C.S. Lewis and the Five Senses

May 16, 2020 — 9 Comments

One of the earliest lessons children learn is how many senses the human being possesses. You know the answer off the top of your head, right? Five. But, apparently, that’s no longer correct. Oh, you may think I must be including that long-time poser, extrasensory perception (ESP), which purports to be a sense of sorts beyond the five we all experience. If you thought that . . . sorry, but you are wrong again.

We all agree on the basic five: the faculties of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. To this list, science has recently added several other senses we experience. They’re not actually new; Adam and Eve knew them too (with the possible exception of nociception). They actually make sense (in the other use of the word), as well. Here they are:

Proprioception – perceiving where your body parts are relative to one another, and the strength of effort being employed in movement

Thermoception – sensing temperature

Equilibrioception – perception of balance

Chronoception – sensing the passage of time

Interoception – feeling internal needs such as hunger and thirst

Nociception – experiencing pain

More expansive lists exist as well. Some are discussed online at The United Kingdom’s Sensory Trust. The Trust is devoted to “sensory design . . . [using] nature and the outdoors to improve the health and wellbeing of people living with disability and health issues.” They describe how “neurological classification” can result in numbers up to fifty-three. (It makes one long for the simplicity of the past when we followed Aristotle’s citation of only five.)

C.S. Lewis’ Celebration of Life

You can pick up nearly any one of Lewis’ essays or fiction, open to any page of his autobiography, read almost any of his letters, and you will see his love for nature. And Lewis is often quite vivid in his description of his encounter with God’s creation. The sights, sounds and smells he describes make the depictions real. Consider his description of Tash, the “god” worshipped by the Calormenes, in The Last Battle.

[King Tirian said] “What foul smell is this?”

“Phew!” gasped Eustace. “It’s like something dead. Is there a dead bird somewhere about? And why didn’t we notice it before?”

With a great upheaval Jewel [the unicorn] scrambled to his feet and pointed with his horn. “Look!” he cried. “Look at it! Look, look!” Then all six of them saw; and over all their faces there came an expression of uttermost dismay.

In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving. It was gliding very slowly Northward. At a first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was gray and you could see things through it. But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke. Also, this thing kept its shape instead of billowing and curling as smoke would have done. It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak. . . . It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it. . . .

[They] watched it for perhaps a minute, until it streamed away into the thicker trees on their right and disappeared. Then the sun came out again, and the birds once more began to sing. Everyone started breathing properly again and moved. They had all been still as statues while it was in sight.

From a more philosophical, even metaphysical perspective, Lewis ponders the senses experienced by angels in his poem, “On Being Human.” He describes the differences between how angels and humanity experience God’s creation. Lewis suggests that in exchange for their unblurred perception of cosmic reality, they lack the more mundane (i.e. earthly) experience of physical perception of creation.*

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know—the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it, all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;
But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
—An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang—can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot,
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf’s billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges—
An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery
Guards us, like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb’d sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charm’d interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

This notion that we comprehend things the angels cannot—for example, the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit—is expressed in the spirit of the First Epistle of Peter. These wondrous miracles are “things into which angels long to look.”

As amazing as our human senses are, we should never delude ourselves into thinking they are infallible. Far from it. As precious as they are, due to our fallen nature, they possess two shortcomings. First, they may misperceive reality. Such is the case with allodynia, in which a person “feels pain from non-painful stimuli,” such as a light touch or a cool temperature.⁑

The second limitation comes in the obvious fact of our finite nature. We are simply incapable of perceiving, much less processing, all the information that washes over us. Perhaps you would join me in identifying with C.S. Lewis’ description of himself in A Grief Observed.

Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them-never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?

The number of human senses is not important. Our recognition of their divine source is, however, of eternal import.


* Chris Armstrong, Senior Editor of the Christian History Institute, wrote an exceptional article on the importance of our senses. Citing C.S. Lewis’ “On Being Human,” he declares our senses are the only means by which we can “know God.”

Nor is sense-knowledge about God through his Creation, second-class knowledge. Lewis expresses this idea memorably in his poem “On Being Human,” which compares the angels’ incorporeal way of knowing with our way—to the advantage of the latter.

The Christian History Institute publishes the exceptional Christian History magazine, which is offered for a simple donation. They also provide free, downloadable copies of past issues. I strongly encourage your support of this superb ministry.

⁑ From Medical News Today. “Some people feel extreme pain from something minor, such as a paper cut. Feeling increased pain or being hypersensitive to mild pain is called hyperalgesia. Individuals with allodynia, however, feel pain when something is ordinarily painless.”

9 responses to C.S. Lewis and the Five Senses

  1. 

    I intend to search on my own, but is there a specific sense for spiritual sensations?

    I disagree with Lewis about what angels have versus our senses, at least in terms of angels not having noses, etc. I think angels are like us, but transfigured.

    • 

      I’m sure we could find some corollaries with senses in the spiritual realm. What immediately comes to my mind is the gift of “discernment” (1 Kings 3:9, etc.).

      Yes, your LDS theology would approach angels differently than traditional Christianity. The latter considers angels to be spiritual beings (not incarnate), although they can appear of course to look like us. Humans and angels are, essentially, different “species,” so to speak. Each of us being the handiwork of our Creator, and precious to him. But two different kinds of beings.

      Personally, I’m very eager to get acquainted with some angels in the future. As for the “nose,” Lewis is not representing them as scarred or defaced, just that they do not experience smell the way that we do.

      • 

        Discernment is accurate. It’s a sensing of a spiritual aura and intent.

        As to the angels, I’d never considered their being a different creation. The talk of seraphim and cherubim and such makes sense in that light. We learn, instead, that angels are those who have been human or will be. They look like us, but in a perfected state. They do not have wings; we tend to attribute that feature in descriptions and artwork as a translation of explanations for how those beings could levitate.

        That makes more sense that Lewis would not consider angels defaced (denosed?), but was implying different senses -see? a literary style or reference by one lexicon vs. another can result in a description like no-nose or yes-wings.

      • 

        Glad you hear what I was trying to say.

        Another element that is valuable in understanding his poem is a familiarity with Plato. I did take a couple philosophy classes in college, but did not enjoy them. I’m much more “practical” in my orientation, that I am philosophical.

        Nevertheless, I do understand Plato’s concept of Forms. At least insofar as the physical realm is just a shadow or image of true reality, which he called Forms. As a Christian I can apply some elements of that observation to my worldview when I think in terms of humanity’s fall from grace. The unfallen nature of our first parents (Adam and Eve) is like a perfect image of what God created us to be. Because of Christ’s Atonement, we will one day be restored to our “true” selves.

        This concept is expertly employed by C.S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce.

  2. 

    Hi Rob,

    The senses are things I know I take for granted. Yes, I see how deadened we are to every thing expect base senses without the Lord. But when He is present even simple things can take on more of that special…hard to put a name to. Is that the Lord turning things up?

    Thanks,

    Gary

    • 

      Yes, we do take our senses for granted. That becomes obvious in those instances where something strikes us in a fresh, powerful way… It can even be something we see on a regular basis, like cloud formations, that we gaze at in amazement.

Offer a Comment or Insight

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.