Mere Christianity | Book III, Chapter 4

C.S. Lewis | Mere Christianity
Book III | Christian Behavior
Chapter 4 | “Morality and Psychoanalysis”

Note: It’s interesting to come back to this chapter with the intention of trying to understand it with an audience in mind. Lewis the intellectual is a formidable thing, for example as he describes Sigmund Freud in certain areas as “an amateur” and “ignorant.” This is a chapter that stretches me.

For me this is not one of the most quotable chapters in Mere Christianity, but I’m wondering, now, if it isn’t one of the more important. If I understand Lewis correctly, in this chapter is a cautionary tale about not taking pride in our moral choices. At the end, I offer a final thought, my attempt to provide an example of what I think Lewis is going after in this chapter.

Question: What are the two jobs that need to be happening at the same?

Answer: One, how do we apply the Golden Rule (“Do to others what you would have them do to you.” Matthew 7:12) to society? Two, how do we become the kind of people who live it out?

Q. How are Christian morality and psychoanalysis related and different?

A. They are both concerned with “putting the human machine right.” But we need to make a distinction between the techniques of psychoanalysis, which are “not the least contradictory to Christianity,” and the worldview of psychoanalysts such as Freud and Jung, which are “in direct contradiction to Christianity.” In short, Lewis says Christian morality and psychoanalysis have some overlaps, but the two things “are doing rather different things.”

Q. What two things are involved in a moral choice?

A. One is the choice itself. Two is our psychological makeup, our feelings and impulses. This psychological makeup can be normal or abnormal. Normal means “the sort of feelings that are common to all.” Abnormal would include irrational fears or perversions.

Q. How do psychoanalysis and Christian morality approach the abnormal and what example does Lewis offer?

A. Psychoanalysis tries “to remove the abnormal feelings” around choices. Christian “morality is concerned with the acts of choice themselves.”

Q. What example does Lewis offer to illustrate the differences?

A. Lewis says to “Imagine three men who go to war.” One feels the “natural fear of danger” but “subdues it by moral effort and becomes a brave man.” The other two as a result of things in their sub-conscious “have . . . exaggerated, irrational fears, which no amount of moral effort can do anything about.”

Lewis continues, “Now suppose that a psychoanalyst comes along and cures these two: that is, he puts them both back in the position of the first man.” But it’s here that Lewis says we’ve moved from a problem of psychoanalysis to a problem of morality. One of these two is happy now to be able to do his duty while the other is “determined to look after Number One and let the other chap do the dangerous job whenever I can.” In the end, all three men are ready for battle, but each one must choose whether or not they will fight.

The point Lewis makes is that psychoanalysis may help someone’s psychological makeup, but it doesn’t help the moral choice the person is making “either to put his own advantage first or to put it last. And this free choice is the only thing that morality is concerned with.”

Q. What does Lewis say is not a sin to be repented of but a disease that needs to be cured? What is the implication?

A. Bad psychological material is a disease that needs to be cured. We judge each other by “external actions,” but God judges us by our “moral choices.” So, for example, when someone with “a pathological horror of cats forces himself to pick up a cat for some good reason,” they may actually be demonstrating more courage than someone who earns a medal in battle. (Lewis mentions the V.C., or “Victoria Cross,” Britain’s highest military honor.)

To look at it from another direction, there are some “nice people” who may “have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that [they] are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends.” Lewis asks, “Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler?” Lewis concludes, “That is why Christians are told not to judge.”

Q. What will one day be revealed?

A. “Every one as he really was,” meaning the real choices people made that made the best or worst of the raw material they were working with.

Q. What bargain does Lewis say is not the best way of looking at Christian morality and choices?

A. Many of us think God makes this bargain: “If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” Lewis offers a different way of thinking about things. He writes,

“I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself.”

We are in each choice becoming more heavenly or hellish.

Q. What thing used to puzzle Lewis about Christian writers and what did he learn?

A. They were very strict about “sins of thought” and easy about “the most frightful murders and treacheries as if you had only got to repent and all would be forgiven.” Lewis came to see that they were right.

His explanation is that every action we take leave a mark “on that tiny central self which no one sees in this life but which each of us will have to endure—or enjoy—for ever. One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both.”

Both people need to repent. And if they don’t, it will make it harder to stop the next time. “Each of them, if he seriously turns to God, can have that twist in the central man straightened out again: each is, in the long run, doomed if he will not. The bigness or smallness of the thing, seen from the outside, is not what really matters.”

Q. What final point does Lewis make?

A. The better we get, the better we will understand the evil in us. The worse we get, the less we understand how bad we are.

A final thought:

I wonder if what Lewis is saying is something like this: Let’s say there are two people who have made a vow not to drink alcohol. Externally, both people do not drink. But internally, one of the people has an “I can take it or leave it” relationship with alcohol and has simply decided to leave it. The other person is a recovering alcoholic. Externally, they don’t drink either, but internally things are very different. For them, not drinking is no easy thing.

I think Lewis is saying that God is not simply looking at the moral choice these two individuals make but what’s underneath the moral choice. The recovering alcoholic is doing a greater thing internally than the other person, who should not take pride because there was no moral effort in their choice. God is not looking at the choice, but what it took to make the choice.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *