Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 1, Chapter 2 : Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe (Some Objections) | Summary

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Summary

Having argued for the existence of a universal, unlearned standard of morality—the Moral Law or Law of Human Nature, Lewis proceeds to address some common objections.

First he addresses the idea that the Moral Law is merely "herd instinct." Witnessing someone in danger, we will experience both of our basic instincts: the "herd instinct" that tells us to fight the threat on behalf of the imperiled person, and the instinct to run away in "self-preservation." Regardless of which instinct we experience, we know we "ought" to help the other person. We feel this obligation in addition to our two opposing instincts. It is a manifestation of the Law of Human Nature.

Lewis reiterates that the Moral Law cannot be an instinct because there is no single instinct that ever lines up infallibly with what the Law requires. At times the Law asks us to suppress even those instincts we most admire in ourselves, such as "mother love or patriotism." Lewis provides an elegant analogy for the relationship between our instincts and the Moral Law. Our instincts are like the keys of a piano, and the Moral Law is the sheet music telling us which key to play when. The sheet music and the piano are two different things, and there is no key that is always right or always wrong.

Moving on, Lewis addresses the objection that the Moral Law is a learned social convention. He argues that the Moral Law is a "real truth" that "belongs to the same class as mathematics." We do learn rules about decent behavior from other people, but some of these rules are arbitrary social customs that might have been different. Therefore, they are not the same as the Moral Law, which can be seen "running through" the moralities of every culture.

More evidence for the reality of the Moral Law is our belief that some moralities are superior to others. Our preference for Christian morality over Nazi morality, and our ideas about social progress, point to the existence of a standard. We cannot compare two things except in terms of how they measure against a third thing, a standard that is separate from both. Lewis's final point is that sometimes, what appears to be a shift in morality is merely a shift in our beliefs about reality. Lewis gives the example of historical witch burnings. He claims that if we still believed in witches, "surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did."

Analysis

Lewis strengthens his argument for the Moral Law by addressing criticisms he received from those who heard his first talk on the radio. It is important to keep in mind that Mere Christianity did not originate as a book but as a series of 15-minute broadcasts on the BBC. When Lewis began giving these live broadcasts in August 1941, the British people had been enduring a relentless assault by the German air force for almost a year. Known to history as the Battle of Britain or the Blitz, the campaign was Germany's effort to destroy Britain by destroying its morale. The programmers at the BBC knew the country was in desperate need of the hope they felt Christianity could provide. It turned out to be Lewis, not the archbishop, who was able to carry this message to a despairing public.

The marks of this historical context are found throughout the text in Lewis's allusions to his audiences' responses and in his repeated use of the Nazis as the epitome of immorality. The structure of the text also reflects its origins, as the four sets of 15-minute-long talks Lewis delivered correspond to the four books and individual chapters of the text. Additionally Lewis's technique of explaining complex points of Christian doctrine through concise analogies to everyday objects or situations reflects his intention to connect with listeners from all strata of society. This chapter's piano analogy is one example among many.

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