Saturday, January 14, 2012

C.S. Lewis & the Natural Law

There is an appendix to C.S. Lewis's book The Abolition of Man in which Lewis attempts to set out the natural law, in the sense of moral precepts known across different cultures and times. Lewis does a good job of this; of particular interest to traditionalists, he upholds in these laws particular ties of affection, duty and loyalty.

For example, his first natural law is the law of beneficence. But this is divided into a law of general beneficence and a law of special beneficence. Included as examples of special beneficence are these:

'Love thy wife studiously. Gladden her heart all thy life long.' (Ancient Egyptian. ERE v. 481)

'Nothing can ever change the claims of kinship for a right thinking man.' (Anglo-Saxon. Beowulf, 2600)

'I ought not to be unfeeling like a statue but should fulfil both my natural and artificial relations, as a worshipper, a son, a brother, a father, and a citizen.' (Greek. Ibid. 111. ii)

'This first I rede thee: be blameless to thy kindred. Take no vengeance even though they do thee wrong.' (Old Norse. Sigdrifumál, 22)

'The union and fellowship of men will be best preserved if each receives from us the more kindness in proportion as he is more closely connected with us.' (Roman. Cicero. De Off. i. xvi)

'Is it only the sons of Atreus who love their wives? For every good man, who is right-minded, loves and cherishes his own.' (Greek. Homer, Iliad, ix. 340)

'Part of us is claimed by our country, part by our parents, part by our friends.' (Roman. Ibid. i. vii)

'If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith.' (Christian. I Timothy 5:8)

Another natural law is the duty to parents, elders and ancestors:

'Honour thy Father and thy Mother.' (Ancient Jewish. Exodus 20:12)

'To care for parents.' (Greek. List of duties in Epictetus, in. vii)

'When proper respect towards the dead is shown at the end and continued after they are far away, the moral force (tê) of a people has reached its highest point.' (Ancient Chinese. Analects, i. 9)
 Another is to children and posterity:

'Nature produces a special love of offspring' (Roman. Cicero, De Off. i. iv,)

'To marry and to beget children.' (Greek. List of duties. Epictetus, in. vii)

An interesting law of nature is what is termed "magnanimity" by Lewis, meaning greatness of mind and heart, a refusal to be petty, a willingness to face danger, and actions for noble purposes. It is the opposite of pusillanimity. It has been defined as follows:

Greatness of mind; that elevation or dignity of soul, which encounters danger and trouble with tranquility and firmness, which raises the possessor above revenge, and makes him delight in acts of benevolence, which makes him disdain injustice and meanness, and prompts him to sacrifice personal ease, interest and safety for the accomplishment of useful and noble objects.

It's interesting that this overlaps considerably with the concept of "praetes" which is often (misleadingly it seems to me) translated as "meekness" or "gentleness" in the Bible. Here are some examples as collected by Lewis:

'There are two kinds of injustice: the first is found in those who do an injury, the second in those who fail to protect another from injury when they can.' (Roman. Cicero, De Off. I. vii)

'They came to the fields of joy, the fresh turf of the Fortunate Woods and the dwellings of the Blessed . . . here was the company of those who had suffered wounds fighting for their fatherland.' (Roman. Virgil, Aeneid, vi. 638-9, 660)

'The Master said, Love learning and if attacked be ready to die for the Good Way.' (Ancient Chinese. Analects, viii. 13)

'Death is better for every man than life with shame.' (Anglo-Saxon. Beowulf, 2890)

Finally, I'd point out that you have to be careful in accepting natural law doctrine. Just because something exists in nature doesn't mean it's right or good. Natural law doctrine has to be either a partial justification ("nature intended us to do x") or else it can be argued for along the lines that an objective good can be discerned by the faculties given to men (e.g. reason, conscience). The Catholic encylopedia also points out that there are natural impulses or tendencies which are conflicting and so have to be harmoniously ordered:

Actions are wrong if, though subserving the satisfaction of some particular need or tendency, they are at the same time incompatible with that rational harmonious subordination of the lower to the higher which reason should maintain among our conflicting tendencies and desires. For example, to nourish our bodies is right; but to indulge our appetite for food to the detriment of our corporal or spiritual life is wrong. Self-preservation is right, but to refuse to expose our life when the well-being of society requires it, is wrong.

To be worthwhile an account of natural law has to be set out intelligently and comprehensively; Lewis's, I think, is likely to be one of the more productive accounts.


  1. The global Muslim reaction to 9/11 convinced me that Lewis' account is defective.

    Blatant, exultant, sadistic glee in the misfortunes of others, shameless bragging and dancing about - all this is outside the "way" as we in the West have understood it. Certainly it is known as part of human nature, but always as something that displeases the gods, for example Achilles blowing his standing with the gods by abusing Hector.

    But it is normal and approved in the Muslim world, when it is Muslim on kuffer, and it is right in line with the Koran and the behavior of Muhammed himself, the ideal Muslim model.

    That made me understand how deep a religious difference goes.

    Later I also decided that a natural law applies best among people of one nature. What inward-looking White Westerners once mistook for Natural Law was actually the nature of their own kind, projected more or less implausibly on other people who aren't like that.

    Even between the European-descended peoples and the sons and daughters of the Middle East, the differences are profound.

    This deep and subtle difference in temperament leads to the construction of quite different religions, which in turn have selected for a different kind of people. The laws of holy war in the Old Testament and their bloody implications are akin to the plundering laws of Muhammed, privileging the cruelest and most aggressive among one's own people, and inculcating all possible hatred and contempt for outsiders. Saul had pity on Agag; so much the worse for Saul. Abrahamic religion in the Middle East selects against people with that kind of defect.

