The “Mere” of Morality
In CS Lewis’ book Mere Christianity, Lewis sets out to define “Mere Christianity." This means, he wants to tell us what has basically been believed regarding the Christian religion. In his third book in Mere Christianity, called “Christian Morality” Lewis defines for us the basics of how a Christian should live.
Lewis begins the third book by defining morality. He concludes that moral rules are the “directions for running the human machine. Every moral rule is there to prevent a breakdown, or a strain, or a friction, in the running of the human machine.” He also concludes that there are three pieces to morality: (1) fair play and harmony between people (2) Harmony with things inside a person (3) the general purpose of human life as a whole. He illustrates these three points by illustrating how a ship steers so to avoid collisions. In order for a ship to make it to its destination, it must stay clear of other ships. However, if the ship is malfunctioning on the inside, it may be impossible to steer out of the way of other ships. Finally, even if a ship is in perfect working condition and stays clear of other ships, what would the point be in sailing without having a destination? In the same way, laws for social morality make little sense if we are selfish on the inside. Likewise, the things we believe regarding the world greatly affect our morality.
Lewis then turns to the seven virtues which give us directions for running the human machine. The first four are commonly referred to as the “cardinal virtues.” The word cardinal means “the hinge of the door” and refers to the virtues that all civilized people recognize. They are the basic virtues that all the others hinge upon.
(1) The first is “Prudence”, meaning practical common sense. Some people would call this wisdom. There is a common misunderstanding about Christianity that people should believe in Jesus out of stupidity. However, as Lewis points out, Christ calls us to be as wise as serpents. Being faithful involves the intellect as well.
(2) The second virtue is “Temperance.” Lewis suggests that this has been come to mean abstinence, but it really mean going the right length with all things. This is not just about alcohol, but involves food, drink, sex, etc.
(3) The third virtue is “Justice” The Greek philosophers felt this was the chief of all the cardinal virtues. Lewis defines this as “everything that involves fairness.” It means honesty, compromise, give and take, truthfulness, and keeping promises.
(4) The fourth virtue and the final cardinal virtue is “fortitude.” Some have called this “courage” Lewis says it involves two things, (a) courage in danger and (b) courage in pain. Lewis suggests that this is the one that transcends all the other virtues.
One thing of particular importance is that actions of virtue are not ends in themselves, but are means to an end. Lewis notes, “[A] man who perseveres in doing just actions gets in the end a certain quality of character. Now it is the quality rather than the particular actions which we mean when we talk of a ‘virtue’.” He points out those actions done for the wrong reasons do not help build character and God is more interested in a person of a particular sort. This is important because our actions done in this life produce people of a particular character for the next life.
In the last four chapters, Lewis addresses the three Theological virtues which complete the seven virtues.
(5) The fifth virtue is “Charity”. This does not only mean giving money to the poor, but means love. This is not just an emotion that you feel towards people; it is something you actively do. The feeling you have for someone is whether you “like” them or not. Liking someone is not a virtue, but loving someone even when you do not like them is. A simple rule for doing this is to not bother with whether or not you feel like you love others, act as if you do and then you will find that you love them more.
(6) The sixth virtue is “Hope”. Lewis defines this as looking forward to heaven, not to escape this life, but to give this life its proper meaning. He suggests that things in this world bring temporary happiness, but nothing in this world satisfies us completely. He concludes that this means we were created for another world. When we understand that, we realize that the joys in this world are here to arouse our desires for the next world. Lewis says, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
(7) The seventh virtue is “Faith”. Lewis distinguishes two usages of faith. (a) In one sense faith is holding on to the things your reason has led you to believe in spite of your changing moods. (b) The second sense of the faith is when we leave it to God and put all our trust in Christ. It is trusting that Christ will make us more like him. This does not mean that we stop trying, but that we try in a new way.
If you have read Mere Christianity, you may have notice that I left out several chapters in the middle of the third book. These chapters deal with what Lewis calls “Christian morality.” These are (1) chastity, (2) forgiveness, and (3) humility. I think these virtues all arise out of the other seven virtues. Chastity involves temperance and charity. Sex is a good thing and Christianity celebrates it, however, it can be destructive if used in a way that it was not intended. Forgiveness involves charity and loving your neighbor. Finally, humility counters what Lewis considers to be the greatest evil, pride. He believed pride was the central issue that destroys the human machine and it is the primary cause of sin. It is the greatest challenge to morality.