C S Lewis and Natural Law

THE HUMAN RACE is haunted by the idea of doing whatis right. In the first
five chapters of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewisdiscusses the fact that people
are always referring to some standard ofbehavior that they expect other
people to know about. People are alwaysdefending themselves by arguing that
what they have been doing does notreally go against that standard, or that
they have some special excuse forviolating 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 thatis not made up by humans but is for humans to observe. Lewis
claims thatall over the earth humans know about this law, and all over the
earth theybreak it; he further claims that there is Something or Somebody
According to Lewis, we find out more about God from Natural Law thanfrom the
universe in general, just as we find out more about a person bylistening to
his conversation than by looking at a house he built. We cantell from
Natural Law that the Being behind the universe is intensely interestedin
fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and
truthfulness.However, the Natural Law does not give us any grounds for
assuming thatGod is soft or indulgent. Natural Law obliges us to do the
straight thingno matter how painful or dangerous or difficult it is to do.
Natural Lawis hard: “It is as hard as nails” (Mere Christianity 23).

This last sentence also appears as the central thought in Lewis’s movingpoem
“Love.” In the first stanza he tells us how love is as warmas tears; in the
second, how it is as fierce as fire; in the third, howit is as fresh as
spring. And in the final stanza he tells us how love isas hard as nails.

Love’s as hard as nails,Love is nails;Blunt, thick, hammered
throughThemedial nerve of OneWho, having made us, knewThe 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 TheWardrobe,
this hardness of the love of God was predicted by the lionAslan when he
promised to save Edmund from the results of treachery. Hesaid “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 wouldnot consider going against the Deep
Magic; instead, he gave himself to diein Edmund’s place, and the next
morning came back to life. He explainedto 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 workingbackwards. The deepest magic worked toward
life and goodness. In Narnia,and in this world as well, if the universe is
not governed by an absolutegoodness all our efforts and hopes are doomed.
But if the universe is ruledby perfect goodness, says Lewis, we are falling
short of that goodness allthe time; we are not good enough to consider
ourselves allies of perfectgoodness (Mere 4). In Narnia Edmund fell so far
short of goodness that hefinally realized with a shock of despair that he
At the end of the chapter entitled “Right and Wrong As A Clue tothe Meaning
of the Universe” in Mere Christianity, Lewis claimedthat until people repent
and want forgiveness, Christianity won’t make sense.Christianity explains
how God can be the impersonal mind behind the NaturalLaw and yet also be a
Person. It tells us how, since we cannot meet thedemands of the law, God
Himself became a human being to save us from ourfailure.

Lewis was of course aware that the presence of natural and moral evilin the
world makes the governance of the world by absolute goodness
seemquestionable, to say the least. He understood Housman in his bitter
complaintagainst “whatever brute and blackguard made the world.” But
Lewisasks by what standard the creator is judged a blackguard. The very
lamentfor Moral law or rejection of Moral Law itself implies a Moral Law.

