Mere Christianity | Book III, Chapter 2

C.S. Lewis | Mere Christianity
Book III | Christian Behavior
Chapter 2 | “The ‘Cardinal Virtues’”

Question: What constraint was C.S. Lewis operating under in the previous chapter?

Answer: He has only ten minutes to talk on the air, so everything had to be condensed. This is why he reduced morality to the idea of ships in a convoy, where the ships need (1) to avoid running into each other; (2) to stay afloat and in good working order; and (3) to know where they are going and why they are at sea in the first place.

Q: What is Lewis wanting to do in this chapter?

A: He wants to take a little more time to talk about morality by focusing in on seven virtues. There are two groups of them, four “Cardinal” virtues and three “Theological” virtues. This chapter will focus on the four Cardinal virtues.

Q. What are the two ways of understanding the word “Cardinal,” and which meaning is Lewis using?

A. “Cardinal” can refer to the red-garmented leaders of the Catholic Church. It also “comes from a Latin word meaning ‘the hinge of a door.’” This makes these virtues “pivotal.” It’s this second meaning that he is going after.

Q. What are the four Cardinal Virtues?

A. Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude.

Q. What is Prudence and what problem does Lewis address?

A. “Prudence means practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it.”

The problem Lewis addresses is people who don’t think well. They misunderstand Jesus when he says that we must be like little children to enter His kingdom. They think it doesn’t matter if you’re a fool as long as you’re good.  Lewis says, “Christ never meant that we were to remain children in intelligence: on the contrary, He told us to be not only ‘as harmless as doves,’ but also ‘as wise as serpents.’ He wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head.”

This means we are “to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are,” but at the same time we are not to be “intellectual slackers.” He says Christianity “is going to take the whole of you, brains and all.” The good news is the farther you pursue Christianity, the more you will find yourself sharpened by it.

Q. What problem does the word Temperance have?

A. The meaning has changed. In Lewis’ day it had come to mean “teetotalism,” abstaining from alcohol. The term originally applied “to all pleasures” and did not mean “abstaining, but going the right length and no further.”

Q. Why does Lewis say it’s a mistake for all Christians to abstain from alcohol?

A. He says the religion of Mohammed is the one that requires abstinence from alcohol. There are some particular Christians and some particular times where Christians abstain from alcohol. Some people drink too much when they drink. Some would rather give the money they would spend on alcohol to the poor. Some avoid alcohol in support of “people who are inclined to drunkenness.”

Lewis says, “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way.” There are things we may give up “for special reasons . . . but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.”

The problem with making temperance all about alcohol is that you can “forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things.” Just because you don’t stumble around drunk doesn’t mean you aren’t driven to excess in other areas. There is a kind of intemperance that “does not show on the outside so easily . . . But God is not deceived by externals.”

Q. What is Justice?

A. It goes beyond what we see in courts of law. “It is the old name for everything we should now call “fairness”; it includes honesty, give and take, truthfulness, keeping promises, and all that side of life.”

Q. What is Fortitude?

A. Fortitude is two kinds of courage, the one that “faces danger” and the one that hangs in there through pain. Lewis offers the word “guts” as “perhaps the nearest modern English. He notes “you cannot practice any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one into play.”

Q. What further point does Lewis want to make?

A. Don’t confuse doing something that shows justice or temperance with being a just or temperate person. Someone who is a bad tennis player “may now and then make a good shot.” A good tennis player is one who has been trained to make good shots reliably again and again. There’s something about them that is true whether or not they are playing tennis. Lewis says the same thing is true of a good mathematician. There’s something about them that is there even when they are not doing math. A person committed to just actions becomes a just person. It changes their character. That is what Lewis is talking about, here: the quality of a person rather than certain actions a person does.

Q. Why is this distinction important?

A. Three reasons. One, it doesn’t just matter what we do, but why and how we do it. You can do the right thing “for the wrong reason” or with a poor attitude.

Two, God is interested in transformed people. As Lewis puts it, “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”

Three, these virtues will matter in eternity. We may not need to be courageous in the world to come, “but there will be every occasion for being the sort of people that we can become only as the result of doing such acts here.” It’s not “that God will refuse you admission to His eternal world if you have not got certain qualities of character,” but Heaven won’t be a heaven for you if it depends on externals.






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