Mere Christianity | Book One, Chapter 3

“The Reality of the Law”

As a kind of spiritual discipline, I am reading through C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and trying to understand it better by asking myself questions.

Q. What are the “two odd things about the human race” that C.S. Lewis mentioned at the end of the first chapter?

A. First, we are all “haunted” by the idea that there is a certain way to behave, which is called a number of things: “fair play, or decency, or morality, or the Law of Nature.” And second, we don’t act that way.

Q. What is Lewis not trying to do and trying to do by making those two points.

A. He is not trying to blame anyone or to figure out how much blame we should have “for not behaving as we expect others to behave.” He is “trying to find out truth.” Lewis’ point is that “the very idea of something being imperfect, of its not being what it ought to be, has certain consequences.”

Q. What are these consequences?”

A. Lewis begins an argument that leads to a distinction between objects in nature and people.

Trees, stones, etc. follow a law of nature, which Lewis says means things do what they always do when following, for example, the law of gravity. When you drop a rock, it falls, and there is nothing else at work. The rock does not “suddenly remember that it is under orders to fall to the ground.” The law of nature simply means Nature does what it does. There is no “what ought to happen, as distinct from what does happen.”

But when we “turn to the Law of Human Nature or the Law of Decent Behavior, it is a different matter.” The Law of Human Nature does not mean “what human beings, in fact, do” because many of us don’t follow this Law and none of us are able to follow it perfectly.

And so Lewis makes an important distinction between the laws of nature and the Law of Human Nature. Gravity will, for example, tell “you what stones do if you drop them; but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do not.” With humans two things are going on at the same time. One, there are the facts of what they do, and two, “something else”: what they should do.

Nature behaves a certain way and with certain results that follow. That’s it. People behave a certain way “and that is not the whole story, for all the time you know that they ought to behave differently.”

Q. What does Lewis say about things and people being “convenient”?

A. You may wish a rock was a different shape—that it would be more convenient to you if it was, but there’s no blame there. The rock “is what it is” because of all the forces that have been at work on it. It could not be anything but what it is. People, though, are different. People can be inconvenient for us, and sometimes there is some blame and sometimes not.

Lewis uses the example of someone getting on the train before you do and taking a seat that you wanted. That’s inconvenient to you, but they got there first and you can’t be upset about it. But if you got on the train first, took that seat, and then someone moved your things and took your seat while your back is turned, that’s both inconvenient and there’s someone to blame.

A second example. Someone accidentally trips you. When you learn it was an accident, it’s no big deal. But if someone tries to trip you, even if they don’t succeed, this is an issue. The one who hurt you was really inconvenient but is not to blame and the one who didn’t hurt you wasn’t inconvenient at all and very much to blame.

Q. Why does Lewis make this distinction?

A. He is trying to say that decent behavior is not simply what “happens to be useful to us.” Lewis uses the example of a traitor in a time of war. The traitor is useful to us, but no one really respects a traitor from either side. There are a few sentences about decent behavior and usefulness here in the text that are worth quoting:

“I suppose it is pretty obvious that it does not mean the behavior that pays. It means things like being content with thirty shillings when you might have got three pounds, doing school work honestly when it would be easy to cheat, leaving a girl alone when you would like to make love to her, staying in dangerous places when you could go somewhere safer, keeping promises you would rather not keep, and telling the truth even when it makes you look a fool.”

For society to function there has to be a set of rules that everyone agrees to play by. We benefit when “every one plays fair.” When we don’t play fair, “you cannot have real safety or happiness.” But this doesn’t help us answer the question “of why we feel as we do about Right and Wrong.”

And this brings us to Lewis’s stopping point, which is that “Men ought to be unselfish.” This is not a fact, like rocks fall when we drop them. Neither is it a statement about what would be convenient for us. “Men ought to be unselfish” is different from the law of nature. It’s not “a fact about human behavior in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is.”

Lewis concludes the chapter by stating that “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.” There is the reality of the things people do. Those are the facts of human behavior that we can describe by observation. And there is another reality—outside of us—of “a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.” This law operates on us prescriptively, telling us what we should and should not do.

Q. How would you summarize this chapter?

A. Scientific laws are simply facts—how things are, how objects behave. There is no “oughtness” there. Things are what they are and they do what they do.

In the case of people, there is more than what happens, there is also what should happen. Right and wrong behavior is not always a matter of convenience. There is a should that operates separately from our behavior.

* * *

I am struck by the dire circumstances of World War 2 in which C.S. Lewis first delivered the talks that make up this book. In the midst of some pretty dark times, Lewis wanted “to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”

There are any number of things that feel dark in our time. Perhaps something we can do in the midst of it all is to get really firm about what we believe.


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