Something about me that you almost certainly know if we’ve ever had a conversation is that I love C.S. Lewis. His Mere Christianity is one of the primary reasons that I am a Christian at all, and was perhaps the biggest spark for my interest in my field of study. Thus I feel quite indebted to him, both spiritually and intellectually.

I’m in the middle of my annual summer re-reading of The Chronicles of Narnia. All of my Chronicles are dog-eared, highlighted and full of notes in the margins because I plan to write a book someday, exploring how specific arguments and themes from Lewis’s non-fiction play out in the world of Narnia. So I thought I’d start writing some of my thoughts out, and see if anybody actually finds them interesting. I’m going to shoot for one thing from each book, and since I’m reading them in publication order this time through, the first stop is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Lewis’/Professor Kirke’s ‘trilemma’.

The Pevensie children’s adventures in Narnia begin when the youngest, Lucy, enters the realm through a mysterious old wardrobe in the home of eccentric Professor Kirke. She spends several hours there with a faun named Tumnus before returning and excitedly telling her three siblings of her experience. Naturally, the older children do not believe Lucy’s tale, as no time has elapsed in our world during Lucy’s alleged adventure, and they are unable to re-enter Narnia when she takes them to the wardrobe. A few days later, the next youngest of the siblings, Edmund, manages to enter Narnia through the wardrobe along with Lucy. Out of spite, though, he refuses to corroborate Lucy’s story to their older siblings, instead telling them that he and Lucy were simply playing make-believe and that Lucy got carried away. This predictably upsets Lucy to the point of tears and hysteria, at which point the eldest siblings, Peter and Susan, elect to seek guidance from the Professor for how to deal with Lucy’s strange behavior. They express to him their concern that Lucy seems to have developed either a terrible penchant for lying, or worse, that she has begun to go mad. Much to their surprise, the Professor seizes on neither of these options.

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“How do you know,” he asked, “that your sister’s story is not true?”

He first asks, in response to the allegations of deceit, whether their experience tells them that Lucy or Edmund (who denied the existence of Narnia) can usually be counted upon to be the most truthful. Peter and Susan both acknowledge that Lucy would normally be the easy choice for trustworthiness. He then dismisses the notion that lunacy could be the cause of the story, saying that it is obvious simply from talking to Lucy that she is not mad. The children realize what he must be implying–that Lucy’s story is true–and begin to express their disbelief, at which point the Professor exclaims:

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself. “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.”

The argument is simple (though also brilliant) enough. There are three possibilities: (1) Lucy is lying, (2) Lucy is crazy, or (3) Lucy is telling the truth. The answer is therefore quite obvious (at least to Professor Kirke): Because there is no reason to suspect Lucy of untruthfulness, and no reason to believe she is a lunatic, the most reasonable and most likely conclusion is that she is telling the truth, and that there is a magical world in the wardrobe.

It is an explanatory argument; that is to say, it is not an argument based on empirical evidence or logical first principles. Rather, it takes the evidence that is available and discerns the most probable and reasonable explanation for the situation, based on experience. It is true that, given the evidence the children have, there are any number of other explanations that couldn’t be immediately disproved. For example, Lucy, much out of character, could be lying; she could be experiencing lunacy and delusions; but because some conclusion must be made based on the available evidence, and neither of these explanations seems likely, the most reasonable thing for the children to do is to proceed under the assumption that she is telling the truth. And so goes the wisdom of Professor Kirke, a character who is often considered a literary representation of Lewis himself.

Nearly a decade before the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis presented a strikingly similar argument for the divinity of Jesus in one of his BBC radio wartime talks, all of which would later be written down and published as the bulk of Mere Christianity:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
… Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”

Hopefully the meaning of the term Trilemma is becoming clear, if it was not so already. As Lewis (and Kirke) sees things, there are three real possibilities when someone makes a claim that is extravagant or seemingly impossible: either (1) they are lying, (2) they are crazy, or (3) they are telling the truth. And the greater or more important the claim, the more seriously these three options must be considered. In the case of Jesus, who claimed to be God, each of these options are the superlative in their class: a man claiming to be God is either supremely deluded, supremely deceitful and manipulative, or else supremely and actually God.

Lewis surmises–based on his reading of the historical accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John–that it is very unlikely that Jesus was either a lunatic or a fiend (he wasn’t crazy and he wasn’t a liar); therefore, he concludes, the most reasonable thing to do is to proceed under the assumption that he was telling the truth. Much like Professor Kirke’s defense of Lucy and Narnia, this is an explanatory argument. It is not an argument from empirical proof, but a conclusion based on the most reasonable interpretation of the available evidence. Yes, there are explanations of Jesus’ life and claims that cannot necessarily be disproved: he could have been a good moral teacher who simply got carried away with himself later in life and became delusional; he could have falsely claimed divinity in order to deviously attract a faithful group of followers; but because some conclusion must be made based on the available evidence, and neither of these explanations seem likely, the most reasonable thing for us to do is to proceed under the assumption that he was telling the truth.

Professor Kirke’s trilemma-based defense of Lucy is one of my favorite examples of how Lewis subtly yet explicitly weaves his philosophy and theology into Narnia, in a way that can be both understood by children and enjoyed by theology students.


Link: Epilogue for the Haters (Critics of Lewis’ Trilemma)

2 thoughts on “Narnia and C.S. Lewis’s ‘Trilemma’

  1. I find it very interesting and well written. I am hoping to do something similar with Milton’s Paradise Lost. It would informally follow up on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. I find Milton logical. There is no other explanation that suffices for me and I have found that I believe it intensely and yet few in the western world do.

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