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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.

9. Ibid

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!’

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6 Comment on this post

  1. I’m an atheist and definetely not a Lewis fan from what I know of his works (relatively little, I admit) but I do NOT find the Trilemma ‘woeful’, especially relative to other theology, so I want to defend it.

    I feel the basic logic is sound – do remember who the argument is targeted at, people who DO think of Jesus as a moral teacher.
    There are a lot of people even among atheists who seem to really love Jesus yet just ‘skip’ on all the parts where he talks about God or claims to be God himself.

    Sure, there are options outside the trilemma, but they generally involve:

    …dismissing the supernatural/divine claims of the Gospels by claiming they were fabricated. At that point though, why not assume the ‘moral teaching” part is fabricated, too?
    In fact, this sounds to me like ‘Liar’, but applied to the Gospel writes rather than Jesus itself.
    Or just cherrypicking.

    …trying to interpret Jesus as some sort of secular philosopher. This is basically a rehash of the above, though rather than implying the supernatural parts were fabricated, they are considered metaphors . I consider this a huge stretch and I am mystified by its success in mainstream culture.
    (the above two justifications are sometimes called ‘Legend’, which in my opinion is an euphemism in cases like these)

    …claiming that Jesus was a great moral teacher – who lied to get people to believe his teachings. So he was a Liar, but still ‘good’.
    I have seen this used, though relatively rarely. I am not impressed, but then I’m not a pure utilitarian who is in favour of ‘noble lies’. Again, this is rare, and I can see why. Building a religion generally goes above what MOST people consider justifiable lies.

    Of course one could also allow for him being is BOTH Lord, Lunatic and Liar, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone suggest all three at once and it would require some…unusual theology.
    ‘Lunatic’ and ‘Liar’ are definetely not incompatible, though.

    So basically: the Lewis trilemma is not meant to be a perfect, universal argoment, not being targetted at generic atheists but to ‘Cultural’ Christians.

    If it works ‘against’ atheists is because even among them some are reluctant to flat-out call Jesus ‘bad’.

  2. “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    C.S. Lewis, The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.

    This is my favourite quote of Lewis’s.

    1. C.S. Lewis’s comments here are ironic, if you consider the mistranslated, mutated, self-contradicting, tyrannical and bi-polar mess that has become the Judaeo-Christian bible today; and how modern Christians by and large punt their evil religion under the auspices of the belief that they somehow have the moral high ground.

      The Bible (a collection of mutated translations of texts across incompatible languages which themselves were broken telephone word-of-mouth accounts generations after the fact) is one of the most bizarre and hideous books ever written. It promotes everything from circumcision to slavery to genocide, and it reads as convincingly as Paris Hilton’s wedding vows. Here are some choice selections from my own research over the years (these will BLOW YOUR MIND!):

      A few of MANY translation errors From the venerable King James Bible:

      SPIRIT [pneuma] is translated LIFE in Rev. 13:5
      SOUL [nephesh] is translated HEART in Prov. 23:7, etc
      HEART [leb] is translated MIND in Prov. 21:27, I Sam. 9:20, etc.
      SOUL [nephesh] is translated LIFE in Gen. 9:4, Lev. 17:11, etc.
      SOUL [nephesh] is translated GHOST in Job 11:2
      SPIRIT [pneuma] is translated GHOST in Mark 1:8
      SOUL [nephesh] is translated BEAST in Lev. 24:18.
      BEAST [chay] is translated LIFE in Lev. 18:18.
      SOUL [nephesh] is translated BODY in Lev. 21:11, Hag. 2:35, etc.

      This kind of translating is confusing and contradictory, and is sloppy scholarship at best.

      Below are some embarrassing contradictions:

      Jesus came not to send peace, but to send a sword (Matthew 10:34)
      All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52)

      For I am merciful, saith the Lord, and I will not keep anger forever (Jeremiah 3:12)
      Ye have kindled a fire in mine anger, which shall burn forever (Jeremiah 17:4)

      For by grace are ye saved through faith… not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9)
      Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only ( James 2:24)

      For all have sinned (Romans 3:23)
      There was a man… whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright. (Job 1:1)

      And no man hath ascended up to heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven (John 3:13)
      …and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11)

      Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord… Wealth and riches shall be in his house…(Psalms 112:1-3)
      It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God ( Matthew 19:24)

      I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved (Genesis 32:30)
      No man hath seen God at any time. (John 1:18)

      The Lord Repents of the evil he did to his people (Ex. 32:14)
      The lord does not repent (Sam 15:29)

      God is satisfied with his works (Gen 1:31)
      God is dissatisfied with his works (Gen 6:6)

      God Tempts (Gen 22:1)
      God does not tempt (James 1:13)

      God’s anger is fierce and endures long (Num 32:13/ Num 25:4/ Jer 17:4)
      God’s anger is slow and endures for a short moment (Ps 103:8/ Ps 30:5)

      God dwells in chosen temples (2 Chron 7:12,16)
      God dwells not in temples (Acts 7:48)

      God is seen and heard (Ex 33:23/ Ex 33:11/ Gen 3:9,10/ Gen 32:30/ Is 6:1/Ex 24:9-11)
      God is invisible and cannot be heard (John 1:18/ John 5:37/ Ex 33:20/ 1 Tim 6:16)

      God is tired and rests (Ex 31:17)
      God is never tired and never rests (Is 40:28)

      Choose this day whom you will serve (Josh 24:15)
      You have NOT chosen me, I have chosen you (John 15:16)

      God is the author of both Good AND Evil (Isaiah 45:7)
      God is NOT the Author of Evil (1 Cor 14:33/ Deut 32:4/ James 1:13)

