C.S. Lewis: The Natural Law in Literature and Life
The C.S. Lewis Foundation for Truth in Publishing
September 1, 1996
C.S. Lewis: The Natural Law in Literature and Life
Kathryn Lindskoog and Gracia Fay Ellwood
Earlier versions of this essay were published in The Christian Century and The Taste of the Pineapple.
THE HUMAN RACE is haunted by the idea of doing what is right. In the first five chapters of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the fact that people are always referring to some standard of behavior that they expect other people to know about. People are always defending themselves by arguing that what they have been doing does not really go against that standard, or that they have some special excuse for violating it.
What they have in mind is a law of fair play or a rule of decent behavior. Different people use different labels for this law--traditional moralityor the Moral Law, the knowledge of right and wrong, or Virtue, or the Way. We choose to call it the Natural Law. This law is an obvious principle that is not made up by humans but is for humans to observe. Lewis claims that all over the earth humans know about this law, and all over the earth they break it; he further claims that there is Something or Somebody behind this Natural Law.
According to Lewis, we find out more about God from Natural Law than from the universe in general, just as we find out more about a person by listening to his conversation than by looking at a house he built. We can tell from Natural Law that the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness. However, the Natural Law does not give us any grounds for assuming that God is soft or indulgent. Natural Law obliges us to do the straight thing no matter how painful or dangerous or difficult it is to do. Natural Law is hard: "It is as hard as nails" (Mere Christianity 23).
This last sentence also appears as the central thought in Lewis's moving poem "Love." In the first stanza he tells us how love is as warm as tears; in the second, how it is as fierce as fire; in the third, how it is as fresh as spring. And in the final stanza he tells us how love is as hard as nails.
Love's as hard as nails, Love is nails; Blunt, thick, hammered through The medial nerve of One Who, having made us, knew The thing He had done, Seeing(with all that is) Our cross, and His. (Poems 123)
In Lewis's first chronicle of Narnia, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, this hardness of the love of God was predicted by the lion Aslan when he promised to save Edmund from the results of treachery. He said "All shall by done. But it may be harder than you think"(104). When he and the White Witch discussed her claim on Edmund's life, she referred to the law of that universe as the Deep Magic. Aslan would not consider going against the Deep Magic; instead, he gave himself to die in Edmund's place, and the next morning came back to life. He explained to Susan that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a far deepermagic that she did not know. This deeper magic says that when a willingvictim is killed in place of a traitor, death itself would start working backwards. The deepest magic worked toward life and goodness. In Narnia, and in this world as well, if the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness all our efforts and hopes are doomed. But if the universe is ruled by perfect goodness, says Lewis, we are falling short of that goodness all the time; we are not good enough to consider ourselves allies of perfect goodness (Mere 4). In Narnia Edmund fell so far short of goodness that he finally realized with a shock of despair that he needed forgiveness.
At the end of the chapter entitled "Right and Wrong As A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe" in Mere Christianity, Lewis claimed that until people repent and want forgiveness, Christianity won't make sense. Christianity explains how God can be the impersonal mind behind the Natural Law and yet also be a Person. It tells us how, since we cannot meet the demands of the law, God Himself became a human being to save us from our failure.
Lewis was of course aware that the presence of natural and moral evil in the world makes the governance of the world by absolute goodness seem questionable, to say the least. He understood Housman in his bitter complaint against "whatever brute and blackguard made the world." But Lewis asks by what standard the creator is judged a blackguard. The very lament for Moral law or rejection of Moral Law itself implies a Moral Law.
Lewis was deeply concerned about the fact that many people in this century are losing their belief in Natural Law. He spoke about this in the Riddell Memorial Lectures given at the University of Durham, published in 1947 as The Abolition of Man.
In Abolition he used "the Tao" as a shorthand term for the Natural Law or First Principle. A clarification may be helpful. The term"Tao" in the West is most often associated with Chinese Taoism. According to its scripture, the Tao Te Ching, the Tao (though ineffable )can best be described with words such as "the Flow," "the way things change," "the Life," "the Source." Its locus is first of all in nature. To follow the Tao is indeed to live morally, for it requires respect for the lowly and avoidance of oppression or pride. However, the Tao is ultimately a way of accepting what is, whether tending toward life or death. Confucianists see the locus of the Tao as first of all in human society, expressed primarily in the respect of inferiors for patriarchal superiors, the responsibility of superiors for inferiors, and the subordination of the individual to the welfare of the group. Neither of these uses quite corresponds to what Lewis seems to intend in Abolition. Perhaps the Chinese concept that comes closest to Lewis's apparent intent would be "The Way of Heaven."
Lewis claimed in Abolition that until quite recent times everyone believed that objects could merit our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. It was assumed that some emotional reactions were more appropriate than others.
This conception is vividly represented in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; Edmund had inappropriate emotional responses from the very beginning. His brother and sisters imagined pleasant creatures they would like to meet in the woods, and Edmund hoped for foxes; but Lewis changed Edmund's choice to snakes for readers of the Macmillan version in the United States. In both versions, when the children met the wise old professor, Edmund laughed at his looks. When Edmund met the White Witch, his initial fear quickly turned to trust; and when she gave him a choice of foods, he stuffed himself with Turkish Delight candy. His attitude toward his sister Lucy was resentful and superior; he was even suspicious of the good Robin and Beaver who came to guide the children to safety. Instead of noticing the Beaver's house, he noticed the location of the Witch's castle in the distance. When the name Aslan was first spoken to the four children, they all had wonderful feelings except Edmund; he had a sensation of mysterious horror. Later events would educate Edmund to respond as the others did.
Lewis pointed out that according to Aristotle the aim of education, the foundation of ethics, was to make a pupil like and dislike what he ought. According to Plato, we need to learn to feel pleasure at pleasant things, liking for likeable things, disgust for disgusting things, and hatred for hateful things. In early Hindu teaching righteousness and correctness corresponded to knowing truth and reality. Psalm 119 says the law is "true."The Hebrew word for truth here is "emeth," meaning intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, and a firmness and dependability as solid as nature.
This meaning is reflected in the final book of Narnia, The Last Battle, where Lewis introduced a young man named Emeth who had grown up in an oppressive country where people worship the evil deity Tash. In spite of his upbringing, Emeth was a man of honor and honesty who sought what was good. He died worshipping Tash and found himself in the presence of Aslan instead. He responded with reverence and delight. All that he thought he was doing for Tash could be counted as service to Aslan instead. He was one of Aslan's friends long before he knew it because he liked what was likeable and hated what was hateful.
Lewis was alarmed by all the people in our day who deny that some things are inherently likeable, debunking traditional morality and the NaturalLaw, thinking that there can be innovation in values. Some of them try to substitute necessity, progress or efficiency for goodness. But in fact necessity, progress or efficiency have to be related to a standard outside themselves to have any meaning. In many cases that standard will be, in the last analysis, the preservation of the person who thinks of himself as a moral innovator, or the preservation of the society of his choice. Such people direct their scepticism toward any values but their own, disparaging other values as"sentimental" (Abolition 19).
But Lewis's analysis shows that if Natural Law is sentimental, all value is sentimental. No factual propositions such as "our society is in danger of extinction" can give any basis for a system of values; no observations of instinct such as "I want to prolong my life" give any basis for a system of values. Why is our society valuable? Why is my life worth preserving? Only the Natural Law, asserting that human life is of value, gives us a basis for a coherent system of values.
"If nothing is self evident, nothing can be proved," Lewis claimed. "If nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all" (27). He means that if we do not accept Natural Law as self-evident and obligatory for its own sake, then all a person's conceptions of value fall away. There are no values that are not derived from Natural Law. Anything that is judged good is such because of values in the Natural Law. The concept of goodness springs from no other source.
Thus, modern innovations in ethics are just shreds of the old Natural Law, sometimes isolated and exaggerated. If any values at all are retained, the Natural Law is retained. According to Lewis, there never has been and never will be a radically new value or value system. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of inventing a new primary color.
Admittedly, there are imperfections and contradictions in historical manifestation and interpretations of Natural Law. Some reformers help us to improve our perceptions of value. But only those who live by the Law know its spirit well enough to interpret it successfully. People who live outside the Natural Law have no grounds for criticizing Natural Law or anything else. A few who reject it intend to take the logical next step as well:they intend to live without any values at all, disbelieving all values and choosing to live their lives according to their whims and fancies.
Lewis's poem "The Country of the Blind," published in Punch in 1951, presents an image of people who have come to this. He describes what it would be like to live as a misfit with eyes in a country of eyeless people who no longer believe that vision ever existed.
This poem tells of "hard" light shining on a whole nation of eyeless men who were unaware of their handicap. Blindness had come on gradually through many centuries. At some transitional stage a few citizens remained who still had eyes and vision after most people were blind. The blind were normal and up-to-date. They used the same words that their ancestors had used, but no longer knew their meaning. They spoke of light still, meaning an abstract thought. If one who could see tried to describe the grey dawn or the stars or the green-sloped sea waves or the color of a lady's cheek, the blind majority insisted that they understood the feeling the sighted one expressed in metaphor. There was no way he could explain the facts to them. The blind ridiculed such a person who took figures of speech literally and concocted a myth about a kind of sense perception that no one has ever really had.
If one thinks this is a far-fetched picture, Lewis concluded, one need only go to famous men today and try to talk to them about the truths of Natural Law which used to stand huge, awesome, and clear to the inner eye.
One of those famous men is B. F. Skinner, who answered in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity that the abolition of the inner man and traditional morality is necessary so that science can prevent the abolition of the human race. Lewis had already exclaimed in Abolition, "The preservation of the species?--But why should the species be preserved?" (40) Skinner does not provide an answer, but welcomes Lewis's scientific "Controllers" who aim to change and dehumanize the human race in order more efficiently to fulfill their purposes.
Lewis satirized this kind of progress in his poem "Evolutionary Hymn," which appeared in The Cambridge Review in 1957. Using Longfellow's popular hymn stanza form from "Psalm of Life," Lewis exclaimed: What do we care about wrong or justice, joy or sorrow, so long as our posterity survives? The old norms of good and evil are outmoded. It matters not if our posterity turns out to be hairy, squashy, or crustacean, tusked or toothless, mild or ruthless. "Goodness is what comes next." His conclusion is that our progeny may be far from pleasant by present standards;but that matters not, if they survive.
Lewis has often been carelessly accused of being against science. In fact, he gives us an admirable scientist in Bill Hingest in That Hideous Strength. Significantly, Hingest was murdered by order of the supposed scientists who directed the NICE. The enemy is not true science, which is fueled by a love of truth, but that applied science whose practitioners are motivated by a love of power. In Lewis's opinion the technological developments that are called steps in Man's Conquest of Nature in fact give certain men power over others. Discarding Natural Law will always increase the dangers of having some people control others. Only Natural Law provides human standards which over-arch rulers and ruled alike. Lewis went so far as to claim, "A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery." (Abolition46)
The Magician's Nephew, the tale of the creation of Narnia, gives us two characters who exemplify the Controllers--Jadis and Uncle Andrew Ketterley. Both claimed to be above Natural Law; they had "a high and lonely destiny." Jadis was a monarch and Uncle Andrew was a magician, but both were strongly suggestive of modern science gone wrong. They both held that common rules are fine for common people, but that singular great people must be free-to experiment without limits in search of knowledge, to seize power and wealth. The result was cruelty and destruction. In contrast, the wise men of old had sought to conform the soul to reality, and the result had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.
Two examples from Lewis's verse illustrate this traditional wisdom. The1956 poem "After Aristotle" praises virtue, stating that in Greece men gladly toiled in search of virtue as their most valuable treasure. Men would willingly die or live in hard labor for the beauty of virtue. Virtue powerfully touched the heart and gave unfading fruit; virtue made those who love her strong.
A second example is "On a Theme from Nicolas of Cusa," publishedin the Times Literary Supplement in 1955. In the first stanza Lewis notes how physical foods are transformed by our bodies when we assimilate them; in the second, he points out that when we assimilate goodness and truth they are not transformed, but we are.
At the end of Abolition Lewis implores his readers to pause before considering Natural Law only one more accident of human history in a wholly material universe. To "explain away" this transcendent reality is perhaps to explain away all explanations. To "see through" the Natural Law is the same as not to see at all.
The idea that some things are inherently good and others are not is also the basis for Lewis's approach to literature in An Experiment in Criticism. His thesis is that the work of art, and particularly the literary work, is to be received for its own sake, not used for other purposes. Each detailis to be savored and, if good, enjoyed. We are to look at the work, not to use it as a mirror to reflect ourselves and our own fantasies or as a lens through which we look at the world.
This principle is a particular application of the Natural Law. We approach a work of literature, as we might a person or flower, with the assumption that here is something good for its own sake, something worth attending to. After we have looked at it attentively, objectively, either our efforts will have been rewarded or we may decide it is not of much value after all;but in any case we will have given it a fair try, done it justice.
In Experiment Lewis contrasts the principle of the inherent value of works of literature with the habits of people who use literature (and thus misuse it), who prostitute the work to some other purpose.