Lewis was deeply concerned about the fact that many people in this
centuryare losing their belief in Natural Law. He spoke about this in the
RiddellMemorial Lectures given at the University of Durham, published in
In Abolition he used “the Tao” as a shorthand term for theNatural 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,” “theway things change,” “the Life,” “the Source.”
Itslocus 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
tendingtoward life or death. Confucianists see the locus of the Tao as first
ofall in human society, expressed primarily in the respect of inferiors
forpatriarchal superiors, the responsibility of superiors for inferiors,
andthe subordination of the individual to the welfare of the group.
Neitherof these uses quite corresponds to what Lewis seems to intend in
Abolition.Perhaps the Chinese concept that comes closest to Lewis’s apparent
Lewis claimed in Abolition that until quite recent times everyonebelieved
that objects could merit our approval or disapproval, our reverenceor our
contempt. It was assumed that some emotional reactions were moreappropriate
This conception is vividly represented in The Lion, The Witch andthe
Wardrobe; Edmund had inappropriate emotional responses from thevery
beginning. His brother and sisters imagined pleasant creatures theywould
like to meet in the woods, and Edmund hoped for foxes; but Lewis
changedEdmund’s choice to snakes for readers of the Macmillan version in the
UnitedStates. In both versions, when the children met the wise old
professor,Edmund laughed at his looks. When Edmund met the White Witch, his
initialfear quickly turned to trust; and when she gave him a choice of
foods, hestuffed himself with Turkish Delight candy. His attitude toward his
sisterLucy was resentful and superior; he was even suspicious of the good
Robinand Beaver who came to guide the children to safety. Instead of
noticingthe Beaver’s house, he noticed the location of the Witch’s castle in
thedistance. When the name Aslan was first spoken to the four children,
theyall had wonderful feelings except Edmund; he had a sensation of
mysterioushorror. Later events would educate Edmund to respond as the others
Lewis pointed out that according to Aristotle the aim of education,
thefoundation 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
forhateful things. In early Hindu teaching righteousness and correctness
correspondedto 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
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
oppressivecountry 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 worshippingTash and found himself in the presence of Aslan instead. He
responded withreverence and delight. All that he thought he was doing for
Tash could becounted as service to Aslan instead. He was one of Aslan’s
friends longbefore he knew it because he liked what was likeable and hated
Lewis was alarmed by all the people in our day who deny that some thingsare
inherently likeable, debunking traditional morality and the NaturalLaw,
thinking that there can be innovation in values. Some of them try
tosubstitute necessity, progress or efficiency for goodness. But in fact
necessity,progress or efficiency have to be related to a standard outside
themselvesto 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 theirscepticism 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 valueis
sentimental. No factual propositions such as “our society is indanger of
extinction” can give any basis for a system of values; noobservations of
instinct such as “I want to prolong my life” giveany basis for a system of
values. Why is our society valuable? Why is mylife worth preserving? Only
the Natural Law, asserting that human life isof value, gives us a basis for
“If nothing is self evident, nothing can be proved,” Lewisclaimed. “If
nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatoryat all” (27).
He means that if we do not accept Natural Law as self-evidentand obligatory
for its own sake, then all a person’s conceptions of valuefall away. There
are no values that are not derived from Natural Law. Anythingthat is judged
good is such because of values in the Natural Law. The conceptof goodness
Thus, modern innovations in ethics are just shreds of the old NaturalLaw,
sometimes isolated and exaggerated. If any values at all are retained,the
Natural Law is retained. According to Lewis, there never has been andnever
will be a radically new value or value system. The human mind hasno more
power of inventing a new value than of inventing a new primary color.

Admittedly, there are imperfections and contradictions in
historicalmanifestation and interpretations of Natural Law. Some reformers
help usto improve our perceptions of value. Butonly those who live by the
Law knowits spirit well enough to interpret it successfully. People who live
outsidethe Natural Law have no grounds for criticizing Natural Law or
anythingelse. 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
andchoosing to live their lives according to their whims and fancies.

Lewis’s poem “The Country of the Blind,” published in Punchin 1951, presents
an image of people who have come to this. He describeswhat it would be like
to live as a misfit with eyes in a country of eyelesspeople who no longer
This poem tells of “hard” light shining on a whole nation ofeyeless men who
were unaware of their handicap. Blindness had come on graduallythrough many
centuries. At some transitional stage a few citizens remainedwho still had
eyes and vision after most people were blind. The blind werenormal and
up-to-date. They used the same words that their ancestors hadused, but no
longer knew their meaning. They spoke of light still, meaningan abstract
thought. If one who could see tried to describe the grey dawnor 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 sightedone expressed in
metaphor. There was no way he could explain the facts tothem. The blind
ridiculed such a person who took figures of speech literallyand concocted a
myth about a kind of sense perception that no one has everreally had.

If one thinks this is a far-fetched picture, Lewis concluded, one needonly
go to famous men today and try to talk to them about the truths ofNatural
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
BeyondFreedom and Dignity that the abolition of the inner man and
traditionalmorality is necessary so that science can prevent the abolition
of the humanrace. Lewis had already exclaimed in Abolition, “The
preservation ofthe species?–But why should the species be preserved?” (40)
Skinnerdoes not provide an answer, but welcomes Lewis’s scientific
“Controllers”who aim to change and dehumanize the human race in order more
efficientlyto fulfill their purposes.

