skip navigation

Academic Papers

The Platonic Foundation of The Great Divorce

David Allred

Reprinted with permission of the author

The edifice of western literary criticism rests on the foundation of the works of Greek philosophers like Plato. For centuries, Platonism has been a basis for other criticism to build on. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, scholars studied and emulated Plato and other Greek and Roman writers. Although modern criticism rejects much of the objectivity of classicism, some authors, like C. S. Lewis, use Platonic concepts to describe and to instruct. In particular, Lewis's The Great Divorce defines the form of the universe in Platonic terms. Although their different literary goals lead to differences in Plato's and Lewis's methods, The Great Divorce is founded on Plato's ideas concerning universal forms, a world of shadows, the power of reason, and even the use of imagination.

Ironically, Plato, a founder of literary criticism, rejected most forms of art because they fail to imitate reality and are morally debasing. Plato's concept of reality is pivotal to understanding his criticism. To him, the world we live in is only an imitation of a perfect reality "made by God" (Bate 44). Nature copies the universal and perfect forms that reside there. Because an artist can only copy these universal forms through what he sees on earth, art is "thrice removed from the . . . truth" (Bate 45). The artist imitates the world, which in turn is only an imitation of an ideal form. Because of imitation, Plato felt that art had a limited ability to describe what was real; instead, the only way to approximate the ideal form is through reason.

The emotional appeal of art elicits Plato's second objection: "[The artist] awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings and impairs the reason" (Bate 47). More than anything poetry should build moral and reasoned behavior, yet usually, it creates impulsive and faulty ideas about the state of the universe. In Ion, Plato did recognize the power of poetry, but this power, as it is often misused, tends to make a man bad; to Plato "much is at stake . . .in a man's becoming good or bad, . . . therefore he must be seduced . . . by poetry to neglect justice and the rest of virtue" (Lindsay 301).

C. S. Lewis was also concerned about the morality of man, and like Plato, Lewis distrusted emotion (Surprised 33). Building on the similarities between the two writers, Lewis uses Platonic concepts in The Great Divorce and shows how destructive unreasoned emotion can be by presenting a world of ultimate reality where, in the absence of shadows, final truth can be found.

However, Lewis's work cannot be construed to be merely Platonic. Because of the different goals, the two authors also diverge. Plato tries to describe how to make our world an ideal society, one based on reason, not emotion and false copies. Lewis tries to make worldly people ideal in preparation for the next life. Lewis's art aims to improve morality, an anti-Platonic idea. Plato would say that reason improves morality more than art. The Great Divorce can also be characterized as emotional, even if it is a controlled emotion. In addition, the book is supernatural and extremely imaginative, all things that hint at where Lewis ceases to copy Plato.

Still, even though The Great Divorce teaches in non-classical ways at points, the book's structure and premise are heavily Platonic. As the passengers disembark, they are greeted by a world where everything is solid, real, and super-sensory. The world is like Plato's sphere of universal forms–everything is more real. One visitor learns, "Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself" (Divorce 68), and everything else in existence only imitates the forms in Heaven. These forms are more solid and desirable than what is outside Heaven. For this reason, one of the Ghosts tries to smuggle a real, dense apple back to Hell. In Hell there would be a demand for "real commodities" (Divorce 23; italics in original). The capitalization of Heaven, in itself, suggests that it is an ultimate form. The narrator also discovers that in the new world his senses "receiv[e] impressions which would normally exceed their capacity" (Divorce 49). This paradise provides, in perfect form, everything that is good elsewhere. Heaven, in the Great Divorce, mirrors Plato's divine forms.

Hell also illustrates Plato's theory of a world of shadows that is in opposition to the super-natural Heaven. In the book, Hell is the "shadowlands" where everything is immaterial and in flux. Lewis characterizes this transitory world as gray and rainy, giving it a feeling of disdain. Hell is so far inferior to Heaven that the "infinite, empty town" is the size of a crack in Heaven. Reality takes up more space than the wispy world of Hell. This description of Hell is like Plato's conception of the imitation world we live in because our world is also insubstantial compared to Plato's ultimate forms.

