CS Lewis’ Sehnsucht and the Epistemic Split

by Max Andrews

Lewis’ argument from desire posits a certain degree of ignorance as to how the object of desire fulfills that Sehnsucht (literally meaning mind-search, a deep and mysterious longing for something, usually lasting).


  1. Every natural, innate desire corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.
  2. But there exists a desire space, time, or anything can satisfy. This desire is not the difference of degree of natural desire but a different kind.
  3. Therefore, There must exist something more than these natural [natural], which can satisfy this desire.

He ascribes certain subjective pleasures to an object, which rests at an epistemic distance.  There is a concrete/abstract dilemma, which keeps us from knowing a thing completely.  We can know about it; we can experience it.  Both cannot be done simultaneously and each has its limits when isolated.  This epistemic problem, or the lapse in knowledge in illicit pleasure, is due to a separation of the subject from the object[1].  Lewis roots the epistemic dilemmas, the loss of concrete thought, in a long process of separation that begins in the fall.  His theory is of a gradual de-evolution of human knowledge, an epistemic decay.  Lewis believed that this has not always been the case on earth, due to the fall, and the split increased in time.[2]  Since the fall in the Garden of Eden, man has separated subject from object, the phenomenal from the invisible numinous world, and how he experiences from what he experiences.[3]  Additionally, Lewis believed that the fall resulted in the split between the physical and the spirit—the concrete and the abstract.  This lapse causes a loss of meaning in the world—a notion of absurdity.  This loss of meaning and purpose drives one to predicate pleasure and happiness to either an objective something or subjective construct.  The fulfillment of pleasure and ultimate happiness will come to fruition in the end.  Thus, there is an epistemic gap between the present Sehnsucht and the object of fulfillment.  The cause of this epistemic gap, both for the naturalistic man and the theist, is the result of illicit pleasures—an abuse of the eudaimonistic ethic.  The doctrine of depravity, according to Lewis, states that man, as God made him, was completely good and completely happy, but that he disobeyed God and became what we now see.[4]   Note that man was completely happy.  Pre-fallen man existed in a state of subject/object harmony.  He possessed knowledge, happiness, and pleasure, which was originally intended but was perverted in the ignorant act against God’s law.

Furthermore, this lapse becomes evermore evident in Lewis’ thought when Screwtape instructs Wormwood to mislead man:

[As] always, the first step is to keep knowledge out of his mind.  Do not let him suspect the law of undulation.  Let him assume that the first ardours of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness (in reference to a reduction of pleasure) is an equally permanent condition.[5]

This knowledge that Screwtape is referring to is the knowledge of God’s law.  It’s not the pleasure itself that is wrong, as we’ll see, but the violation of divine command.  Screwtape’s goal is to let man believe that this dry-spell of reduced pleasure and this split between subject and object will always remain.  There’s a removal of hope.  It’s Screwtape’s intentional misleading from the ushering in of the final forms and the removal of the epistemic lapse that allows man to remain in his state of illicit and reduced pleasure.

[1] Charlie W. Starr, “Meaning, Meanings, and Epistemology in CS Lewis,” Mythlore 97 (2001): 164.

[2] Ibid., 174.

[3] Martha Sammons, A Far Off Country: A Guide to CS Lewis’ Fantasy Fiction (New York: University Press of America, 2000), 152.

[5] CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain in The Complete CS Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper, 2002), 590.

[6] ________, The Screwtape Letters in The Complete CS Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper, 2002), 210.

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