critic and poet William Empson said Lewis was the best-read man of his generation, one who read everything and remembered everything he read. “He seemed constitutionally incapable of allowing an assumption, or premise, to pass undissected,” is how one writer, James Como, put it.

But what made Lewis so unusual and significant is that he understood the power and importance of imagination, and not simply reason, in people’s lives. In a letter to a friend, Lewis wrote, “No one is more convinced than I that reason is utterly inadequate to the richness and spirituality of real things: indeed this is itself a deliverance of reason.”

All of this is covered with great skill by Michael Ward, who contributed an essay in the book Imaginative Apologetics. Lewis described reason as “the natural organ of truth” but imagination as “the organ of meaning. Imagination … is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” This helps explains why Lewis was able to use imagination so effectively in his apologetics, why he advanced his faith through fiction, and why for him doctrine was subordinate to the primary language, the “lived language,” of Christianity (for Lewis this meant the incarnation, the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus).

“In Lewis’s view,” according to Ward, “reason could only operate if it was first supplied with materials to reason about, and it was imagination’s task to supply those materials. Therefore apologetics was necessarily and foundationally imaginative.” It was through imagination, according to Ward, that Lewis’s reason and, ultimately, his will were transformed. Reason and imagination were twinned. Both were essential to his faith.

What Lewis offered his readers, then, were not just arguments but a vision of what is good and beautiful and true–and he did so through the use of analogy, simile and metaphor. “All our truth,” he said, “or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor.”

Lewis touched people’s minds by engaging their imaginations; and in the end, he won over not just minds but hearts as well. Mine included.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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