Mere christianity [Book One]

Christians, then, believe that an evil power has made himself for the present the Prince of this World. And, of course, that raises problems. Is this state of affairs in accordance with God's will, or not? If it is, He is a strange God, you will say: and if it is not, how can anything happen contrary to the will of a being with absolute power?
| 31 January 2005

Born in Ireland in 1898, C. S. Lewis was educated at Malvern College
for a year and then privately. He gained a triple first at Oxford and was a
Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College 1925-54. In 1954 he became Professor of
Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. He was an outstanding and
popular lecturer and had a lasting influence on his pupils.

C. S. Lewis was for many years an atheist, and described his conversion
in Surprised by Joy: ‘In the Trinity term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted
that God was God … perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all
England.’ It was this experience that helped him to understand not only
apathy but active unwillingness to accept religion, and, as a Christian
writer, gifted with an exceptionally brilliant and logical mind and a lucid,
lively style, he was without peer. The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape
Letters, Mere Christianity, The Four Loves and the posthumous Prayer:
Letters to Malcolm, are only a few of his best-selling works. He also wrote
some delightful books for children and some science fiction, besides many
works of literary criticism. His works are known to millions of people all
over the world in translation. He died on 22nd November, 1963, at his home
in Oxford.


The contents of this book were first given on the air, and then
published in three separate parts as Broadcast Talks (1942), Christian
Behaviour (1943) and Beyond Personality (1944). In the printed versions I
made a few additions to what I had said at the microphone, but otherwise
left the text much as it had been. A ‘talk’ on the radio should, I think, be
as like real talk as possible, and should not sound like an essay being read
aloud. In my talks I had therefore used all the contractions and
colloquialisms I ordinary use in conversation. In the printed version I
reproduced this, putting don’t and we’ve for do not and we have. And
wherever, in the talks, I had made the importance of a word clear by the
emphasis of my voice, I printed it in italics. I am now inclined to think
that this was a mistake – an undesirable hybrid between the art of speaking
and the art of writing. A talker ought to use variations of voice for
emphasis because his medium naturally lends itself to that method: but a
writer ought not to use italics for the same purpose. He has his own,
different, means of bringing out the key words and ought to use them. In
this edition I have expanded the contractions and replaced most the italics
by a recasting of the sentences in which they occurred: but without
altering, I hope, the ‘popular’ or ‘familiar’ tone which I had all along
intended. I have also added and deleted where I thought I understood any
part of my subject better now than ten years ago or where I knew that the
original version had been misunderstood by others. The reader should be
warned that I offer no help to anyone who is hesitating between two
Christian ‘denominations’. You will not learn from me whether you ought to
become an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, or a Roman Catholic.

omission is intentional (even in the list I have just given the order is
alphabetical). There is no mystery about my own position. I am a very
ordinary layman of the Church of England, not especially ‘high’, nor
especially ‘low’, nor especially anything else. But in this book I am not
trying to convert anyone to my own position. Ever since I became a Christian
I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my
unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been
common to nearly all Christians at all times. I had more than one reason for
thinking this. In the first place, the questions which divide Christians
from one another often involve points of high Theology or even of
ecclesiastical history, which ought never to be treated except by real
experts. I should have been out of my depth in such waters: more in need of
help myself than able to help others. And secondly, I think we must admit
that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring
an outsider into the Christian fold. So long as we write and talk about them
we are much more likely to deter him from entering any Christian communion
than to draw him into our own. Our divisions should never be discussed
except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there
is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son. Finally, I got the
impression that far more, and more talented, authors were already engaged in
such controversial matters than in the defence of what Baxter calls ‘mere’
Christianity. That part of the line where I thought I could serve best was
also the part that seemed to be thinnest. And to it I naturally went.

So far as I know, these were my only motives, and I should be very glad
if people would not draw fanciful inferences from my silence on certain
disputed matters.

