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"Humans are amphibians - half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time." -- CS Lewis

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Pursuit of... What Again?

Why is that while a man is in the early stages of his love life for his wife, he feels as though this feeling of bliss and attachment is permanent? And why then is it considered normal for a man to impulsively leave his wife eventually, despite his marriage and his initial feelings, and find greater satisfaction in another woman? This strong human attraction towards happiness – that intrinsic force to justify our impulses – is what CS Lewis addresses in “Have No ‘Right to Happiness.’” Such “longings,” as Cornelius Plantinga defines them in Engaging God’s World, are supposed to be manifestations of our desire to seek God and commune with Him, since this is what He created us for. “Our [longing for] God runs in us like a stream, even though we divert towards other things” (Plantinga), and the diversion that Lewis discusses in his essay is, more specifically, sexual longing. This precious gift from God is one we distort frequently, turning it into a highly egocentric longing.

The reason for this distortion comes from the freewheeling sense that sexual desire gives us. Since the “pursuit of happiness” is one of the overarching rights we have, we tend to think that we have a right to divorce our spouses in pursuit of sexual happiness with another partner. We also give in more readily because of the strength of the desire, the “strong erotic passion” (which, ironically, was the initial reason we thought we would be swimming in bliss with the same person forever). These desires are thus given the “privilege of freedom,” and create what Lewis calls “sexual morality”: a duty, separate from conventional morality, to fulfill these longings. Lewis’ fictitious character, Clare, defends two people who each left their previous families to marry each other by using this “duty” as a legitimate cause for their actions.

Thus comes into play the issue of the “Natural Law,” as it relates specifically to the “laws of the state” regarding such duties. The concept of an unwritten canon we seem to perceive, by virtue of being human, is one that John Locke defines in his political commentary, “The Social Contract,” believing that this is the result of human reason. This concept is further explored in Sophocles’ tragedy, Antigone, where the heroine Antigone is executed for burying her deceased brother, despite being forbidden by state law to do so because of his traitorous acts before his death. Since she believed that her duty to her family superseded her legal obligations, she acted on her own view of morality. In the end, it was unclear whether she or the state was in the right, but state law was strict and unwavering regarding her case. Lewis is writing about the same kind of personal morality, where Clare maintains that Mr. A. had a duty to himself “to act as he did,” thus condoning his actions. The difference, however, between Mr. A.’s situation and Antigone’s is that the law of the state is actually on Mr. A.’s side. He is legally allowed to divorce Mrs. A. and “pursue happiness by all lawful means.” Sexual morality can therefore be highly subjective, with legal approval. (Note: domestic violence is another issue.)

The duty to pursue personal happiness, coupled with the (largely) lawful subjectivity of morality, produces a trend running though society today which epistemologists call “moral relativism”: the belief that morality, ethics, and truth are entirely subjective in all circumstances. This concept is what Lewis hints at in the closing paragraph of “Have No ‘Right to Happiness,’” bleakly remarking that “we thus advance toward a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche.” This post-modern mindset is a particularly slippery slope, and it could ultimately change the concept of the Natural Law as we see it. If we were to fully adopt moral relativism, each person would adhere to his or her own perception of morality, and thus the term “Natural Law” is rendered meaningless; there would be no universal standards to abide by, and it would become a happiness free-for-all. Just as a right provided by the state to one individual is “correlative to an obligation on someone else’s part,” as Lewis says, the morality-free satisfaction of one will surely infringe on the happiness of another. Mr. A., in pursuing his own happiness, surely destroyed Mrs. A.’s, but moral relativism seems to excuse this.

The irony is that, in the end, everyone will end up unhappy, since we will have returned to our primitive “instinct for self-preservation” which philosopher Thomas Hobbes calls man’s “state of nature” in which perceived “happiness” is nothing more than survival impulses. This, obviously, is not in any way what God intended happiness to be for us; He desires, more than anything, for us to find true, fulfilling happiness by following His Word. As John Piper quotes from one of Lewis’ letters, “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can,” and His Word should be our standard for morality, despite what Clare would say.


  1. It seemed to me that both Mr. A and Mrs. B wanted an easy love life and an easy marriage when marriage it not easy. Any relationship takes work on both parties and a marriage takes more work than another other kind of relationship. I think that Mr. A and Mrs. B got to the point where they were going to have to start working more at their marriages and neither one of them wanted to so they decided that they would find hsomething new and exciting. Unfortunately they broke two hearts along the way in their ending their marriages. It is a sad thing that something like that is seen as acceptable not just in today's society but in Lewis' days as well.

  2. Abigail I agree with you, being married also it is so hard for me to imagine someone that would so easily walk away from someone they pledged thieir life to. However, that seems to be the case in today's society. Instead of marriage being til death to us part, it has almost become well let's give this a try and if it doesn't work we can just divorce.