Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 3, Chapter 4 : Christian Behavior (Morality and Psychoanalysis) | Summary



By way of examining Christianity's conception of a good person, Lewis examines psychoanalysis, a modern practice that claims to achieve the same thing as Christian morality. He concludes that while psychoanalysis does not conflict with Christian morality, it is much less powerful as a tool for producing good people.

Lewis examines the anatomy of a moral choice. It has two components: the act and the feelings behind it. Psychoanalysis targets feelings, not actions, assuming moral actions will follow when feelings are normalized. However, this assumption is flawed because it is possible to have a healthy emotional state and still not make right choices. Christian Morality gets to the heart of the matter by ignoring feelings and concerning itself solely with actions.

People judge external actions, but God judges only the character of the person who acts. Therefore, God may judge a small kindness with more favor than he might judge an act of drastic heroism, depending on the character of the actor. When the body dies, our individual psychologies also disappear and reveal "the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of" whatever life circumstances he was given. Because character cannot be deduced solely from external observations, Christianity mandates we refrain from judging our fellow men.

Lewis says our choices, over our lifetimes, make us into creatures who are of heaven or of hell, metaphorically. He characterizes heaven as a positive emotional state and hell as negative emotional state. Every action we take, he says, shapes our character, moving us toward the heaven of union with God or the hell of immorality. Because of this, our smallest actions are of the greatest importance. Immoral actions leave a "mark on the soul." This mark must be cleansed away so it doesn't deform our character. Repentance is the means of cleansing these marks and preventing us from falling into deeper and deeper holes of immorality. Morality leads to peace and self-knowledge; immorality perpetuates self-ignorance and distress.


Here Lewis compares psychoanalysis to Christian morality and finds that it comes up short. Psychoanalysis is of limited usefulness in cultivating virtue. It misunderstands the root of the issue and instead attacks an incidental side effect or symptom. Again and again throughout the text, Lewis underscores the uselessness of emotions as guides for behavior. They are unpredictable and inconsistent, and there is little direct correlation between our emotions and our actions. The Moral Law does not tell us we ought to do good if we feel like it.

There is another paradox here. The only way we can practice morality is through right actions regardless of our inner state, yet Lewis states God is unconcerned with our actions but quite concerned about the inner state of the actor. The paradox collapses when one recognizes the distinction between psychology, which produces feelings and emotions, and our real self, which is the core that remains when psychology and the rest of the bodily functions pass away. This real self is not emotion, but will, and it is eternal. It is our will we are training when we practice morality. We are training it to line up with God's will through action, and emotion does not enter into this equation.

Good and bad actions have a self-reinforcing effect on the will. When we choose to act immorally, we are more likely to choose another immoral act in the future, and the reverse is also true. In this way character is shaped gradually over time. We are not defined by any single action. However, we must be careful of even our smallest move because it is easy for a small lapse to balloon into an immoral habit. Lewis speaks of heaven and hell as inward rather than external states. Morality is the key that opens the door to the heaven within.

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