C. S. Lewis as a moral philosopher
Tomorrow it is C.S. Lewis’s birthday. He’d have been 116. He died 51 years ago, his death pushed out of the headlines by the deaths of JFK and Aldous Huxley. He’s had far more influence than either.
He’s remembered mainly as a children’s writer (the most dogmatic atheists, terrified or disgusted by the roar of Aslan, nonetheless bring their children to stroke the lion’s mane), and as a Christian apologist. He, irony upon irony, a beer-quaffing, chain-smoking, divorcee-marrying intellectual, living and breathing high pagan culture along with his pipe-smoke, is the darling of American evangelicals. And that’s why he’s neglected by serious philosophers.1 It’s understandable. We tend to judge people by the company they keep. But in the case of Lewis it’s unfair. Evangelicals might queue up at his door, but he’d never let them in. Apart from their membership of the species, he’d have loathed everything about them; their chauvinism, their ludicrous literalism, their self-righteousness, their belligerence, their metaphor-phobia, their elastic-waisted trousers, their historical blindness, their pant-soiling fear of scholarship, their teetotalism, their humourlessness. He had a fastidious nose for inconsistency: imagine how that nose would have twitched when it sniffed a Louisianan zealot who was keen on topping adults but outraged by abortion. In a different context (he was lambasting liberal intellectuals who say that that they can read nuances between the lines, but fail to see the huge themes rampaging through the Christian story) he denounced those who ‘claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.’)2 He’d have similarly scourged those who have the KJV with their MSG for breakfast, and yet scream for judicial execution in the name of a man who was himself judicially executed, and who, in the name of a man who urged the turning of a cheek and the loving of enemies, say that every (white) citizen should have a gun and that every inconveniently non-compliant nation should have its ass whipped reeeeeeeel good.
He sometimes didn’t help himself. He thought and wrote terrifyingly fast. Sometimes too fast. His rhetorical gifts sometimes outstrip his judgment. The best example is the infamous ‘trilemma’, in which he says that Jesus has to be either mad, bad or God, and since he plainly wasn’t either mad or bad, he must be God.3 It’s a woeful argument, unworthy of Lewis, with which no serious student of the relevant sources could agree. And yet Lewis never recanted. The argument has found its way into the canon of evangelical apologetics, and gives almost scriptural imprimatur (for Lewis is unchallengeably authoritative in such quarters) to a hectoring style of proselytism. It’s assumed that the divinity of Jesus can be logically proved, and accordingly that those who deny it must be diabolically blinded. You can go straight from the trilemma to the auto-da-fe.
Yet, for all that, it’s a shame that Lewis’s reputation amongst philosophers is defamed by association and by his occasional errors of judgment. He has a lot to say.
His starting point was swashbuckling contempt for those who contend that they’ve deduced their ethics systematically from first principles: ‘The philosopher’s or theologian’s theory of ethics arises out of the practical ethics he already holds and attempts to obey.’4
That’s significant in itself, but more significant is what he said about what those ethics are. All decent people believe essentially the same things, he thought. There is, in other words, not just a Universal Moral Grammar, but a Universal Moral Vocabulary. This is an old idea. It’s inherent in the idea and language of natural law. ‘[T]aking the race as a whole’, wrote Lewis, those who referred to the “Law of Nature’ ‘thought that the human idea of decent behaviour was obvious to every one. And I believe they were right.’5 Our moral norms are hardwired. ‘It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong. But they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any more than the multiplication table.’6 That took a lot of justification in the 1940s, when it was written. It takes more justification now. Lewis sketches out an anthropological defence of the claim in an appendix to The Abolition of Man (‘Illustrations of the Tao’ – a set of quotations under a series of headings). It needs urgently to be expanded and updated in the light of modern anthropological and neuroscientific scholarship (that would be a great and worthwhile project), but the main elements of the thesis have weathered well.
It follows from this (note well, all you heavily armed Tennessean homophobes) that Lewis won’t help you at all when you march in support of distinctively ‘Christian Ethics’. ‘The idea (at least in its grossest and most popular form) that Christianity brought a new ethical code into the world is a grave error…..only serious ignorance of Jewish and Pagan culture would lead anyone to the conclusion that ‘Christian ethics] is a radically new thing…..Jesus uttered no comment which had not been anticipated by the Rabbis – few, indeed, which cannot be paralleled in classical, ancient Egyptian, Ninevite, Babylonian or Chinese texts.’7
For me, the most tectonic of Lewis’s ethical writing is in some throwaway lines at the end of a letter to one of his goddaughters. Remember, he says, ‘that there are only three kinds of things anyone need ever do. (1) Things we ought to do [like being nice to people] (2) Things we’ve got to do [like getting dressed] (3) Things we like doing.’8 He says this because ‘some people seem to spend so much of their time doing things for none of the three reasons, things like reading books they don’t like because other people read them.’9 This, I think, understates the case. Most people spend most of the time doing things for none of the three reasons.
