Mere Christianity | Book III, Chapter 1

C.S. Lewis | Mere Christianity
Book III | Christian Behavior
Chapter 1 | “The Three Parts of Morality”

I’m not sure the question and answer thing really works with this chapter, so I think I will simply try and summarize each of the ten paragraphs.

Paragraph 1 | Lewis tells the story of a schoolboy whose idea of God was Someone looking around for people who are happy and then putting a stop to it. This reminded me of a quote by H.L. Mencken who defined Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Lewis wants to talk about morality, which he fears for most people means “something that interferes, something that stops you having a good time.” He reframes moral rules as “directions for running the human machine” so that it will work well.

Paragraph 2 | Morality for many is an “ideal” to pursue rather than rules to obey. In one way Lewis doesn’t mind the word ideal because it suggests something we can’t achieve. No one is perfect. But he also thinks this is misleading because sometimes our ideals are personal, like tastes. To illustrate perfect behavior, Lewis uses the analogy of a car with a manual transmission. Shifting perfectly may be impossible, but it is an ideal for all drivers. We shouldn’t congratulate ourselves on trying to live up to our “high ideals” in the same way that no one tries to make mistakes on their math assignment (and shouldn’t expect congratulations when they don’t) because they just makes things worse. Lewis instead would prefer to speak of “rules and obedience.”

Paragraph 3 | The human machine goes wrong in two ways. First, we have troubles with others, either by drifting apart or running into others. Second, we have troubles within ourselves, when our inner desires “either drift apart or interfere with one another.” Lewis uses the analogy of “a fleet of ships sailing in formation.” Success means the ships don’t crash into or interfere with each other. It also means each individual ship work correctly. A ship without proper steering will crash into or impede other ships. Lewis jumps to the analogy of an orchestra, where each person’s instrument must be in tune and play at the right time.

Paragraph 4 | Something else to consider: Where are the ships trying to get to? Or what is the orchestra trying to play? You need the proper destination or the right music for the occasion.

Paragraph 5 | Morality is, then, three things. One, “fair play and harmony between individuals.” Two, keeping things together within individuals. And three, “the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.”

Paragraph 6 | Lewis thinks we are largely concerned about the first thing and neglect the other two things. When we say people should treat others well, that refers to the first thing. When we say that our personal behavior “can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,” that is also concerned with the first thing, as though “it does not matter what his ship is like inside provided that he does not run into the next ship.” Talks about morality usually focus on how people can treat others well. But if it stops there, we aren’t really thinking clearly.

Paragraph 7 | What good is it telling individual ships which course to take to keep from crashes if the steering is bad in those ships? And “What is the good of drawing up, on paper, rules for social behavior, if we know that, in fact, our greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit are going to prevent us from keeping them?” Rules don’t make people good. Rules are only good if there are good people trying to keep the rules. This is why we have to think of that second kind of morality inside people.

Paragraph 8 | We also need that third thing, because “different beliefs about the universe lead to different behavior.” We need to go beyond the idea that people should treat others well or, at least stay out of their way. What if our ship is not ours to do whatever we want? What if each ship is accountable to its maker. As Lewis puts it, “If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself.”

Paragraph 9 | Each “individual human being is going to live for ever.” This is a Christian belief that Lewis says “must be either true or false.” There are many things not to worry about if we are only going to live the 70 or so years that averages say we will have. But what if we are going to live forever? Over a lifetime, a worsening attitude may not be perceived easily. “But it might be absolute hell in a million years.” If this life is all there is, the nations to which we belong are actually more important than we are, because they outlast us. “But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilization, compared with his, is only a moment.”

Paragaph 10 | We must think about all three aspects of morality: our relationships with others, our relationship within ourselves, and our relationship with the One who made us. We can all talk easily about the first thing. But it gets problematic to talk about the second and third. It’s the third thing where the differences between Christian and non-Christian morality are seen. Lewis will approach morality as though Christianity is true.






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