For example, such silence need not mean that I myself am sitting on the
fence. Sometimes I am. There are questions at issue between Christians to
which I do not think we have been told the answer. There are some to which I
may never know the answer: if I asked them, even in a better world, I might
(for all I know) be answered as a far greater questioner was answered: ‘What
is that to thee? Follow thou Me.’ But there are other questions as to which
I am definitely on one side of the fence, and yet say nothing. For I am not
writing to expound something I could call ‘my religion’, but to expound
‘mere’ Christianity, which is what it is and what it was long before I was
born and whether I like it or not.

Some people draw unwarranted conclusions from the fact that I never say
more about the Blessed Virgin Mary than is involved in asserting the Virgin
Birth of Christ. But surely my reason for not doing so is obvious? To say
more would take me at once into highly controversial regions. And there is
no controversy between Christians which needs to be so delicately touched as
this. The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not only with the
ordinary fervour that attaches to all sincere religious belief, but (very
naturally) with the peculiar and, as it were, chivalrous sensibility that a
man feels when the honour of his mother or his beloved is at stake. It is
very difficult so to dissent from them that you will not appear to them a
cad as well as a heretic. And contrariwise, the opposed Protestant beliefs
on this subject call forth feelings which go down to the very roots of all
Monotheism whatever. To radical Protestants it seems that the distinction
between Creator and creature (however holy) is imperilled: that Polytheism
is risen again. Hence it is hard so to dissent from them that you will not
appear something worse than a heretic – a Pagan. If any topic could be
relied upon to wreck a book about ‘mere’ Christianity – if any topic makes
utterly unprofitable reading for those who do not yet believe that the
Virgin’s son is God – surely this is it.

Oddly enough, you cannot even conclude, from my silence on disputed
points, either that I think them important or that I think them unimportant.
For this is itself one of the disputed points. One of the things Christians
are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two
Christians of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long
before one asks whether such-and-such a point ‘really matters’ and the other
replies: ‘Matter? Why, it’s absolutely essential.’
All this is said simply in order to make clear what kind of book I was
trying to write; not in the least to conceal or evade responsibility for my
own beliefs. About those, as I said before, there is no secret. To quote
Uncle Toby: ‘They are written in the Common-Prayer Book.’
The danger clearly was that I should put forward as common Christianity
anything that was peculiar to the Church of England or (worse still) to
myself. I tried to guard against this by sending the original script of what
is now Book II to four clergymen (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman
Catholic) and asking for their criticism. The Methodist thought I had not
said enough about Faith, and the Roman Catholic thought I had gone rather
too far about the comparative unimportance of theories in explanation of the
Atonement. Otherwise all five of us were agreed. I did not have the
remaining books similarly ‘vetted’ because in them, though differences might
arise among Christians, these would be differences between individuals or
schools of thought, not between denominations.

So far as I can judge from reviews and from the numerous letters
written to me, the book, however faulty in other respects, did at least
succeed in presenting an agreed, or common, or central, or ‘mere’
Christianity. In that way it may possibly be of some help in silencing the
view that, if we omit the disputed points, we shall have left only a vague
and bloodless H.C.F. The H.C.F. turns out to be something not only positive
but pungent; divided from all non-Christian beliefs by a chasm to which the
worst divisions inside Christendom are not really comparable at all. If I
have not directly helped the cause of reunion, I have perhaps made it clear
why we ought to be reunited. Certainly I have met with little of the fabled
odium theologicum from convinced members of communions different from my
own. Hostility has come more from borderline people whether within the
Church of England or without it: men not exactly obedient to any communion.
This I find curiously consoling. It is at her centre, where her truest
children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in
spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each
there is a something, or a Someone, who against all divergencies of belief,
all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks
with the same voice.

So much for my omissions on doctrine. In Book III, which deals with
morals, I have also passed over some things in silence, but for a different
reason. Ever since I served as an infantryman in the First World War I have
had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue
exhortations to men in the front line. As a result I have a reluctance to
say much about temptations to which I myself am not exposed. No man, I
suppose, is tempted to every sin. It so happens that the impulse which makes
men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by
lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion. I
therefore did not feel myself qualified to give advice about permissible and
impermissible gambling: if there is any permissible, for I do not claim to
know even that. I have also said nothing about birth-control. I am not a
woman nor even a married man, nor am I a priest. I did not think it my place
to take a firm line about pains, dangers and expenses from which I am
protected; having no pastoral office which obliged me to do so.

