If a volume of essays weightier or more glorious than C. S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory exists, I should like to know about it. One slender volume. Nine modest addresses. One-hundred thirty-two thin pages. Yet here are war, forgiveness, Heaven, education, theology, and poetry. And here are angles on Lewis’s great ideas regarding joy, myth, and the argument from desire.
The first essay lends its title to the whole volume. “The Weight of Glory” begins with the correction of a modern misconception that self-denial is the ultimate Christian virtue. Lewis blames Kant for starting the error. Long before I had even heard of Kant, I thought this way. “Deny yourself, and follow me,” said the Lord. Could it be any clearer? Seeking what God wants is good, and seeking my own good is bad.
Well, the problem with that interpretation is that it only makes sense if God doesn’t want my good. But when I began to read in Plato and Aristotle that the virtuous person has a natural duty to seek his own good, I hadn’t yet seen through the mistake. Then I read the very Christian Augustine and Aquinas agreeing with their Greek predecessors, and I had to rethink things. From them I learned (or realized what now seems obvious) that the selfish good Jesus bids us to deny is as nothing to the good that God wants for us. So perhaps the principle problem involves not having a correct definition of good in view. As Lewis puts it, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us.”
The essay goes on to explain the difference between natural and “tacked on” rewards. We might say, for instance, “He’s only marrying her for her money,” but it makes no sense to say, “He’s only marrying her for a lifetime of love.” Money is a tacked-on reward of marriage, while the lifetime of loving unity is the natural reward. So we must see Heaven, he says, as the natural reward of our relationship with God, not as an arbitrary enticement to mercenaries who need tacked-on motivation for doing good. From that understanding, the rest of the ideas fall into place. (1) The desire for our natural end resides in us from our creation. A love for beauty in poetry, for example, is the desire for Heaven not turned directly to its natural end. (2) Where the biblical descriptions of Heaven seem the most strange or unenticing, we must pay all the more attention. Those passages don’t exist to bribe us but to teach us our purpose. (3) Hearing praise for serving our purpose can conceivably be pleasurable without stroking our vanity. (4) Everyone we meet is either on the path toward the glory of the proper, heavenly reward or not on that path.
If I were put into the highly hypothetical position of having to choose which seventeen pages of Lewis would survive a book purge, I should probably choose “The Weight of Glory.” “By ceasing for a moment to consider my own wants I have begun to learn better what I really wanted,” he says at one point in the essay. And to my mind, reading “The Weight of Glory” furthers the learning of that essential lesson.