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Compelling Reason

C. S. Lewis


  William Collins

  An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

  1 London Bridge Street

  London SE1 9GF

  First published in Great Britain by Fount Paperbacks in 1996

  This ebook edition published by William Collins in 2017

  Copyright © 1996 C.S. Lewis Pte Ltd

  Foreword copyright © 1996 C.S. Lewis Pte Ltd

  Walter Hooper asserts the moral right to be identified as the compiler of this work

  The material in this compilation was previously published in: ‘First and Second Things’, first published in Undeceptions by Geoffrey Bles, London 1971; first Fount Paperbacks edition published in 1985 (essays 2, 3, 6, 10, 13, 15, 16, 18, 21); copyright © 1985 C.S. Lewis Pte Ltd. ‘Present Concerns’, first published in 1986 by Fount Paperbacks (essays 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11, 17, 22, 23); copyright © 1986 C.S. Lewis Pte Ltd. ‘Timeless at Heart’, first published in 1987 by Fount Paperbacks (essays 1, 12, 14, 19, 20, 24); copyright © 1970, 1980, 1987 C.S. Lewis Pte Ltd

  A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

  Source ISBN: 9780008220884

  Ebook Edition © June 2017 ISBN: 9780008228514

  Version: 2017-05-24



  Title Page


  Foreword by Douglas Gresham

  1Why I Am Not a Pacifist


  3First and Second Things


  5Three Kinds of Men

  6‘Horrid Red Things’

  7Democratic Education

  8A Dream

  9Is English Doomed?

  10Meditation in a Toolshed


  12Christian Apologetics

  13The Decline of Religion

  14Religion Without Dogma?


  16Modern Translations of the Bible

  17On Living in an Atomic Age

  18The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment

  19The Pains of Animals

  20Is Theism Important?

  21Xmas and Christmas

  22Prudery and Philology

  23Is History Bunk?

  24Willing Slaves of the Welfare State

  Original Sources


  About the Author

  Other Books By C.S. Lewis

  About the Publisher


  This book is not a collection of hitherto unpublished work, it is a collection of essays which are not presently in print but which Murray White of HarperCollins and myself thought should remain available to the reading public. One of the legacies which one inherits from a great writer is the responsibility to try to ensure that his minor works do not vanish from publication, or at the very least that they do not vanish until people no longer want to read them.

  In this volume, we have tried to select those essays of Jack’s (C. S. Lewis) which are applicable to today’s world and still very much in demand. Jack said that a writer should not try to be ‘modern’ or ‘up to date’ because the more that he achieves it, the more he ensures that in a very short time he will be ‘out of date’. And it is this ability to achieve timelessness which so characterizes the best of Jack’s essays and articles. It is inevitable that some of what Jack wrote is coloured and affected by his upbringing and the environment in which he lived, but the crystal clarity of his thinking frequently enabled him to cut through the shrouds of his era and reach to the very heart of matters which will concern men and women of thought for all time. We hope that you will find this phenomenon exemplified in this book.

  Douglas Gresham

  Ireland 1996



  The question is whether to serve in the wars at the command of the civil society to which we belong is a wicked action, or an action morally indifferent or an action morally obligatory. In asking how to decide this question, we are raising a much more general question: how do we decide what is good or evil? The usual answer is that we decide by conscience. But probably no one thinks now of conscience as a separate faculty, like one of the senses. Indeed, it cannot be so thought of. For an autonomous faculty like a sense cannot be argued with; you cannot argue a man into seeing green if he sees blue. But the conscience can be altered by argument; and if you did not think so, you would not have asked me to come and argue with you about the morality of obeying the civil law when it tells us to serve in the wars. Conscience, then, means the whole man engaged in a particular subject matter.

  But even in this sense conscience still has two meanings. It can mean (a) the pressure a man feels upon his will to do what he thinks is right; (b) his judgement as to what the content of right and wrong are. In sense (a) conscience is always to be followed. It is the sovereign of the universe, which ‘if it had power as it has right, would absolutely rule the world’. It is not to be argued with, but obeyed, and even to question it is to incur guilt. But in sense (b) it is a very different matter. People may be mistaken about wrong and right; most people in some degree are mistaken. By what means are mistakes in this field to be corrected?