Far deeper objections may be felt – and have been expressed -against my
use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of
Christianity. People ask: ‘Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a
Christian?’ : or ‘May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be
far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some
who do?’ Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable,
very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that
of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these
objectors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the history of
another, and very much less important, word.
The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had
a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone ‘a
gentleman’ you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact.
If you said he was not ‘a gentleman’ you were not insulting him, but giving
information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a
gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an
M.A. But then there came people who said – so rightly, charitably,
spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully – ‘Ah, but surely the
important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but
the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman
should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than
John?’ They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of
course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the
same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To
call a man ‘a gentleman’ in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a
way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that
he is ‘a gentleman’ becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word
ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it
no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the
speaker’s attitude to that object. (A ‘nice’ meal only means a meal the
speaker likes.) A gentlemany once it has been spiritualised and refined out
of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the
speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of
terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other
hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense,
he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.
Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as
they might say ‘deepening’, the sense of the word Christian, it too will
speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves
will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in
the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see
into men’s hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It
would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a
Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never
apply is not going to be a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they
will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become
in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they
will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word
will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good.
Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful
purpose it might have served.

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning. The name
Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to ‘the disciples’, to
those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its
being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they
should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some
refined, spiritual, inward fashion were ‘far closer to the spirit of Christ’
than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological
or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all
understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine
lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than
to say he is not a Christian.
I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put
forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions -as if a
man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or
anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several
rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I
attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and
chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try
the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the
rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some
people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while
others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not
know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting
unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your
room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which
you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as
camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the
hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole
house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not
which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. In plain language, the
question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these
doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this?
Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or
my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?’

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen
different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong
they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you
are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the
whole house.