The characters from Hell are also airy and insubstantial. They find it difficult to cope with the corporeal Heaven. Because of their immaterial substance, they find that they contrast sharply with solidity. The Ghost's pain from walking on the grass suggests the conclusion that "reality is harsh to the feet of shadows" (Divorce 43). The ghosts' experiences in Heaven relate to Plato's ultimate forms by showing how far apart our shadow-filled word is from the ultimate forms. Just as Lewis's Hell is dissimilar from the misery and composition of Heaven, our world is far removed from the ultimate forms. Another Platonic tenet found in The Great Divorce is the value of reason over emotion. The Great Divorce is not without emotion, in fact, much of its power comes from the emotion of the struggles for redemption that each of the characters goes through. The only emotion that can benefit the characters is one in accordance with reason. Plato himself did not imagine an emotionless world. His complaint against emotion stemmed from the uncontrolled exercise of emotion. He observed that "poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of drying them up; she lets them rule, although they ought to be controlled" (Bate 48). The danger of emotion is letting it rob your reason or believing emotion itself is enough. Lewis portrays those risks.

Michael's mother exemplifies reasonless emotion. She refuses to accept entrance to Heaven without her son Michael, whom she emotionally clings to. A Bright Spirit, reasoning with her teaches that her love is a selfish love; when her emotion is purer, she can be with Michael again. She emotionally refuses to listen and rants, "No one has the right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to his face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine for ever and ever" (Divorce 93-94). With reason, one can see that Heaven is more powerful than her selfish wants, but she is a complete servant to her feelings.

In contrast with the mother's emotion, the power of reason is embodied in George MacDonald, the narrator's guide. MacDonald attacks emotion with reason. He explains that in cases like Michael's mother, love must be controlled and tempered in order to exist in Heaven. In a sense, love for family has to be killed to make room for love of God. "Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country," MacDonald explains, "but none will rise again until it has been buried" (Divorce 96). Emotionally, the character Lewis rejects this idea: "The saying almost too hard for us" (96). MacDonald wisely and calmly replies, "Ah but it's cruel not to say it. . . . Sorrows that used to purify now only fester" (96). The logic sinks in as the ghostly Lewis realizes, "Keats was wrong, then, when he said he was certain of the holiness of the heart's affections" (96). By discrediting the Keats' theory that all emotion is holy, the author follows Plato's theories that emotion can be good, but only when it is subservient to reason.

Although imagination is usually associated with the Romantic movement, much of Lewis's use of imagination is Platonic. The whole book is only the dream of the narrator, something from his imagination. Plato also used a technique like this. In the Allegory of the Cave, he postulates an allegory to understand reality. The philosophers view outside the cave is something that those who only know shadow have never imagined. Similarly, the narrator awakens in our world, but he has gained a clearer sense of what reality is–Heaven. The philosopher in the allegory, the narrator has knowledge to share. However, MacDonald charges him not to spread rumors about Heaven before he awakes: "Give no fool the pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows. I'll have no Swedenborgs and no Vale Owens among my children" (Divorce 124). This injunction does suggest that the principles of submission to God taught in the book are unreal. Lewis would not have written the book if he had not believed the principles. Instead this injunction backs up Lewis's warning in the preface: "The transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: ... the last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the afterworld" (Divorce 11). In Platonic fashion, Lewis realized that, in the our world of shadows, a full understanding of Heaven is not possible. To avoid a false imitation of reality in his art, Lewis warns against believing that Heaven is a mountain where Flaming Spirits kill red lizards perched on our shoulders. Lewis did however, believe that the principles of submission to kill those lizards are real and important. His goal was didactic, in a way different from Plato, but he still generally follows Platonic rules: teach through reason and beware of imitations.

Lewis and Plato are not carbon copies. Lewis's aim was a Christian people: Plato's aim, an ideal society. The differences between the works of the two come largely from this distinction. However, they are similar in many other ways. Lewis found that Platonic theory provided a strong foundation on which to build his work. Along with Plato, he envisioned a world more real and more substantial that lies outside our experience. Lewis also showed that reason blind emotion will lead to this Heaven or the ultimate world. Lewis also used a form of Platonic imagination to build reason. For both Lewis and Plato, these theories are essential to leave the "shadowlands."