  The most useful analogy here is that of Reason – by which I do not mean some separate faculty but, once more, the whole man judging, only judging this time not about good and evil, but about truth and falsehood. Now any concrete train of reasoning involves three elements.

  Firstly, there is the reception of facts to reason about. These facts are received either from our own senses, or from the report of other minds; that is, either experience or authority supplies us with our material. But each man’s experience is so limited that the second source is the more usual; of every hundred facts upon which to reason, ninety-nine depend on authority.

  Secondly, there is the direct, simple act of the mind perceiving self-evident truth, as when we see that if A and B both equal C, then they equal each other. This act I call intuition.

  Thirdly, there is an art or skill of arranging the facts so as to yield a series of such intuitions which linked together produce a proof of the truth or falsehood of the proposition we are considering. Thus in a geometrical proof each step is seen by intuition, and to fail to see it is to be not a bad geometrician but an idiot. The skill comes in arranging the material into a series of intuitable ‘steps’. Failure to do this does not mean idiocy, but only lack of ingenuity or invention. Failure to follow it need not mean idiocy, but either inattention or defect of memory which forbids us to hold all the intuitions together.

  Now all correction of errors in reasoning is really correction of the first or the third element. The second, the intuitional element, cannot be corrected if it is wrong, nor supplied if it is lacking. You can give the man new facts. You can invent a simpler proof, that is, a simple concatenation of intuitable truths. But when you come to an absolute inability to see any one of the self-evident steps out of which the proof is built, then you can do nothing. No doubt this absolute inability is much rarer than we suppose. Every teacher knows that people are constantly protesting that they ‘can’t see’ some self-evident inference, but the supposed inability i
s usually a refusal to see, resulting either from some passion which wants not to see the truth in question or else from sloth which does not want to think at all. But when the inability is real, argument is at an end. You cannot produce rational intuition by argument, because argument depends upon rational intuition. Proof rests upon the unprovable which has to be just ‘seen’. Hence faulty intuition is incorrigible. It does not follow that it cannot be trained by practice in attention and in the mortification of disturbing passions, or corrupted by the opposite habits. But it is not amenable to correction by argument.

  Before leaving the subject of Reason, I must point out that authority not only combines with experience to produce the raw material, the ‘facts’, but also has to be frequently used instead of reasoning itself as a method of getting conclusions. For example, few of us have followed the reasoning on which even 10 per cent of the truths we believe are based. We accept them on authority from the experts and are wise to do so, for though we are thereby sometimes deceived, yet we should have to live like savages if we did not.

  Now all three elements are found also in conscience. The facts as before, come from experience and authority. I do not mean ‘moral facts’ but those facts about actions without holding which we could not raise moral questions at all – for we should not even be discussing Pacifism if we did not know what war and killing meant, nor Chastity, if we had not yet learned what schoolmasters used to call ‘the facts of life’. Secondly, there are the pure intuitions of utterly simple good and evil as such. Third, there is the process of argument by which you arrange the intuitions so as to convince a man that a particular act is wrong or right. And finally, there is authority as a substitute for argument, telling a man of some wrong or right which he would not otherwise have discovered, and rightly accepted if the man has good reason to believe the authority wiser and better than himself. The main difference between Reason and Conscience is an alarming one. It is thus: that while the unarguable intuitions on which all depend are liable to be corrupted by passion when we are considering truth and falsehood, they are much more liable, they are almost certain to be corrupted when we are considering good and evil. For then we are concerned with some action to be here and now done or left undone by ourselves. And we should not be considering that action at all unless we had some wish either to do or not to do it, so that in this sphere we are bribed from the very beginning. Hence the value of authority in checking, or even superseding, our own activity is much greater in this sphere than in that of Reason. Hence, too, human beings must be trained in obedience to the moral intuitions almost before they have them, and years before they are rational enough to discuss them, or they will be corrupted before the time for discussion arrives.