The unliterary read a work only for the excitement they can get from the plot (as in an adventure story), for the provocation and satisfaction of their curiosity (as in a detective story), or for vicarious emotional fulfillment (as in a love story). Such readers use literature much as a child uses a toy, or a worshiper a crucifix: as a starting point for a journey inward or beyond. Unlike the child or the worshiper, who cherish their object and use it many times over, the unliterary usually use a story only once; then it is used up, discarded.
There are also users among the literary. There are the status seekers,who read the academically fashionable literature in order to impress themselves and others. There are the self-improvers, whose concern with their mental enrichment takes the place of a focus on the work itself.
And there are the wisdom-seekers, who value a work for the Statement about Life that it presents. But, says Lewis, works of art do not give us adequate world views. Too much selection is involved. In life, suffering is not often grand and noble and attributable to Tragic Flaws; matters do not end at points of satisfying finality, but go drizzling on. Works of literature may in fact make us wiser, but that is really incidental to their true function; and the wisdom we think came from a particular Great Work may in fact have come largely from within ourselves. Wisdom seeking is carried to absurdity in a particularly keen group he calls the Vigilants (he is surely referring to F.R. Leavis and friends) who will place their stamp of approval only on those few works that express their own conception of how life should be lived. They form a kind of Committee of Public Safety, lopping a new head every month.
By contrast with the users, the receivers surrender to a work of literature, getting themselves out of the way, attending closely to each part and its relationship to other parts, for the time being taking the author's viewpoint as their own. Their refusal of a subjective reading enables them to enlarge the narrow prison of the self and see with others' eyes. The temporary annihilation of the self that takes place actually serves to heal the loneliness of the self. Lewis overtly compares the process to what happens in the pursuit of knowledge, or of justice, or the experience of love: we temporarily reject the facts as they are for us in favor of the facts as they are. In the work of literature we are experiencing the (morally) good or evil data, the (aesthetically) good or poor data, that really are out there and really possess the qualities we perceived. Lewis does not deny that our perception and judgment are sometimes flawed. But good and bad are real.
Lewis's aesthetic provides a necessary and refreshing corrective to rigorously dutiful approaches that have ruined the enjoyment of literature for many from student days onward. For those Christians to whom literary pleasures have seemed frivolous or dangerous temptations that might lead away from the Straight Path, Lewis affirms their goodness. He also exposes the sort of single-issue criticism that darkens counsel by words without knowledge. Unless we can put ourselves to one side for a time and see what is actually in the text, we ought not to say anything about a work; and in many instances we might be better off not reading it at all.
Having gratefully accepted Lewis's basic aesthetic enterprise, we must express a few reservations. Of course it is true that any work of imaginative literature is too selective to present an adequate philosophy of life. But much the same could be said of any essay or multi-volumed work in discursive prose. Any time we want to speak of the whole, of universals (or the absence thereof), we must be selective. Most formal treatises on Being, Becoming or Causality leave out the terror and the joy of the world. The supposedly universal human experience of Reality discussed in nearly all of theology turns out to be male reality. Humans are limited; we may intend the universal, but any reflection upon it is bound to be limited.
The need for selectivity does not prohibit a work of literature from being intended, or taken, as a dramatized world view. This is particularly evident when a work gives support to oppressive social structures. For example, a story whose few Jewish characters are rapacious schemers or (if admirable) get baptized, may well give generous minds such as Lewis's the enlarging experience of finding out what it is like to be antisemitic. Unfortunately, it will also cause certain readers to come away with sharpened convictions that the Jewish Conspiracy is the fountainhead of the world's evil. Likewise, a work whose achieving and admirable characters are all male, with its females frothy, manipulative, passive, victimized, and/or marginal, is saying something about the relative value of male and female.
Lewis in fact acknowledges, in an exchange of letters in Theology (1939-1940), that there are (morally) bad books that corrupt people by making false values attractive (Christian Reflections 30-35). He does not refer specifically to fiction, nor does he exclude it. Surely, then a (morally) bad work of literature can be bad because it presents a dangerously false view of life, quite possibly by its selections. In contrast, a (morally) good work of literature can present true values. There is no reason why we cannot receive such a work with diligent and delighted care, and also use it as a parable. Surely what is objectionable is, in Kant's language, to make the work a means only and not an end also. It is ironic that Lewis should have rejected the concept of the literary work as a parable, in view of the fact that his own novels (especially the Narnian tales) are parables of such enormous power and wisdom.