Every one has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and
sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we
can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they
say. They say things like this: ‘How’d you like it if anyone did the same to
you?’ – ‘That’s my seat, I was there first’ – ‘Leave him alone, he isn’t
doing you any harm’ – ‘Why should you shove in first?’ – ‘Give me a bit of
your orange, I gave you a bit of mine’ – ‘Come on, you promised.’ People say
things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and
children as well as grown-ups.
Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes
them is not merely saying that the other man’s behaviour does not happen to
please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he
expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies:
‘To hell with your standard.’ Nearly always he tries to make out that what
he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it
does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason
in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not
keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of
orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his
promise. It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some
kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behaviour or morality or whatever
you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they
had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not
quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarrelling means trying to show
that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to
do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and
Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had
committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of
Now this Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of
Nature. Nowadays, when we talk of the ‘laws of nature’ we usually mean
things like gravitation, or heredity, or the laws of chemistry. But when the
older thinkers called the Law of Right and Wrong ‘the Law of Nature’, they
really meant the Law of Human Nature. The idea was that, just as all bodies
are governed by the law of gravitation, and organisms by biological laws, so
the creature called man also had his law – with this great difference, that
a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but
a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it.
We may put this in another way. Each man is at every moment subjected
to several different sets of law but there is only one of these which he is
free to disobey. As a body, he is subjected to gravitation and cannot
disobey it; if you leave him unsupported in mid-air, he has no more choice
about falling than a stone has. As an organism, he is subjected to various
biological laws which he cannot disobey any more than an animal can. That
is, he cannot disobey those laws which he shares with other things; but the
law which is peculiar to his human nature, the law he does not share with
animals or vegetables or inorganic things, is the one he can disobey if he
This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every
one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it. They did not mean,
of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did
not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind or have no
ear for a tune. But taking the race as a whole, they thought that the human
idea of decent behaviour was obvious to every one. And I believe they were
right. If they were not, then all the things we said about the war were
nonsense. What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless
Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and
ought to have practised? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right,
then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have
blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair.
I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent
behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and
different ages have had quite different moralities.
But this is not true. There have been differences between their
moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total
difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching
of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and
Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each
other and to our own. Some of the evidence for this I have put together in
the appendix of another book called The Abolition of Man; but for our
present purpose I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different
morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for
running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the
people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a
country where two and two made five. Men have differed as regards what
people you ought to be unselfish to – whether it was only your own family,
or your fellow countrymen, or every one. But they have always agreed that
you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men
have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have
always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.
But the most remarkable thing is this. Whenever you find a man who says
he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man
going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if
you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before
you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties don’t matter; but then,
next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they
want to break was an unfair one. But if treaties do not matter, and if there
is no such thing as Right and Wrong – in other words, if there is no Law of
Nature – what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one?
Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say,
they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?
It seems, then, we are forced to believe in a real Right and Wrong.
People may be sometimes mistaken about them, just as people sometimes get
their sums wrong; but they are not a matter of mere taste and opinion any
more than the multiplication table. Now if we are agreed about that, I go on
to my next point, which is this. None of us are really keeping the Law of
Nature. If there are any exceptions among you, I apologise to them. They had
much better read some other book, for nothing I am going to say concerns
them. And now, turning to the ordinary human beings who are left:
I hope you will not misunderstand what I am going to say. I am not
preaching, and Heaven knows I do not pretend to be better than anyone else.
I am only trying to call attention to a fact; the fact that this year, or
this month, or, more likely, this very day, we have failed to practise
ourselves the kind of behaviour we expect from other people. There may be
all sorts of excuses for us. That time you were so unfair to the children
was when you were very tired. That slightly shady business about the money –
the one you have almost forgotten – came when you were very hard-up. And
what you promised to do for old So-and-so and have never done – well, you
never would have promised if you had known how frightfully busy you were
going to be. And as for your behaviour to your wife (or husband) or sister
(or brother) if I knew how irritating they could be, I would not wonder at
it – and who the dickens am I, anyway?
I am just the same. That is to say, I do not succeed in keeping the Law
of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I am not keeping it,
there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm. The
question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is
that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or not, we
believe in the Law of Nature. If we do not believe in decent behaviour, why
should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The
truth is, we believe in decency so much – we feel the Rule of Law pressing
on us so – that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and
consequently we try to shift the responsibility. For you notice that it is
only for our bad behaviour that we find all these explanations. It is only
our bad temper that we put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put
our good temper down to ourselves.
These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human
beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave
in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do
not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.
These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and
the universe we live in.

Some Objections

If they are the foundation, I had better stop to make that foundation
firm before I go on. Some of the letters I have had show that a good many
people find it difficult to understand just what this Law of Human Nature,
or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour is. For example, some people wrote
to me saying, ‘Isn’t what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct
and hasn’t it been developed just like all our other instincts?’ Now I do
not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by
the Moral Law. We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct –
by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food. It means that
you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we
sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no
doubt that desire is due to the herd instinct. But feeling a desire to help
is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to
or not. Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will
probably feel two desires – one a desire to give help (due to your herd
instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for
self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two
impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse
to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges
between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot
itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music
which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not
another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us
the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.
Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our
instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in
a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the
two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral
Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two
impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the
man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same.
And surely it often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger than
it naturally is? I mean, we often feel it our duty to stimulate the herd
instinct, by waking up our imaginations and arousing our pity and so on, so
as to get up enough steam for doing the right thing. But clearly we are not
acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it
is. The thing that says to you, ‘Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,’
cannot itself be the herd instinct. The thing that tells you which note on
the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.

