Mere Christianity | Book One, Chapter One

I am taking a journey through C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. My approach to this book is to read it like it’s the first time. To try and understand what he is saying, I am asking myself questions based on the text.

Book I | Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe
Chapter 1 | The Law of Human Nature

Q. What experience does Lewis say everyone has had?

A. We’ve all heard people arguing, or quarreling, as Lewis describes it.

Q. What can we learn from those arguments?

A. The things people say as they argue—like “That’s not fair” or “What if I did the same to you?”—are not simply complaints about what the other person is doing but they are “appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about.”

Further, when the other person responds to the complaint, they don’t dismiss the other person’s standard, but instead try to explain how they actually haven’t broken the standard or why they have a “special excuse.”

It appears both people have some sort of shared agreement of “Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or whatever you like to call it.”

Q. How does this shared agreement relate to arguing?

A. You can’t have an argument without it. You can certainly fight, but arguing as Lewis is describing it relates to trying to show how you are right and the other person is wrong. Lewis uses a sports analogy. It’s pointless to say that a foul was committed unless everyone understands there are rules that govern play.

Q. What does Lewis call this standard?

A. It’s called the Law of Nature.

Q. What are the two meanings of the Law of Nature? Which one is Lewis referring to?

A. There is a modern sense of the Law of Nature which includes things like gravity or heredity or chemistry. But Lewis is referring to an older sense of this term which is about Right and Wrong and might be called “the Law of Human Nature.”

Note: It would be interesting to hear C.S. Lewis today on the subject of heredity, when scientific “advances” mean much that we consider part of heredity can be altered.

Q. How are these two Laws of Nature different?

A. The laws that govern the natural world are always true. Gravity is always there. Chemical processes always work. You can count on them. There is no choice in following them or suspending them. But with the Law of Human Nature, there is an element of choice.

As Lewis explains it, we are all subject to several laws all at once. Some of those laws, like gravity, have to be followed. There is no element of choice, there. We “cannot disobey those laws” and everything that is part of the physical world is subject to those laws. But humans don’t share this Law of Human Nature with anything else in creation and we are free to disobey it if we choose.

Q. What is the importance of the word “nature” in the Law of Nature?

A. There’s some sense that it doesn’t need to be taught. It exists inside every person. There may be some exceptions, in the same way there are some people who are color-blind or tone deaf, otherwise “the human idea of decent behavior was obvious to every one.” Lewis references the Second World War and asks, “What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced?”

Q. What objection is there to this Law of Nature and how does Lewis address it?

A. Some say this idea doesn’t work because “different civilizations and different ages have had quite different moralities.” Lewis says this isn’t true because the differences don’t amount to anything significant. Take all the societies that have ever existed and their morality has more in common with each other and us than there are differences. Courage, loyalty, lack of selfishness are good things in all cultures. Lewis asks us to imagine a culture with real differences and that means “You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five.”

Q. What does Lewis say is “the most remarkable thing”?

A. People who say they don’t believe in Right and Wrong are inconsistent: “Wherever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later.

Lewis is anticipating the argument of people who say that morality is simply a human construction—that there is no “higher” law, but simply laws which we make up. He gives two examples to make his point.

One, a man breaks his promise to you, but then when you break one to him, he complains about fairness. Lewis says this proves they are aware of “the Law of Nature just like anyone else.”

Second, a country says that “treaties do not matter,” but when they go to break one, they rationalize that it “was an unfair one.” By complaining that it was “unfair” they are pointing to the Law of Nature. In other words, they declare the existence of a thing they deny the existence of.

Q. What conclusion does Lewis say we need to arrive at?

A. Lewis says “we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong.”

Q. What second point does Lewis want to make?

A. None of us really keeps this Law. “We have failed to practice ourselves the kind or behavior we expect from other people.” We’ll make excuses, which may be good or not, but the fact that we are thinking about excuses means “we believe in the Law of Nature.”

Q. What two points are we to take from this chapter?

A. First, all people have this idea that we should “behave in a certain way” and there’s no getting rid of this. Second, we “do not in fact behave in that way.” We believe in a Law that we break. Lewis concludes, “These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”

Q. How would you summarize this chapter?

A. There is a universal idea of right and wrong known as the Law of Human Nature. It is different from physical laws, like say gravity, in that it can be ignored. Worse, we don’t keep it. We break it daily and make excuses for it.

* * *

Someone who read the above in an email to my congregation (I am using Mere Christianity as a virtual book study with my congregation), commented how applicable Lewis is to our modern politics. In particular, how people appeal to right and wrong to explain their behavior. I am going to avoid application and simply focus on trying to understand what Lewis is saying.

* * *

In my notes from some years ago I observed that it’s amazing to think how these talks were given during World War 2. While England was struggling to survive, Lewis was on the radio working to advance the idea of Christianity. It’s hard to imagine something like this happening now on public radio in this country. You are free to gather a group of atheists together to talk about why they’ve abandoned Christianity, as happened on a particularly discouraging broadcast on Good Friday some years ago, but you can’t allow (or at least I haven’t really heard) someone to explain why Christianity is true.

The Jewish people have a saying, zichrona livricha, which translates as something like, “May their memory be for a blessing.” I didn’t know C.S. Lewis, but I am grateful for his life and pray that remembering what he has written will be a blessing for me today and these next weeks to come.


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