    Egyptian religion, created by very different people, was unlike that. Certainly it included some disdain, and in appropriate contexts violence for foreigners, seen as invaders and disruptive, barbaric forces threatening the civilized, peaceful people of the Nile. But the whole thing had a different bias and tone, corresponding to a cud-chewing temperament that satisfies itself best in innocent complacency and knowing its familiar boundaries. It has not at all the aggressive, rapacious, cruel and hyper-tribalistic Semitic tone.

    Native-built Western religions also are very different. The gods are not viciously tribal-minded in the familiar Middle Eastern way; they are higher than that for all their flaws. Zeus with his golden scales of justice and the gods divided in their loyalties between the Trojans and the Acheans - this comes from a different people, and it goes with a vast imaginative sympathy for those on the other side that is not native to the Middle East (though it did find a home in Christianity).

    For White Westerners: the sympathetic drama of The Trojan Women, or of Suppliants. For Middle Easterners, God's judgments on the Amalekites, to the last baby, or the pleasures that Muslims can expect in Paradise from the intense physical tortures of the damned, as arranged by a God that does not love those who disobey.

  2. It is very telling that Lewis, a widely read man, did not take quotes from the Koran when trying to formulate his rules on natural law.

  3. Yes the Muslims are damned. For all their warrior talk though they're not even that good at that, its all living in the hills and self destruction.

  4. "Yes the Muslims are damned. For all their warrior talk though they're not even that good at that, its all living in the hills and self destruction"
    Meanwhile they migrate to our countries and reproduce in great numbers. Antagonise, assault and rape our citizens. Sue us and fund propaganda in our nations.
    Gee do you think this means figured out other ways to fight us?

  5. I think you have substituted T.S.Eliot's name for C.S.Lewis toward the end.

  6. I think so too.

    And I didn't mean to derail the thread.

    C.S. Lewis had good ideas on natural law, and it is good to build on them.

    I just think he applied the idea too widely, with too much projection.

  7. David, thanks - I've fixed it.

    It's my understanding that the concept of natural law commits us to the idea that we can know aspects of the good through reason or conscience.

    It doesn't mean that every tradition has recognised and embodied the good to an equal degree. Nor does it mean that religions are to be considered as equally valid expressions of religious truth.

  8. C.S. Lewis had good ideas on natural law, and it is good to build on them.

    I just think he applied the idea too widely, with too much projection.

    Daybreaker, you might be right. I haven't read The Abolition of Man, though I'm curious now about the book.

  9. It's an excellent book and a quick read. An online copy can be found here:

  10. Yes, Anon is right: It's an insightful book.

    Lewis' thesis is that for the first time, our rulers are aiming to destroy man as created and replace him with their own creation.

    To accomplish this, they have to uproot him from his grounding in his traditions and the ways of his ancestors, specifically those ways which reflect The Way that all men are designed to follow.

    His argument anticipates presciently the liberals' current effort to abolish men's sex, race and mind. I think Lewis, were he alive, would explain these efforts not as functions of a commitment to individual autonomy-though he might allow that this commitment is the official justification-but as results of a godless will to power on the part of the elite.

    Possible differences over the motivation of liberals aside, you and Lewis say strikingly similar things when it comes to predicting how the liberal project will end up.

    One more word about the book: Lewis does not see anything particularly unique in modernism's origin: He sees it as one more innovation (a bad thing) and departure from the Way. What I'd particularly dangerous about modernism is that its terminus-the abolition of man-seems to preclude a return to the Way. No past innovation had done that before.

    It is a profound book. I hope you have the chance to read it. It really is a short and engaging read.

  11. Anonymous said,

    "Gee do you think this means figured out other ways to fight us?"

    Shut the gate problem solved.

  12. "Shut the gate problem solved."


  13. The gate is impossible to shut, and the culprit is Pale-skinned Liberalism.

    Despite really not liking Islam as a religion I get along surprisingly well with most Muslims.

    They tend to have a far more traditionalist outlook on life.

    I think if AC-Australians ever begin converting in large numbers that difference in outlook will be a part of the reason.

  14. I wonder if it's primarily ideological left reasons? Many prioritize economic factors, ie citizens as workers and consumers, seemingly regardless of background, which appears to have led to cultural colour blindness.

  15. James wrote,

    " Despite really not liking Islam as a religion I get along surprisingly well with most Muslims.

    They tend to have a far more traditionalist outlook on life."

    except white liberals has a more traditional outlook on life. Shoot, the savages on Papua New Guinea have a more traditional outlook on life too, maybe even more so than the Muslims. Should Australia import all of Port Moresby? Or maybe we just shouldn't be surprised when half of Sydney runs bones through their noses and starts doing the ooga booga.

    Rousseau was wrong: We're not going to improve things by holding up the savage as a paragon of nobility. Let the Left fetishize Muslims, Papuans, or, here in the US, the Magic Negro. And let us return to the ways of our fathers.

  16. Mark, 'The Abolition of Man' is one of my favourite Lewis essays, well worth the read. I think he uses the term 'natural law' in his essay in a way that is quite different to the way you use it, which may be significant, for he argues against a law that comes out of nature. That summary, I think, is meant to be illustrative of moral conditions that exist prior to, and separate from nature, and which are cultivated through education and upbringing.

    As always though it is best to let Lewis speak for himself. His essay is here.

  17. Oh. You linked to the essay yourself. Whoops, sorry to tell you what you already know. :)

  18. Mark,
    You (C.S Lewis, factually) have not described the Natural Law. You have just described laws of civilization. Those two are very different things.

  19. Anon, whence comes civilization/culture?