C.S. Lewis and the Riddle of Joy

Dr. Michael Gleghorn asks, What if nothing in this world can satisfy our desire because the object of our desire is other-worldly?

The Riddle of Joy

Over forty years after his death, the writings of C. S. Lewis continue to be read, discussed, and studied by millions of adoring fans. There seems to be something in Lewis that appeals to almost everyone. He is read by men and women, adults and children, Protestants and Catholics, scholars and laymen. A new movie, based on his best-selling children’s classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is expected to be a mega-hit in theatres.{1} It’s difficult to think of another writer who is read (and appreciated) by such a broad spectrum of humanity as C. S. Lewis.

But what accounts for this broad, popular appeal? Doubtless many reasons could be given. Lewis wrote on such a wide variety of topics, in such a diversity of literary genres and styles, that almost anyone can find pleasure in something he wrote. Further, he wrote for a general audience. Even when he’s discussing very heady philosophical and theological topics, he remains quite accessible to the intelligent layman who wants to understand. Nevertheless, I tend to agree with Peter Kreeft, who notes that while “many virtues grace Lewis’s work . . . the one that lifts him above any other apologetical writer . . . is how powerfully he writes about Joy.”{2}

Now it’s important to understand that when Lewis writes of Joy, he’s using this term in a very particular way. He’s not just speaking about a general sort of happiness, or joyful thoughts or feelings. Rather, he’s speaking about a desire, but a very unique and special kind of desire. In Surprised by Joy, his spiritual autobiography, Lewis describes it as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”{3}

But what did he desire? The question haunted Lewis for years. What was it that he wanted? Through trial and error he came to realize that he didn’t simply want a feeling, a subjective, inner experience of some kind. Indeed, he later said that “all images and sensations, if idolatrously mistaken for Joy itself, soon confessed themselves inadequate. . . . Inexorably Joy proclaimed, ‘You want—I myself am your want of—something other, outside, not you or any state of you.’”{4}

In an attempt to find the mysterious object of his desire, Lewis plunged himself into various pursuits and pleasures. But nothing in his experience could satisfy this desire. Ironically, these failures suggested a possible solution to Lewis. What if nothing in this world could satisfy his desire because the object of his desire was other-worldly? A radical proposal, and we turn to it now.

The Argument from Desire

What was Lewis to make of this rather mysterious, intense, and recurrent desire that nothing in the world could satisfy? Did the desire have any real significance? Did anything actually exist that could satisfy this desire? Or was the whole thing just a lot of moonshine? Although this question haunted Lewis for years and took him down many dead-end streets in pursuit of the mysterious object of his desire, he eventually came to believe that he had discovered the answer.

In The Pilgrim’s Regress, he wrote of his remarkable solution to the riddle of Joy—the desire we are now considering—as follows:

It appeared to me . . . that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given—nay, cannot even be imagined as given—in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience. This Desire was, in the soul, as the Siege Perilous in Arthur’s castle—the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist.{5}

In other words, Lewis reasoned from this intense desire, which nothing in the world could satisfy, to an object of desire that transcended the world. He gradually became convinced that this Supreme Object of human desire is God and heaven!

Following Peter Kreeft, we can formulate the argument as follows:{6}

1. Every natural or innate desire we experience has a corresponding real object that can satisfy the desire.

2. We experience an innate desire which nothing in this world can satisfy.

3. Therefore, there must be a real object that transcends the world which can satisfy this desire.

Now this is a valid argument in which the conclusion follows logically from the premises. So if someone wants to challenge the argument’s conclusion, they must first challenge one of its premises. And, as I’m sure you can imagine, the argument has certainly had its detractors. But what sort of objections have they raised? Have they shown the argument to be unsound? And how have Lewis’s defenders responded to their objections? We’ll now turn to consider some of these questions.

Thus, it’s important to understand that Lewis is not arguing that all our desires have real objects of satisfaction. He’s claiming only that all our natural and innate desires do. Having clarified this issue, we’ll return to consider objections to this first premise in a moment.