This, of course, is not to say that every work of literature offers a world view. The comedy is not necessarily saying that life is finally a joke, nor is the whodunit perforce telling us that the ills of the world have a neat and gratifying solution right at hand, if we could only be perceptive enough to see. Even Freud realized that sometimes a cigar is just a good cigar.
We have affirmed, with minor reservations, Lewis's reasoning that a work of literature possesses value in itself. Now we turn back to his thesis of intrinsic value as applied to all of life, his corrective to a totally relativistic value (or rather nonvalue) system. Sensitive persons who havef elt their meaning-world collapse around them know how dehumanizing felt meaninglessness is. Lewis knew where of he spoke. (People who experience this collapse without pain are even more dehumanized.) As to the end result of consistent subjectivism, the world of the Controllers, Lewis's portraits of Jadis and the directors of the NICE tell us more vividly than his discursive prose just how nightmarish such a world would be.
Within the context of a basic agreement, once more we offer a qualifier. Consistent and total subjectivism we certainly do not want, and we know why. But subjectivism and relativism can be good things sometimes; they can be freeing. People with a sharp and absolute vision are not often as broad in mental sympathies and as rich in charity as Lewis; they tend more towards psychological imperialism. Many of us, Lewis included, would rather live among people who hold firmly that "Love thy neighbor as thyself"is the only universally binding principle in personal morality, leaving to the individual's own judgment this rule's application to sexual ethics, the role of women, or to political allegiance- than among people who know in detail God's will for other private lives as well as for their own and are busy trying to bring about theocracy. Theocracy is one of our oldest banes, and one that Lewis particularly detested.
In conclusion, Lewis's teaching about Natural Law has acquired unique urgency since his day. He published Abolition in 1947; since then there have been radical shifts in the locus and imminence of threat to the world. The danger of nuclear armaments was obvious in 1947, but there were not enough in existence then to destroy all life on earth. Only part of the public foresaw the cancer-like proliferation of nuclear weapons that would soon threaten to destroy human life (and our libraries and literary heritage), and to cause a nuclear winter. This scenario sounds like the end of the world as foretold in the Norse mythology that Lewis found so compelling.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the threat of worldwide destruction caused by weaponry is far more diffuse. Biological and nuclear tools of modern death technology (as well as possible new alternatives) are sought by power-hungry men with many motives. In 1932 Lewis published the allegorical Pilgrim's Regress, in which he warned that savage dwarfs called "the Cruels" were then multiplying; communists, fascists, organized crime syndicates, and many other sub-species that value violence and a perverse kind of heroism. It seems reasonable to assume that he would have included contemporary perpetrators of genocide and terrorist groups of all kinds as sub-species of the Cruels.
Lewis sensed, by 1955, the increasing power of modern death technology. In The Magician's Nephew, Jadis decided to use the Deplorable Word, a weapon she had paid a terrible price to obtain. A moment later every livingt hing in the world of Charn was dead. She did this in outright defiance of Natural Law. The fate of Charn can be read as Lewis's commentary on possible large-scale use of today's arsenal.
In 1956 Lewis published The Last Battle, in which the land of Narnia died away more gradually than the land of Charn, ending in ice. "Yes, and I did hope," said Jill, "That it might go on forever. I knew our world couldn't" (160). Lewis always assumed that our earth has to die eventually, but he would have been intensely grieved by today's accelerated destruction of the environment caused not by acts of war, but by reckless plundering and pollution in defiance of the Natural Law. (Obvious examples are depletion of the ozone layer, burning of the rain forests, accumulation of nuclear waste, and contamination of the oceans.)
In Aslan's beautiful everlasting country Peter found that Lucy was crying because of the death of Narnia, and he tried to stop her. But Lucy appealed to the law in all our hearts and said she was sure it was not wrong to mourn the death of the world they dearly loved. And Tirian, last king of Narnia, affirmed her. "It were no virtue, but grave discourtesy, if we did not mourn" (160).
The Natural Law teaches us to fight to save our world from death, and, should it die, to mourn its destruction. But C.S. Lewis predicted that the Natural Law itself will outlast all worlds. And he promises us a new life that will be the Great Story which goes on for ever, in which every chapter is better than the one before (184). And all who live that story will be receivers.
The Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967.
The Last Battle. London: The Bodley Head, 1956.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: Macmillan, 1950.
Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan, 1953.
Poems. New York: Harcourt, 1964.