Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 3, Chapter 5 : Christian Behavior (Sexual Morality) | Summary



In this chapter Lewis addresses chastity, the virtue concerning sex. It is distinct from the social rule of modesty, which differs among cultures. Lewis admits chastity is an unpopular virtue because it prohibits sex outside the context of a faithful marriage.

Our culture has given us a warped idea of what constitutes healthy sexual appetite and expression. Our overeager sexual appetite could come from "starvation," Lewis says, or from overindulgence, just as the appetite for food increases with either extreme. Lewis asks the reader to consider a culture where the display of a plate of meat on a stage evinced similar excitement as the "strip-tease act" of today. Both scenarios indicate a culture whose biological instincts have been skewed.

Lewis says Christianity, far from being antisex, is "almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body." But restraint of every human impulse is necessary for happiness, and sexual morality merely acknowledges this fact.

Since the Christian must attempt perfect chastity, Lewis says it doesn't pay to dwell on how difficult it is. Instead one must ask for God's assistance and for forgiveness after each mistake. It is the habit of trying that shapes our soul in the way God wishes. Further, the "sins of the flesh ... are the least bad of all sins." They come from the Animal self within. The spiritual vices that spring from the Diabolical self within are far worse.


Lewis wrote Mere Christianity during the years of World War II, between 1941 and 1945. The war and its aftermath were the genesis of major cultural, political, and social shifts around the globe. The war effort demanded a temporary shift in traditional gender roles as women stepped in to fill the jobs left vacant by men called to the front. When the war ended, women had an undeniable claim to equal competence and their unwillingness to leave the workplace and return to the domestic sphere ushered in the second wave of feminism. The foundation on which traditional gender roles and sexual mores rested was further undermined by the appearance of the contraceptive pill in 1960. One wonders what Lewis would have made of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, considering how out of balance he considered the sexual mores of the 1940s.

It is interesting to consider Lewis's own life in light of the virtue of chastity. He did not marry until the final decade of his life. Up until that point he lived most of his adult life with the mother of his fallen World War I comrade. It was the fulfillment of a promise made in the trenches that if one of them died, the other would care for his family. Speculation about the nature of Lewis's relationship with this much older woman varies wildly. Perhaps she was a mother figure for Lewis, whose own mother had died when he was a boy. It is known that Lewis's father disapproved of the relationship so much that Lewis attempted to conceal it from him.

Lewis has been criticized as being prudish and backward-looking for his characterization of homosexuality as unnatural and perverted. Yet at the end of the chapter his tone feels quite liberal when he says it is better to be a prostitute than a "cold, self-righteous" churchgoing "prig."

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