Here is a third way of seeing it. If the Moral Law was one of our
instincts, we ought to be able to point to some one impulse inside us which
was always what we call ‘good,’ always in agreement with the rule of right
behaviour. But you cannot. There is none of our impulses which the Moral Law
may not sometimes tell us to suppress, and none which it may not sometimes
tell us to encourage. It is a mistake to think that some of our impulses –
say mother love or patriotism – are good, and others, like sex or the
fighting instinct, are bad. All we mean is that the occasions on which the
fighting instinct or the sexual desire need to be restrained are rather more
frequent than those for restraining mother love or patriotism. But there are
situations in which it is the duty of a married man to encourage his sexual
impulse and of a soldier to encourage the fighting instinct. There are also
occasions on which a mother’s love for her own children or a man’s love for
his own country have to be suppressed or they will lead to unfairness
towards other people’s children or countries. Strictly speaking, there are
no such things as good and bad impulses. Think once again of a piano. It has
not got two kinds of notes on it, the ‘right’ notes and the ‘wrong; ones.
Every single note is right at one time and wrong at another. The Moral Law
is not any one instinct or set of instincts: it is something which makes a
kind of tune (the tune we call goodness or right conduct) by directing the

By the way, the point is of great practical consequence. The most
dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and
set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of
them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute
guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not.
If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and
faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity’, and become in the end
a cruel and treacherous man.

Other people wrote to me saying, ‘Isn’t what you call the Moral Law
just a social convention, something that is put into us by education?’ I
think there is a misunderstanding here. The people who ask that question are
usually taking it for granted that if we have learned a thing from parents
and teachers, then that thing must be merely a human invention. But, of
course, that is not so. We all learned the multiplication table at school. A
child who grew up alone on a desert island would not know it. But surely it
does not follow that the multiplication table is simply a human convention,
something human beings have made up for themselves and might have made
different if they had liked? I fully agree that we learn the Rule of Decent
Behaviour from parents and teachers, and friends and books, as we learn
everything else. But some of the things we learn are mere conventions which
might have been different -we learn to keep to the left of the road, but it
might just as well have been the rule to keep to the right – and others of
them, like mathematics, are real truths. The question is to which class the
Law of Human Nature belongs.

There are two reasons for saying it belongs to the same class as
mathematics. The first is, as I said in the first chapter, that though there
are differences between the moral ideas of one time or country and those of
another, the differences are not really very great – not nearly so great as
most people imagine – and you can recognise the same law running through
them all: whereas mere conventions, like the rule of the road or the kind of
clothes people wear, may differ to any extent. The other reason is this.
When you think about these differences between the morality of one people
and another, do you think that the morality of one people is ever better or
worse than that of another? Have any of the changes been improvements? If
not, then of course there could never be any moral progress. Progress means
not just changing, but changing for the better. If no set of moral ideas
were truer or better than any other, there would be no sense in preferring
civilised morality to savage morality, or Christian morality to Nazi
morality. In fact, of course, we all do believe that some moralities are
better than others. We do believe that some of the people who tried to
change the moral ideas of their own age were what we would call Reformers or
Pioneers – people who understood morality better than their neighbours did.
Very well then. The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better
than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying
that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But
the standard that measures two things is something different from either.
You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting
that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people
think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than
others. Or put it this way. If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of
the Nazis less true, there must be something – some Real Morality – for them
to be true about. The reason why your idea of New York can be truer or less
true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from
what either of us thinks. If when each of us said ‘New York’ each means
merely The town I am imagining in my own head’, how could one of us have
truer ideas than the other? There would be no question of truth or falsehood
at all. In the same way, if the Rule of Decent Behaviour meant simply
‘whatever each nation happens to approve’, there would be no sense in saying
that any one nation had ever been more correct in its approval than any
other; no sense in saying that the world could ever grow morally better or
morally worse.

I conclude then, that though the difference between people’s ideas of
Decent Behaviour often make you suspect that there is no real natural Law of
Behaviour at all, yet the things we are bound to think about these
differences really prove just the opposite. But one word before I end. I
have met people who exaggerate the differences, because they have not
distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief
about facts. For example, one man said to me, ‘Three hundred years ago
people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the
Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?’ But surely the reason we do not
execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did –
if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold
themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return
and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or
bring bad weather – surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the
death penalty, then these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of
moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may
be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral
advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You
would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so
because he believed there were no mice in the house.