  These basic moral intuitions are the only element in Conscience which cannot be argued about; if there can be a difference of opinion which does not reveal one of the parties as a moral idiot, then it is not an intuition. They are the ultimate preferences of the will for love rather than hatred, and happiness rather than misery. There are people so corrupted as to have lost even these, just as there are people who can’t see the simplest proof, but in the main these can be said to be the voice of humanity as such. And they are unarguable. But here the trouble begins. People are constantly claiming this unarguable and unanswerable status for moral judgements which are not really intuitions at all but remote consequences or particular applications of them, eminently open to discussion since the consequences may be illogically drawn or the application falsely made.

  Thus you may meet a ‘temperance’ fanatic who claims to have an unanswerable intuition that all strong drink is forbidden. Really he can have nothing of the sort. The real intuition is that health and harmony are good. Then there is a generalization from facts to the effect that drunkenness produces disease and quarrelling, and perhaps also, if the fanatic is Christian, the voice of Authority saying the the body is the temple of the Holy Ghost. Then there is a conclusion that what can always be abused had better never be used at all – a conclusion eminently suited for discussion. Finally, there is the process whereby early associations, arrogance, and the like turn the remote conclusion into something which the man thinks unarguable because he does not wish to argue about it.

  This, then, is our first canon for moral decision. Conscience in the (a) sense, the thing that moves us to do right, has absolute authority, but conscience in the (b) sense, our judgement as to what is right, is a mixture of inarguable intuitions and highly arguable processes of reasoning or of submission to authority; and nothing is to be treated as an intuition unless it is such that no good man has ever dreamed of doubting. The man who ‘just feels’ that total abstinence from drink or marriage is obligatory is to be treated like the man who ‘just feels sure’ that Henry VIII is not by Shakespeare, or that vaccination does no good. For a mere unargued conviction is in place only when we are dealing with the axiomatic; and these views are not axiomatic.

  I therefore begin by ruling out one Pacifist position which probably no one present holds, but which conceivably might be held – that of the man who claims to know on the ground of immediate intuition that all killing of human beings is in all circumstances an absolute evil. With the man who reaches the same result by reasoning or authority, I can argue. Of the man who claims not to reach it but to start there, we can only say that he can have no such intuition as he claims. He is mistaking an opinion, or, more likely, a passion, for an intuition. Of course, it would be rude to say this to him. To him we can only say that if he is not a moral idiot, then unfortunately the rest of the human race, including its best and wisest, are, and that argument across such a chasm is impossible.

  Having ruled out this extreme case, I return to enquire how we are to decide on a question of morals. We have seen that every moral judgement involves facts, intuition and reasoning, and, if we are wise enough to be humble, it will involve some regard for authority as well. Its strength depends on the strength of these four factors. Thus if I find that the facts on which I am working are clear and little disputed, that the basic intuition is unmistakably an intuition, that the reasoning which connects this intuition with the particular judgement is strong, and that I am in agreement or (at worst) not in disagreement with authority, then I can trust my moral judgement with reasonable confidence. And if, in addition, I find little reason to suppose that any passion has secretly swayed my mind, this confidence is confirmed. If, on the other hand. I find the facts doubtful, the supposed intuition by no means obvious to all good men, the reasoning weak, and authority against me, then I ought to conclude that I am probably wrong. And if the conclusion which I have reached turns out also to flatter some strong passion of my own, then my suspicion should deepen into moral certainty. By ‘moral certainty’ I mean that degree of certainty proper to moral decisions; for mathematical certainty is not here to be looked for. I now apply these tests to the judgement, ‘It is immoral to obey when the civil society of which I am a member commands me to serve in the wars!’

