Mere Christianity Part 13


I know I said I’d focus on the Bible today, and I will. But first I want to write a few posts on Mere Christianity. This post will be on Chapter 2, “The ‘Cardinal Virtues,'” of Book Three.
C.S. Lewis begins this chapter by discussing what his cardinal virtues are. He states “According to this longer scheme there are seven ‘virtues.’ Four of them are called ‘Cardinal’ virtues…The ‘Cardinal’ ones are those which all civilized people recognize.” This is a problematic statement. First, what is a civilized person? This was a commonly used term that in general just means “people like me.” It is essentially a useless sentiment. And second, what virtues do all people actually follow? What anything do all people do/think/believe? Any statement claiming that “all people”…well, anything, really, is almost always false. Why? Because people are diverse. If it isn’t necessary for survival, then it is unlikely that everybody does, thinks, or believes it.
He then goes into defining each virtue. He claims that “These were called ‘cardinal’ virtues because they are, as we should say, ‘pivotal’…They are prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude.” How are these virtues pivotal? And why are these thought to be the important ones? Lewis doesn’t say why he picked these virtues over all others, or even why he thinks these are virtues. Lewis then states that “Prudence means practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it.” Being prudent means being cautious or practical. I suppose you could define it as having common sense, but those seem to me to be two different virtues. And common sense is by its definition practical. But what is common sense? It’s not defined very well and it seems to be different from person to person. My step-dad would say that working 80 hours a week to pay off your mortgage in 25 years is common sense. I’d say that avoiding a mortgage as much as possible is common sense. Being as we’re from two different generations with two very different realities, it’s not surprising that we hold two very different views where home ownership is concerned. So how can Lewis say that there is any one common sense that is right for everyone? And if he’s not saying that, then what does it mean to have common sense?
Lewis then moves on to define temperance. He argues that “Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened ‘Temperance,’ it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.” What is the right length to take any activity or habit? When do you say you are going too far? Can you say you aren’t going far enough in certain habits? I wouldn’t call temperance a virtue. Yes, I think that moderation is a good thing and addiction can be bad for everybody involved. But the idea that there is a line that separates “the right amount” from “too much” is silly. And I don’t have a problem with people enjoying certain things “too much” so long as they don’t get to the point where they begin controlling the person. For example, if a person is overall healthy: they eat healthy food, they get exercise, and they don’t have any health conditions that make it dangerous, I see nothing wrong with a person drinking a 2 liter bottle of pop and eating a few bags of chips themselves while watching a movie marathon once in a while. None of that is very temperate, but I can’t see how it could be wrong. Lewis goes on to say that “One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he can not give something up without wanting everyone else to give it up.” This comment kind of amuses me. When I read it, I can’t help but think of the Christian organizations that want to force the laws in a given country to reflect their belief system regardless of the fact that not everybody in said country is Christian and many of those laws would infringe on peoples’ rights. Yes, other religious groups do this too, but as a Canadian I see this more from Christians than anyone else. If forcing others to give up the same things that you give up makes you a bad person, then aren’t the Christians (and Muslims, etc) who try to force everyone to accept Christian laws bad people as well? Aren’t they doing that very thing that Lewis says is the mark of a bad person? Finally, Lewis says of temperance, “A man who makes his golf or his motor-bicycle the center of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her dog, is being just as ‘intemperate’ as someone who gets drunk every evening.” Again, if the person is only affecting themself, who cares what they put at the center of their life? So long as they aren’t neglecting their family, who am I to say a motorcycle shouldn’t be the center of a persons life? I really don’t see why temperance is a virtue on Lewis’s list. I can think of so many better things.
Lewis then discusses justice. He states that “Justice means much more than the sort of thing that goes on in law courts. It is the old name for everything we should now call ‘fairness’; it includes honesty, give and take, truthfulness, keeping promises, and all that side of life.” So many words, so much wrong. No, Lewis, fairness and justice are not the same thing. It is possible to be just without being fair or fair without being just. Justice is concerned with doing what is right, and fairness is concerned with doing what is equal. For example, a farmer dies and leaves his land to his nephew because he has no children of his own, but an old farmhand of his thinks that he should get some of the land because he worked very hard for the farmer. It would be fair for a judge to divide the land between the two parties. But would that be just? Fairness also has nothing to do with honesty (or truthfulness, since they are the same thing). You can lie to people while ensuring that they receive equal treatment. And sometimes it’s perfectly fair or just to lie.
Lewis never does discuss fortitude. He skips it and instead discusses all of the virtues together. He argues that “We might think that, provided you did the right thing, it did not matter how or why you did it-whether you did it willingly or unwillingly, sulkily or cheerfully, through fear of public opinion or for its own sake.” There are whole fields of philosophy set up around morality. There are those, consequentialists, who would argue that the consequences of your actions are all that matters. Others argue that they don’t matter at all, only your intentions matter. Personally, I think the consequences matter more than the intent, but the intent does matter. However, I wouldn’t say that someone’s actions can’t be called good simply because they were grumpy while they did it. He then goes on to say that “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.” Really? Where in the Bible is that claim supported? I’ve seen a lot of “do as I say because I told you to” and “nobody is worthy of my awesome,” but I haven’t seen any “follow me because you have personality traits x, y, and z.”
He concludes the chapter by saying “The point is not that God will refuse you admission to His eternal world if you have not got certain qualities of character: the point is that if people have not got at least the beginning of those qualities inside them, then no possible external conditions could make a ‘Heaven’ for them-that is, could make them happy with the deep, strong, unshakable kind of happiness God intends for us.” This very idea is just odd. Happiness is happiness, is it not? What kind of happiness is it that is necessary for a heaven to be made for you? What kind of happiness can a Christian feel that I can’t? I have a feeling that anybody who believes that they can feel a degree of happiness that others can’t is simply denying the emotions of others.