The Reality of the Law

I now go back to what I said at the end of the first chapter, that
there were two odd things about the human race. First, that they were
haunted by the idea of a sort of behaviour they ought to practise, what you
might call fair play, or decency, or morality, or the Law of Nature. Second,
that they did not in fact do so. Now some of you may wonder why I called
this odd. It may seem to you the most natural thing in the world. In
particular, you may have thought I was rather hard on the human race. After
all, you may say, what I call breaking the Law of Right and Wrong or of
Nature, only means that people are not perfect. And why on earth should I
expect them to be? That would be a good answer if what I was trying to do
was to fix the exact amount of blame which is due to us for not behaving as
we except others to behave. But that is not my job at all. I am not
concerned at present with blame; I am trying to find out truth. And from
that point of view the very idea of something being imperfect, of its not
being what it ought to be, has certain consequences.

If you take a thing like a stone or a tree, it is what it is and there
seems no sense in saying it ought to have been otherwise. Of course you may
say a stone is ‘the wrong shape’ if you want to use it for a rockery, or
that a tree is a bad tree because it does not give you as much shade as you
expected. But all you mean is that the stone or the tree does not happen to
be convenient for some purpose of your own. You are not, except as a joke,
blaming them for that. You really know, that, given the weather and the
soil, the tree could not have been any different. What we, from our point of
view, call a ‘bad’ tree is obeying the laws of its nature just as much as a
‘good’ one.

Now have you noticed what follows? It follows that what we usually call
the laws of nature – the way weather works on a tree for example – may not
really be laws in the strict sense, but only in a manner of speaking. When
you say that falling stones always obey the law of gravitation, is not this
much the same as saying that the law only means ‘what stones always do’? You
do not really think that when a stone is let go, it suddenly remembers that
it is under orders to fall to the ground. You only mean that, in fact, it
does fall. In other words, you cannot be sure that there is anything over
and above the facts themselves, any law about what ought to happen, as
distinct from what does happen. The laws of nature, as applied to stones or
trees, may only mean ‘what Nature, in fact, does’. But if you turn to the
Law of Human Nature, the Law of Decent Behaviour, it is a different matter.
That law certainly does not mean ‘what human beings, in fact, do’; for as I
said before, many of them do not obey this law at all, and none of them obey
it completely. The law of gravity tells you what stones do if you drop them;
but the Law of Human Nature tells you what human beings ought to do and do
not. In other words, when you are dealing with humans, something else comes
in above and beyond the actual facts. You have the facts (how men do behave)
and you also have something else (how they ought to behave). In the rest of
the universe there need not be anything but the facts. Electrons and
molecules behave in a certain way, and certain results follow, and that may
be the whole story.* But men behave in a certain way and that is not the
whole story, for all the time you know that they ought to behave

* I do not think it is the whole story, as you will see later. I mean
that, as far as the argument has gone up to date, it may be.

Now this is really so peculiar that one is tempted to try to explain it
away. For instance, we might try to make out that when you say a man ought
not to act as he does, you only mean the same as when you say that a stone
is the wrong shape; namely, that what he is doing happens to be inconvenient
to you. But that is simply untrue. A man occupying the corner seat in the
train because he got there first, and a man who slipped into it while my
back was turned and removed my bag, are both equally inconvenient. But I
blame the second man and do not blame the first. I am not angry – except
perhaps for a moment before I come to my senses – with a man who trips me up
by accident; I am angry with a man who tries to trip me up even if he does
not succeed. Yet the first has hurt me and the second has not. Sometimes the
behaviour which I call bad is not inconvenient to me at all, but the very
opposite. In war, each side may find a traitor on the other side very
useful. But though they use him and pay him they regard him as human vermin.
So you cannot say that what we call decent behaviour in others is simply the
behaviour that happens to be useful to us. And as for decent behaviour in
ourselves, I suppose it is pretty obvious that it does not mean the
behaviour that pays. It means things like being content with thirty
shillings when you might have got three pounds, doing school work honestly
when it would be easy to cheat, leaving a girl alone when you would like to
make love to her, staying in dangerous places when you would rather go
somewhere safer, keeping promises you would rather not keep, and telling the
truth even when it makes you look a fool.