      God is to be found by those who seek him (Matt 7:8/ Prov 8:17)
      God is not to be found by those who seek him (Prov 1:28)

      God is warlike (Ex 15:3/ Is 51:15)
      God is peaceful (Rom 15:33/ 1 Cor 14:33)

      God is cruel, unmerciful, destructive, and ferocious (Jer 13:14/ Deut 7:16/ 1 Sam 15:2,3/ 1 Sam 6:19)
      God is kind, merciful, and good (James 5:11/ Lam 3:33/ 1 Chron 16:34/ Ezek 18:32/ Ps 145:9/1 Tim 2:4/ 1 John 4:16/ Ps 25:8)

      Hatred to kindred enjoined (Luke 14:26)
      Hatred to kindred condemned (Eph 6:2/ Eph 5:25,29)

      God hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex 4:21/ Ex 9:12)
      Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex 8:15)

      Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven… earth… [or] water ( Leviticus 26:11)
      And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them (Exodus 25:18).

      Honor thy father and mother (Exodus 20:12)

      If any man come to me, and HATE not his father and mother, and
      wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. ( Luke 14:26) (Wow, you sound like a COOL DUDE, Jesus!)

      Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding. (Proverbs 3:13)

      For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

      Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? (1 Corinthians 1:20-21)

      For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)


      SLAVERY is rampant and fully supported and condoned in the Bible and has even been instigated by God himself (Leviticus 25:44-46 as one example of MANY). Is the New testament any different? NO, it isn’t. Apostles like Paul condoned slavery too (1 Timothy 6:1-2). In Genesis 9:20-27, Canaan was enslaved for the most RIDICULOUS OF REASONS

      RAPE, FORCED MARRIAGE, POLYGAMY AND BABY KILLING is also rampant and fully supported by God throughout the bible. Some examples of this include 2 Samuel 12:11-14, Zechariah 14:1-2, Judges 21:10-24 and 5:30, Numbers 31:7-18 and Deuteronomy 20:10-14. And what kind of lunatic would make a rape victim marry her attacker? Well, GOD did precisely this in Deuteronomy 22:28-29.

      GOD INSTIGATES MASS MURDER AND GENOCIDE – Besides the obvious example of the flood, there is also the slaughter of Ethiopians (Zephaniah 2:12-15) and wiping out of towns in Judges 18:27-29. God spends the first five books of the Bible wiping out people, and he doesn’t stop there – he SLAUGHTERS innocent animals as well. See Zephaniah 1:2-6.

      BRUTAL, SENSELESS MURDER OF INNOCENT PEOPLE. In one particularly BIZARRE example, GOD instructs a prophet to go up to a RANDOM PERSON (not an evil person deserving to die, but just some random individual) to order that person to strike or HIT the prophet. Now, the individual was probably a peaceful and respectful person, and no decent and respectful person would hit someone for no reason, right? So the person in this voice refused to strike the prophet. What does the God of the bible do? He has this individual BRUTALLY ATTACKED AND KILLED BY A LION. See 1 Kings 20:35-36

      RITUAL HUMAN SACRIFICE – The story of Isaac is well known (Genesis 22:1-18) and I always ask myself what kind of sick, perverted evil God would do this to any parent. Other lesser known examples include Leviticus 27:28-29 where God orders both animals and human beings (babies) to be put to death as a sacrifice to him. Hey, how about the example where Jephthah Burns His INNOCENT VIRGIN DAUGHTER as a burnt offering to God? Judges 11:29-40. What kind of God allows this? There are MANY MANY MORE EXAMPLES of this…

      SOLUTION FOR NAUGHTY KIDS? Get the Lord to DEVOUR them with BEARS!!!

      In 2 Kings 2:24, forty-two (42) children teased the prophet Elijah about his baldness. Elijah cursed the children in the name of the lord, and what happened? God caused TWO FEMALE BEARS to come forth and MAUL AND RIP ALL OF THE 42 YOUNG CHILDREN TO SHREDS.

      But the most EVIL and PERVERSE teaching of all? The teaching that the vast majority of the human race will be tortured in real fire for all eternity. I don’t think it can possibly get any sicker and more depraved than that.

      And this is supposedly the “BEST selling book in the world”?

    2. I am ambivalent about C.S. Lewis. As an atheist I have no contact with his belief that man is fallen, and as a pluralist I have little in common with his ethics. That aside, I think his stand against scientism, pseudo-science, eugenics, what now is called ‘tranhumanism’ and just about everything else that was done by NICE was insightful then and apposite today.

      Worrying about ’omnipotent moral busybodies’ never quite sounds right when said by a theist, but I am nonetheless with Anonymous and have used it as an examination question by adding – Discuss.

  3. Labels such as theist, atheist, plurist, etc. don’t work for me because they are restrictive and inaccurate, so I identify myself as simply “me”.

    Personally, as far as practical ethics goes; the most profound, practical and powerful statement I have come across is this one; credited to Jesus:

    “By their FRUITS you will KNOW THEM” (Emphasis mine)

    It’s a simple sentence, but within it can be found many treasures and insights.

    All of the ideologies and philosophies of the world will mean NOTHING if you cannot consistently apply them in your own life, and the best way to teach ethics is to live them by example.

  4. Labels such as theist, atheist, pluralist, etc. don’t work for me because they are restrictive and inaccurate, so I identify myself as simply “me”.

    Personally, as far as practical ethics goes; the most profound, practical and powerful statement I have come across is this one; credited to Jesus:

    “By their FRUITS you will KNOW THEM” (Emphasis mine)

    It’s a simple sentence, but within it can be found many treasures and insights.

    All of the ideologies and philosophies of the world will mean NOTHING if you cannot consistently apply them in your own life, and the best way to teach ethics is to live them by example.

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