  First as to the facts. The main relevant fact admitted by all parties is that war is very disagreeable. The main contention urged as fact by pacifists would be that wars always do more harm than good. How is one to find out whether this is true? It belongs to a class of historical generalizations which involve a comparison between the actual consequences of some actual event and a consequence which might have followed if that event had not occurred. ‘Wars do no good’ involves the proposition that if the Greeks had yielded to Xerxes and the Romans to Hannibal, the course of history ever since would have been perhaps better, but certainly no worse than it actually has been; that a Mediterranean world in which Carthaginian power succeeded Persian would have been at least as good and happy and as fruitful for all posterity as the actual Mediterranean world in which Roman power succeeded Greek. My point is not that such an opinion seems to me overwhelmingly improbable. My point is that both opinions are merely speculative; there is no conceivable way of convincing a man of either. Indeed i
t is doubtful whether the whole conception of ‘what would have happened’ – that is, of unrealized possibilities – is more than an imaginative technique for giving a vivid rhetorical account of what did happen.

  That wars do no good is then so far from being a fact that it hardly ranks as a historical opinion. Nor is the matter mended by saying ‘modern wars’; how are we to decide whether the total effect would have been better or worse if Europe had submitted to Germany in 1914? It is, of course, true that wars never do half the good which the leaders of the belligerents say they are going to do. Nothing ever does half the good – perhaps nothing ever does half the evil – which is expected of it. And that may be a sound argument for not pitching one’s propaganda too high. But it is no argument against war. If a Germanized Europe in 1914 would have been an evil, then the war which prevented that evil was, so far, justified. To call it useless because it did not also cure slums and unemployment is like coming up to a man who has just succeeded in defending himself from a man-eating tiger and saying, ‘It’s no good, old chap. This hasn’t really cured your rheumatism!’

  On the test of the fact, then, I find the Pacifist position weak. It seems to me that history is full of useful wars as well as of useless wars. If all that can be brought against the frequent appearance of utility is mere speculation about what could have happened, I am not converted.

  I turn next to the intuition. There is no question of discussion once we have found it; there is only the danger of mistaking for an intuition something which is really a conclusion and therefore needs argument. We want something which no good man has ever disputed; we are in search of platitude. The relevant intuition seems to be that love is good and hatred bad, or that helping is good and harming bad.

  We have next to consider whether reasoning leads us from this intuition to the Pacifist conclusion or not. And the first thing I notice is that intuition can lead to no action until it is limited in some way or other. You cannot do simply good to simply Man; you must do this or that good to this or that man. And if you do this good, you can’t at the same time do that; and if you do it to these men, you can’t also do it to those. Hence from the outset the law of beneficence involves not doing some good to some men at some times. Hence those rules which so far as I know have never been doubted, as that we should help one we have promised to help rather than another, or a benefactor rather than one who has no special claims on us, or a compatriot more than a stranger, or a kinsman rather than a mere compatriot. And this in fact most often means helping A at the expense of B, who drowns while you pull A on board. And sooner or later, it involves helping A by actually doing some degree of violence to B. But when B is up to mischief against A, you must either do nothing (which disobeys the intuition) or you must help one against the other. And certainly no one’s conscience tells him to help B, the guilty. It remains, therefore, to help A. So far, I suppose, we all agree. If the argument is not to end in an anti- Pacifist conclusion, one or other of two stopping places must be selected. You must either say that violence to B is lawful only if it stops short of killing, or else that killing of individuals is indeed lawful but the mass killing of a war is not. As regards the first, I admit the general proposition that the lesser violence done to B is always preferable to the greater, provided that it is equally efficient in restraining him and equally good for everyone concerned, including B, whose claim is inferior to all the other claims involved but not non-existent. But I do not therefore conclude that to kill B is always wrong. In some instances – for instance in a small, isolated community – death may be the only efficient method of restraint. In any community its effect on the population, not simply as a deterrent through fear, but also as an expression of the moral importance of certain crimes, may be valuable. And as for B himself, I think a bad man is at least as likely to make a good end in the execution shed some weeks after the crime as in the prison hospital twenty years later. I am not producing arguments to show that capital punishment is certainly right; I am only maintaining that it is not certainly wrong; it is a matter on which good men may legitimately differ.