C.S. Lewis, 'mere' Christianity, Law of Human Nature

Wednesday, April 23, 2008 | Labels: | |

The following is a commentary of The Law of Human Nature chapter of C.S. Lewis' book entitled 'mere' Christianity. The purpose is to elaborate C.S. Lewis' arguments to both the causal reader and the readers who have a curosity in his writings. If one finds this intriguing they should look into picking up the book 'mere' Christianity for themselves or visit the book in its entirety as linked below and looking into the ideas further.

Part I, Chapter 1: The Law of Human Nature

"Everyone has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: 'How'd you like it if anyone did the same to you?' - 'That's my seat, I was there first' - 'Leave him alone, he isn't doing you any harm'...

...Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man's behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: 'To hell with your standard.' Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse."

Commentary: C.S. Lewis draws some interesting illustrations here at the beginning of his book. For those who have not had the opportunity to read 'mere' Christianity the beginning sets up an argument for the existence of a moral law based upon simple logic and reason. The purpose for this establishment is because it does two very important things. First, it establishes that people all tend to behaviorally acknowledge that which they cosider a moral right, and in placing the moral expectations on others self-divulge the idea of a moral law. Secondly, it opens up the reader the self-discovery of their own behaviors and adherence to some sort of standard. These two purposes allow for a framework of establishing to another individual about the existence of a moral lawgiver.

In other words, what good would it do to try and convince another individual God exists if their perceptions are such that morality is relative. Relative morality suggests that each individual and culture can decide for itself their own perceptions of moral right and wrong and without a standard, they are all morally justified. Our behavior, as C.S. Lewis discusses, expresses quite the contrary - we often place a standard of moral expectations on others that we place upon ourselves.

Main Discussion:
"This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it. ...And I believe they were right. If they were not, then all the things we said about the war were nonsense. What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practised? If they had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair."

Commentary: This idea is not discussed enough in modern day society. The universal acceptance between most cultures about the atrocities performed by the Nazi's does actually illustrate something universal in the hearts of mankind. When evil unveils itself in the most obvious of forms the universal moral law speaks louder than when evil is not as clear cut. The world is much more proned to unite together for a common cause amidst the most obvious of evils because the moral law screams loudly into the hearts of each and every individual when they exist.

This uniting illustrates that something is shared between all of mankind when faced with true evil - and that within the hearts of men that unity illustrates some form of standard that all men ought adhere too.

He makes a second, even more compelling point, that if this moral law or standard of right behavior did not truly exist - then it was the Nazi's who were truly oppressed when their freedom of expressing their own moral laws were destroyed. He illustrates that we could not possibly accuse them of being evil unless there actually existed within their hearts some way to differentiate between good and evil. If someone argues that this conscience, or moral law within the hearts of men does not exist - then how could one have blamed the Nazis for the evils they committed? They simply may not have known any better.

"I know that some people say the idea of the Law of Nature or decent behavior known to all man is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.

But that is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike them will be how very like they are to eachother and to our own...

I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five..."

Commentary: The simplistic illustration C.S. Lewis gives here contrasting what we often perceive as good behavior drives an important point. Imagining a world where murder were encouraged, adultery was applauded and lying or stealing were considered positive character traits is almost a ridiculous notion.

However, it is only a ridiculous notion because everyone knows within their hearts that these behaviors violate a standard that all people ought to adopt, it further illustrates that we all have an image in our minds and in our hearts that places expectations on both ourselves, others and society. These traits commonly carry over not just within our own cultures, but within other cultures as well - the only difference is often how violation and adherance to each moral standard is dealt with.

"...the most remarkable thing is this. Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining 'It's not fair' before you can say Jack Robinson...

Commentary: Also an intriguing point, as one cannot argue moral right and wrong are not a standard and then lend a complaint to an offense against their standard without bringing the other individual into their own. For example, If I argue there is no moral standard and someone says "Alright" and pops me in the nose, I cannot possibly argue that he shouldn't have hit me in the nose without first establishing that he ought to adhere to a standard of behavior. I lose the argument by the very sake of arguing.

"It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong. People may sometimes be 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. Now if we are agreed about that, I go on to my next point, which is this. None of us are really keeping the Law of Nature..."

Commentary: How very true this often is. There was always the insightful idea that we tend to see the flaws in other people that we have in ourselves. Many times when one struggles with alcoholism they can be the first to see the alcoholic. These inadequacies tend to make us much quicker to judge others for their own flaws than to see our own. We very often violate that which we expect other people to do.

For example, one may argue another individual ought to always be honest, but when confronted on a lie many times that very same individual will rationalize himself into lying once again.

"... I am just the same. That is to say, I do not succeed in keeping the Law of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I am not keeping it, there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm. The question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is that they are more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we believe in the Law of Nature. If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is, we believe in decency so much - we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so - that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility. For you notice that it is only for our bad behavior that we find all the explanations. It is only our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves. "

Commentary: What many may find interesting is that when they begin to look at the reason they make excuses for themselves it is because often times they have done something that has violated what they perceive as a standard of right conduct. As Lewis points out, if we didn't feel so strongly about keeping with the standard of moral right and wrong why is it we go so far out of our way to make excuses for ourselves when we violate it?

He then discusses the idea that when we do something that adheres to the standard of behavior we expect from others we are quick to praise ourselves. There is definitely something going on in our hearts and minds that demands both excuses and praises - for if no kind of standard existed within ourselves or within societies - perpetual excuses and compliments would not make sense to exist. Why is it we exhaust ourselves with a moral standard if this moral standard does not truly exist? It is quite interesting because our reactions to the adherance and violation of this standard clearly illustrates that this moral standard does exist.

"These, then are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in."

- C.S. Lewis, 'mere' Christianity (Part 1, Chapter 1, The Law of Human Nature), 1943

The above excerpts are from 'mere' Christianity, the emphases are my own and the attempt is posit commentary towards C.S. Lewis' arguments to interest the reader in his works.

Craig Chamberlin

The 'mere' Christianity text is available for free online at: http://lib.ru/LEWISCL/mere_engl.txt