Lewis seemed to acknowledge the understatement in his powerful essay The Inner Ring,10 which should be compulsory reading for everyone but perpetually sequestered hermits. The central thesis is that one of the main human motivations is the desire to belong to the ‘Inner Ring’ of initiates. Some of the characteristics of the ring (companionship, trust, the desire to be responsible, and so on) might themselves be good, or at least not bad. But the craving for the Inner Ring destroys, just as completely as the One Ring destroyed Gollum. ‘A thing may be morally neutral’, Lewis observed, ‘and yet the desire for that thing may be dangerous….’11 The search for the Ring will always be frustrated: get to the ring you’ve been striving for all your days, and there’s always a ring beyond it, with a stronger and sweeter siren voice. ‘It is the very mark of a perverse desire that it seeks what is not to be had.’12 The evil lies not just in the delusion, and in the time wasted in the vain search, but in the damage done to oneself and others in the nightmare of attempted entry. You’ll see people as mere crowbars to force entry. And, when the next ring is penetrated, the transient joy is itself illegitimate, for ‘your genuine Inner Ring exists for exclusion. The invisible line would have no meaning unless most people were on the wrong side of it. Exclusion is no accident: it is the essence…..’13
That, then, is how not to do life. Lewis had two big ideas about how to do it. The first is best seen as the converse of Inner Ring lust. This is a passionate, compassionate communitarianism. The second comes from that letter: do what you want, as long as it doesn’t conflict with what you ought. Ethicists have become so obsessed with the anatomy and taxonomy of the ‘oughts’ that they have tended to forget the importance of wants. Lewis is a useful corrective. He’s often thought of as a straightforward Neo-Platonist. There’s certainly lots of Plato in his writing. Sometimes it’s explicit.14 More often he uses his Platonism as an excuse for deferring the answers to really difficult questions: there will be an answer, he often impliedly says, but only when we break free from our chains (they are smitten off, of course, by Jesus), and turn round to face the light. Yet the workaday, nine to five, Jane Austen loving, male-bonding, sauce-hating, pint-swilling Lewis, the Lewis of fierce loyalties and shapeless clothes and simple physical tastes, the Lewis of the letter, seems to me to be much more of an Epicurean. And the philosophical world needs more of those.
It might be said that much of what Lewis thought of as his moral philosophizing was actually psychology. It’s not a distinction that should trouble any really serious moral philosophers, for whom moral philosophy is about right living. But perhaps the observation is correct. If it is, Lewis should be given the credit for brokering the marriage between psychology and moral philosophy that has spawned so many shrill and currently entertaining children.
The references with page numbers are to the (readily accessible) versions on my own bookshelf. The references in square brackets are to the first editions.
1. There are some important exceptions. See, for instance, Erik Wielenberg, God and the Reach of Reason: C.S. Lewis, David Hume and Bertrand Russell, CUP, 2008 and Judith Wolfe, A Romantic in the Republic: Some critical comment about C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.
2. Fern Seed and Elephants, Fount, 1975
3. Mere Christianity, Fount, 1986. [Geoffrey Bles, 1952: adapted from talks broadcast between 1942-1944].
4. On Ethics, in Christian Reflections, Fount, 1986, p. 66 [Geoffrey Bles, 1967]
5. Mere Christianity, p. 17
6. Mere Christianity, p. 18
7. On Ethics, p. 68 – a thesis expanded in The Abolition of Man [OUP, 1943]
8. Letters to Children, Fount, 1986, p. 27 [Collins, 1985]. Another very significant piece is the terrifying demonstration in The Great Divorce [Geoffrey Bles, 1945] that we turn into the things or the attitudes that we do or adopt the most. Perpetual grumblers become grumbles and nothing but grumbles.
10. The Inner Ring, in Screwtape Proposes a Toast, Fount, 1986 [Memorial Oration, King’s College, London, 1944].
11. p. 34
12. p. 37
13. p. 39
14. A good example is the ending of The Last Battle. [Bodley Head, 1956]. The children learn that they and their family have died in a railway accident. It is a glorious revelation: ‘The dream is ended’, they are told: ‘this is the morning.’ Digory Kirke, in the same book, comparing Aslan’s country with the ‘Shadowlands’ in which we all currently wander, mutters: ‘It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at those schools!’