Lewis satirized this kind of progress in his poem “EvolutionaryHymn,” which
appeared in The Cambridge Review in 1957. UsingLongfellow’s popular hymn
stanza form from “Psalm of Life,” Lewisexclaimed: What do we care about
wrong or justice, joy or sorrow, so longas 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
Lewis has often been carelessly accused of being against science. Infact, he
gives us an admirable scientist in Bill Hingest in That HideousStrength.
Significantly, Hingest was murdered by order of the supposedscientists who
directed the NICE. The enemy is not true science, which isfueled by a love
of truth, but that applied science whose practitionersare motivated by a
love of power. In Lewis’s opinion the technological developmentsthat are
called steps in Man’s Conquest of Nature in fact give certain menpower over
others. Discarding Natural Law will always increase the dangersof having
some people control others. Only Natural Law provides human standardswhich
over-arch rulers and ruled alike. Lewis went so far as to claim, “Adogmatic
belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rulewhich is
not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.” (Abolition46)
The Magician’s Nephew, the tale of the creation of Narnia, givesus two
characters who exemplify the Controllers–Jadis and Uncle AndrewKetterley.
Both claimed to be above Natural Law; they had “a high andlonely destiny.”
Jadis was a monarch and Uncle Andrew was a magician,but both were strongly
suggestive of modern science gone wrong. They bothheld that common rules are
fine for common people, but that singular greatpeople 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 resulthad been knowledge,
Two examples from Lewis’s verse illustrate this traditional wisdom. The1956
poem “After Aristotle” praises virtue, stating that in Greecemen gladly
toiled in search of virtue as their most valuable treasure. Menwould
willingly die or live in hard labor for the beauty of virtue.
Virtuepowerfully touched the heart and gave unfading fruit; virtue made
A second example is “On a Theme from Nicolas of Cusa,” publishedin the Times
Literary Supplement in 1955. In the first stanza Lewisnotes how physical
foods are transformed by our bodies when we assimilatethem; in the second,
he points out that when we assimilate goodness andtruth they are not
At the end of Abolition Lewis implores his readers to pause before
consideringNatural Law only one more accident of human history in a wholly
materialuniverse. To “explain away” this transcendent reality is perhapsto
explain away all explanations. To “see through” the NaturalLaw is the same
The idea that some things are inherently good and others are not is alsothe
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, notto use it as a
mirror to reflect ourselves and our own fantasies or as alens through which
This principle is a particular application of the Natural Law. We approacha
work of literature, as we might a person or flower, with the assumptionthat
here is something good for its own sake, something worth attendingto. After
we have looked at it attentively, objectively, either our effortswill 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 valueof works of
literature with the habits of people who use literature (andthus misuse it),
who prostitute the work to some other purpose.

The unliterary read a work only for the excitement they can get fromthe plot
(as in an adventure story), for the provocation and satisfactionof their
curiosity (as in a detective story), or for vicarious emotionalfulfillment
(as in a love story). Such readers use literature much as achild uses a toy,
or a worshiper a crucifix: as a starting point for a journeyinward or
beyond. Unlike the child or the worshiper, who cherish their objectand use
it many times over, the unliterary usually use a story only once;then it is
There are also users among the literary. There are the status seekers,who
read the academically fashionable literature in order to impress
themselvesand others. There are the self-improvers, whose concern with their
mentalenrichment takes the place of a focus on the work itself.

And there are the wisdom-seekers, who value a work for the Statementabout
Life that it presents. But, says Lewis, works of art do not give usadequate
world views. Too much selection is involved. In life, sufferingis not often
grand and noble and attributable to Tragic Flaws; matters donot end at
points of satisfying finality, but go drizzling on. Works ofliterature may
in fact make us wiser, but that is really incidental to theirtrue function;
and the wisdom we think came from a particular Great Workmay in fact have
come largely from within ourselves. Wisdom seeking is carriedto absurdity in
a particularly keen group he calls the Vigilants (he issurely referring to
F.R. Leavis and friends) who will place their stampof approval only on those
few works that express their own conception ofhow 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 itsrelationship to other parts, for the time being taking the author’s
viewpointas their own. Their refusal of a subjective reading enables them to
enlargethe narrow prison of the self and see with others’ eyes. The
temporary annihilationof the self that takes place actually serves to heal
the loneliness of theself. Lewis overtly compares the process to what
happens in the pursuitof knowledge, or of justice, or the experience of
love: we temporarily rejectthe facts as they are for us in favor of the
facts as they are. In the workof 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 qualitieswe perceived. Lewis
does not deny that our perception and judgment are sometimesflawed. But good
Lewis’s aesthetic provides a necessary and refreshing corrective to
rigorouslydutiful approaches that have ruined the enjoyment of literature
for manyfrom student days onward. For those Christians to whom literary
pleasureshave seemed frivolous or dangerous temptations that might lead away
fromthe Straight Path, Lewis affirms their goodness. He also exposes the
sortof 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
actuallyin the text, we ought not to say anything about a work; and in many
instanceswe might be better off not reading it at all.