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6 responses to “Mere Christianity Part 13

  • hannahgivens

    “Lewis doesn’t say why he picked these virtues over all others…”

    Because, as you quoted him above that, they’re the Catholic cardinal virtues?

    I agree with a lot of your reactions here, but I do think you’re missing a lot of the context Lewis expected his readers to have. Even if a theology book is supposedly aimed at non-Christians, it’s a reasonable assumption that most of its readers will be Christian. His criticism of people trying to force others to give things up IS designed for Christians to hear, and Christians WANT to hear moral lessons like “Exercise moderation.” It’s not about convincing you to tell someone else their motorcycle is too important to them, it’s about educating readers that moderation is healthy. Christianity, as it’s generally conceived by Christians, IS about making them better people, and it’s perfectly acceptable in Christian culture to discuss personal areas of improvement that may not affect other people. And if you’re talking about general areas of virtue, you don’t really have to be super duper specific about exactly what justice means, because in this context it applies to a wide swathe of life.

    I agree much of the message is problematic, and that people can totally be happy without being Christians, and whatnot. It just seems like you’re criticizing his delivery more than his message, and criticizing that delivery by criteria he never had in mind. Forgive me if I’m interpreting you incorrectly. 🙂

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  • clubschadenfreude

    ““The point is not that God will refuse you admission to His eternal world if you have not got certain qualities of character: the point is that if people have not got at least the beginning of those qualities inside them, then no possible external conditions could make a ‘Heaven’ for them-that is, could make them happy with the deep, strong, unshakable kind of happiness God intends for us.” ”

    This quote of Lewis’ is quite the blame the victim nonsense. It also belies the biblical claims that this god made us to be exactly what it wanted us to be. So, if we somehow *can’t* appreciate this heaven, God made it that way, if the nonsense is to be believed.

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  • sta1986

    I have come late to your Mere Christianity series. However, I felt that when I read it, that CSLewis’ heart was in the right place..I may disagree with what he said and some of the words he used but I agree with how he said things. I think it is a good book for showing how people can explain what they believe honestly and with integrity, without being judgemental, horrible or insensitive. I also think that if more people thought about what they believed in this much detail it would improve both their understanding of what they believed and their understanding on why others do not believe

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