Notes or excerpts from the Lewis’ book Mere Christianity.
The chapters of this book build on the previous chapters so they should be read and understood in sequence.
Book I. Right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the Universe
The law of human nature
All people (educated as well as uneducated, children as well as grown-ups) quarrel [hadat sa, priet sa]. When they do so they simply don’t state that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to please them. They appeal to some kind of standard of behaviour which all people are expected to know. And the other man very seldom denies that there is some standard. Rather he tries to explain that he is not really breaking the standard or that he is doing so for a very special reason.
Quarrelling thus means trying to show that the other man is wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do so if you and they didn’t have some common notion of what is Right and what is Wrong.
This law or rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature. Nowadays by that we mean things like law of gravity. But the older thinkers by that meant the Law of Human Nature. The idea was that everything has to obey laws like gravity but man alone has an additional law to follow. The difference is that man can choose to obey the law of human nature or to disobey it.
Some more arguments supporting that something called the law of human nature exists:
- How come we can say that the Nazis were wrong and the Allies were right?
- All civilizations of all ages had similar rules of fair play (another name for the law of human nature). E.g. running away in battle or having as many women as you want was never considered right.
- Whenever a person (or a nation) states that they don’t believe in Right and Wrong they still complain about something not being fair. But if there is not Right and Wrong what’s the difference between fair and unfair?
People are sometimes mistaken about interpreting real Right and Wrong, just as people sometimes get their sums wrong; but they are not merely a matter of personal taste or opinion any more than the multiplication table.
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.
The reality of the law
The laws of nature that apply to e.g. stones or trees might really just be descriptions of observed behaviours. On the other hand the law of human nature is not a description of human behaviour because many people don’t obey the Law of human nature (or the Law of decent behaviour) at all and none of them obey it completely.
In other words when you have humans there is something more than the facts. You have the facts (how men do behave) and you have something else (how men ought to behave).
Now this is so peculiar [zvlastny] that one might try to explain it away:
We might try to make out that when you say a man ought not to do something we say that because what he’s doing doesn’t happen to please us. But that is simply untrue. I am not angry with a man who trips me by accident but I’m angry with one who tries to trip me even if he does not succeed. In war, each side might find a traitor on the other side very useful. But though they use him and they pay him they consider him a human vermin [haved] not a decent man. And as for decent behaviour in ourselves it’s pretty obvious that it’s often not the behaviour that is convenient to us. It means doing a homework when it would be easier to cheat, it’ leaving a girl alone when you would like to make love to her.
Though decent behaviour doesn’t pay each particular person at each moment it sill pays the human race as a whole. Now, of course, it’s perfectly true that safety and happiness come from individuals and nations being honest and fair and kind to each other. But it’s circular reasoning - Q: Why ought I to be unselfish? A: Because it’s good for society. Q: Why should I care what’s good for society except when it happens to pay me personally? A: Because you ought to be unselfish. What you are saying is true but you are not getting any further.
Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing - a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves. And yet it is not a fact in the ordinary sense, in the same way that our actual behaviour is a fact. It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behaviour, and yet quite definitely real - a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.
What lies behind the law
Ever since men were able to think, they were wondering what this universe really is and how it came to be there. Very roughly, two views have been held:
- Materialist view - matter/energy and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why
- Religious view - what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know
Please don not think that one of these views was held long time ago and that the other has gradually taken its place. Wherever there have been thinking men both views turned up. Also note that you cannot find out which of these views is true by science in the ordinary way.
I agree that science cannot disprove the existence of God. I absolutely agree. I also agree that a belief in science and religion is consistent. – Richard P. Feynman (scientist, atheist, brilliant person)
The position of the question, then, is like this. We want to know whether the universe simply happens to be what it is for no reason or whether there is a power behind it that makes it what it is. Since that power, if it exists, would not be one of the observed facts but a reality which makes them, no mere observation of the facts can find it. There is only one case in which we can know whether there is anything more, namely our own case. And in that case we find there is - the Law of Human Nature.
Surely this ought to arouse our suspicion?
We have cause to be uneasy
Book II. What Christians believe
Book III. Christian behaviour
The three parts of morality
A schoolboy replied that, as far as he could make out, God was “The sort of person who is always snooping round to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it.” :-) Many people probably think the same about morality.
In reality, moral rules are directions for running the human machine. They are to prevent its malfunctioning.
Morality is concerned with:
- Fair play and harmony between individuals.
- Tidiness or harmony inside each individual.
- The general purpose of human life as a whole (what course the whole fleet ought to be on?).
Does it not make a great difference whether I am, so to speak, the landlord of my own mind and body, or only a tenant, responsible to the real landlord?
There are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever:
- evolution of my character
- importance of an individual (democracy) vs society/nation/state (totalitarianism)
The “cardinal virtues”
- cardinal comes from Latin and it means “the hinge of a door”
- practical common sense
- taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it
- going the right length and not further
- honesty, give and take, truthfulness, keeping promises, …
- courage facing dangers
- courage facing pain
A man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character (like a good tennis player). Now it is that quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of “virtue.”