Having gratefully accepted Lewis’s basic aesthetic enterprise, we
mustexpress a few reservations. Of course it is true that any work of
imaginativeliterature is too selective to present an adequate philosophy of
life. Butmuch the same could be said of any essay or multi-volumed work in
discursiveprose. Any time we want to speak of the whole, of universals (or
the absencethereof), we must be selective. Most formal treatises on Being,
Becomingor Causality leave out the terror and the joy of the world. The
supposedlyuniversal human experience of Reality discussed in nearly all of
theologyturns 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 frombeing
intended, or taken, as a dramatized world view. This is particularlyevident
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
enlargingexperience of finding out what it is like to be antisemitic.
Unfortunately,it will also cause certain readers to come away with sharpened
convictionsthat the Jewish Conspiracy is the fountainhead of the world’s
evil. Likewise,a work whose achieving and admirable characters are all male,
with its femalesfrothy, manipulative, passive, victimized, and/or marginal,
is saying somethingabout 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 makingfalse values attractive (Christian Reflections 30-35). He does not
referspecifically to fiction, nor does he exclude it. Surely, then a
(morally)bad work of literature can be bad because it presents a dangerously
falseview of life, quite possibly by its selections. In contrast, a
(morally)good work of literature can present true values. There is no reason
whywe cannot receive such a work with diligent and delighted care, and
alsouse 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 Lewisshould have rejected the concept of the literary work as a
parable, in viewof the fact that his own novels (especially the Narnian
tales) are parablesof such enormous power and wisdom.

This, of course, is not to say that every work of literature offers aworld
view. The comedy is not necessarily saying that life is finally ajoke, nor
is the whodunit perforce telling us that the ills of the worldhave a neat
and gratifying solution right at hand, if we could only be perceptiveenough
to see. Even Freud realized that sometimes a cigar is just a goodcigar.

We have affirmed, with minor reservations, Lewis’s reasoning that a workof
literature possesses value in itself. Now we turn back to his thesisof
intrinsic value as applied to all of life, his corrective to a
totallyrelativistic value (or rather nonvalue) system. Sensitive persons who
havefelt their meaning-world collapse around them know how dehumanizing
feltmeaninglessness is. Lewis knew whereof he spoke. (People who
experiencethis collapse without pain are even more dehumanized.) As to the
end resultof consistent subjectivism, the world of the Controllers, Lewis’s
portraitsof Jadis and the directors of the NICE tell us more vividly than
his discursiveprose 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
knowwhy. But subjectivism and relativism can be good things sometimes;
theycan be freeing. People with a sharp and absolute vision are not often
asbroad in mental sympathies and as rich in charity as Lewis; they tend
moretowards psychological imperialism. Many of us, Lewis included, would
ratherlive among people who hold firmly that “Love thy neighbor as
thyself”is the only universally binding principle in personal morality,
leavingto the individual’s own judgment this rule’s application to sexual
ethics,the role of women, or to political allegiance- than among people who
knowin detail God’s will for other private lives as well as for their own
andare busy trying to bring about theocracy. Theocracy is one of our
oldestbanes, and one that Lewis particularly detested.

In conclusion, Lewis’s teaching about Natural Law has acquired uniqueurgency
since his day. He published Abolition in 1947; since thenthere have been
radical shifts in the locus and imminence of threat to theworld. The danger
of nuclear armaments was obvious in 1947, but there werenot enough in
existence then to destroy all life on earth. Only part ofthe public foresaw
the cancer-like proliferation of nuclear weapons thatwould soon threaten to
destroy human life (and our libraries and literaryheritage), and to cause a
nuclear winter. This scenario sounds like theend of the world as foretold in
the Norse mythology that Lewis found socompelling.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the threat of worldwide
destructioncaused by weaponry is far more diffuse. Biological and nuclear
tools ofmodern death technology (as well as possible new alternatives) are
soughtby power-hungry men with many motives. In 1932 Lewis published the
allegoricalPilgrim’s Regress, in which he warned that savage dwarfs called
“theCruels” were then multiplying; communists, fascists, organized
crimesyndicates, and many other sub-species that value violence and a
perversekind of heroism. It seems reasonable to assume that he would have
includedcontemporary perpetrators of genocide and terrorist groups of all
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 livingthing in the
world of Charn was dead. She did this in outright defianceof Natural Law.
The fate of Charn can be read as Lewis’s commentary on possiblelarge-scale
In 1956 Lewis published The Last Battle, in which the land ofNarnia 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 knewour world couldn’t”
(160). Lewis always assumed that our earth hasto die eventually, but he
would have been intensely grieved by today’s accelerateddestruction of the
environment caused not by acts of war, but by recklessplundering and
pollution in defiance of the Natural Law. (Obvious examplesare depletion of
the ozone layer, burning of the rain forests, accumulationof nuclear waste,
In Aslan’s beautiful everlasting country Peter found that Lucy was
cryingbecause of the death of Narnia, and he tried to stop her. But Lucy
appealedto the law in all our hearts and said she was sure it was not wrong
to mournthe death of the world they dearly loved. And Tirian, last king of
Narnia,affirmed her. “It were no virtue, but grave discourtesy, if we didnot
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 theNatural
Law itself will outlast all worlds. And he promises us a new lifethat will
be the Great Story which goes on for ever, in which every chapteris better
than the one before (184). And all who live that story will bereceivers.

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.

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