But first, what if someone objects to Lewis’s second premise, namely, that we have an innate desire which nothing in the world can satisfy?{10} For example, what if someone admitted that they were not perfectly satisfied now, but believed they would be if only they had the best of everything money can buy? Well, unfortunately this experiment has already been tried—and has repeatedly failed. Just think of all the people who are very wealthy, but still not perfectly satisfied. Indeed, some of them are downright miserable!

But what if one of them isn’t? What if someone claimed that he is perfectly satisfied right now? Admittedly, we can’t really argue with such a person. We can only ask him to be honest—if not with us, at least with himself. Even so, however, this would not necessarily show that Lewis’s argument is false. It may only show that the person who makes such a claim is somehow defective, like a colorblind person claiming that there is no such thing as color. If most people experience an innate desire which nothing in the world can satisfy, then Lewis’s conclusion may still follow. But before we can be sure, we must first revisit that problematic first premise.

You’ll remember that Lewis argued that every natural or innate desire (like our desire for food, drink, or friendship) has a corresponding object that can satisfy the desire. Thus, there really are such things as food, drink, and friends. There seems to be a correlation between our natural desires and objects that can satisfy them.

But there’s a problem. As John Beversluis observed:

How could Lewis have known that every natural desire has a real object before knowing that Joy has one? I can legitimately claim that every student in the class has failed the test only if I first know that each of them has individually failed it. The same is true of natural desires.{11}

In other words, why think that every natural desire has an object that can satisfy it? Such questions appear to raise difficulties for Lewis’s argument. So how have Lewis’s supporters responded?

Peter Kreeft has written:

[T]he proposition “every natural, innate desire has a real object” is understood to be true because nature does nothing in vain, and this . . . is seen to be true by understanding the concept expressed in . . . the word “nature.” Nature is meaningful . . . full of design and purpose . . . arranging a fit between organism and environment . . . desire and satisfaction . . .{12}

The Value of the Argument

In order to effectively reason from a deep, unsatisfied natural desire that nothing in the world can satisfy, to something beyond the world which can satisfy it, one must first know, or at least have good reason to believe, that all our natural desires have real objects of satisfaction. If they don’t, then maybe there’s just not any object that can satisfy the desire we’re considering.

Now, of course, someone might well say, “Look, if all the natural desires we can check on, like our desires for food, drink, sex, and knowledge, have real sources of satisfaction, then wouldn’t it be reasonable to infer that in the case of this one mysterious desire, which nothing in the world can satisfy, that there’s also a real source of satisfaction?” Well, yes, I think this would be quite reasonable. Of course, the conclusion is only probable, not necessary. But in some places this is all Lewis himself claimed. In Mere Christianity he wrote:

The Christian says: Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists . . . If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.{13}

Now this is an interesting argument and it may suggest an additional premise which has been assumed, but not directly stated. For why does the Christian say that creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists? Isn’t it because we believe that there’s a benevolent Creator and Designer of the natural world and its creatures? And if this is true, then it seems quite plausible that things have been intentionally designed so that there’s a match between our natural desires and sources of satisfaction. And actually, there are very good reasons, completely independent of Lewis’s argument, for believing that a Creator and Designer of nature does exist!

So it seems that the primary value of Lewis’s argument may lie in showing us that it’s reasonable to believe that our Creator and Designer is also the Supreme Object of our desire. And this resonates quite well with the oft-quoted words of Augustine, “Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”{14}


1. The film is scheduled to be released December 9, 2005.
2. Peter J. Kreeft, “C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire,” in G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis: The Riddle of Joy, eds. Michael H. MacDonald and Andrew A. Tadie (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1989), 256.
3. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harvest/HBJ, 1955), 17-18, cited in Kreeft, 253.
4. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 220-21, cited in Kreeft, 253.
5. C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress, (U.S.A.: Eerdmans, 1992), 204-05.
6. Kreeft, 250.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. For Kreeft’s discussion see “C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire,” 267.
11. John Beversluis, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1985), 19, cited in Kreeft, “C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire,” 267.
12. Kreeft, 269.
13. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 105, cited in Kreeft, “C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire,” 254 (emphasis mine).
14. Augustine, Confessions, 1:1, cited in Kreeft, “C. S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire,” 263.

© 2005 Probe Ministries