Some people say that though decent conduct does not mean what pays each
particular person at a particular moment, still, it means what pays the
human race as a whole; and that consequently there is no mystery about it.
Human beings, after all, have some sense; they see that you cannot have any
real safety or happiness except in a society where every one plays fair, and
it is because they see this that they try to behave decently. Now, of
course, it is perfectly true that safety and happiness can only come from
individuals, classes, and nations being honest and fair and kind to each
other. It is one of the most important truths in the world. But as an
explanation of why we feel as we do about Right and Wrong it just misses the
point. If we ask: ‘Why ought I to be unselfish?’ and you reply ‘Because it
is good for society’ we may then ask, ‘Why should I care what’s good for
society except when it happens to pay me personally?’ and then you will have
to say, ‘Because you ought to be unselfish’ – which simply brings us back to
where we started. You are saying what is true, but you are not getting any
further. If a man asked what was the point of playing football, it would not
be much good saying in order to score goals’, for trying to score goals is
the game itself, not the reason for the game, and you would really only be
saying that football was football – which is true, but not worth saying. In
the same way, if a man asks what is the point of behaving decently, it is no
good replying, ‘in order to benefit society’, for trying to benefit society,
in other words being unselfish (for ‘society’ after all only means ‘other
people’), is one of the things decent behaviour consists in; all you are
really saying is that decent behaviour is decent behaviour. You would have
said just as much if you had stopped at the statement, ‘Men ought to be

And that is where I do stop. Men ought to be unselfish, ought to be
fair. Not that men are unselfish, not that they like being unselfish, but
that they ought to be. The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply
a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is,
or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave. On the other hand,
it is not a mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the
things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did.
And it is not simply a statement about how we should like men to behave for
our own convenience; for the behaviour we call bad or unfair is not exactly
the same as the behaviour we find inconvenient, and may even be the
opposite. Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human
Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing – a
thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves. And yet it is not a
fact in the ordinary sense, in the same way as our actual behaviour is a
fact. It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than
one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above
and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behaviour, and yet quite definitely
real – a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.

What Lies Behind the Law

Let us sum up what we have reached so far. In the case of stones and
trees and things of that sort, what we call the Laws of Nature may not be
anything except a way of speaking. When you say that nature is governed by
certain laws, this may only mean that nature does, in fact, behave in a
certain way. The so-called laws may not be anything real – anything above
and beyond the actual facts which we observe. But in the case of Man, we saw
that this will not do. The Law of Human Nature, or of Right and Wrong, must
be something above and beyond the actual facts of human behaviour. In this
case, besides the actual facts, you have something else – a real law which
we did not invent and which we know we ought to obey.

I now want to consider what this tells us about the universe we live
in. Ever since men were able to think they have been wondering what this
universe really is and how it came to be there. And, very roughly, two views
have been held. First, there is what is called the materialist view. People
who take that view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and
always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in
certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce
creatures like ourselves who are able to think. By one chance in a thousand
something hit our sun and made it produce the planets; and by another
thousandth chance the chemicals necessary for life, and the right
temperature, occurred on one of these planets, and so some of the matter on
this earth came alive; and then, by a very long series of chances, the
living creatures developed into things like us. The other view is the
religious view.* According to it, what is behind the universe is more like a
mind than it is like anything else we know. That is to say, it is conscious,
and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another. And on this view it made
the universe, partly for purposes we do not know, but partly, at any rate,
in order to produce creatures like itself – I mean, like itself to the
extent of having minds. Please do not think that one of these views was held
a long time ago and that the other has gradually taken its place. Wherever
there have been thinking men both views turn up. And note this too. You
cannot find out which view is the right one by science in the ordinary
sense. Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. Every
scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really
means something like, ‘I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of
the sky at 2.20 a.m. on January 15th and saw so-and-so,’ or, ‘I put some of
this stuff in a pot and heated it to such-and-such a temperature and it did
so-and-so.’ Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only
saying what its job is. And the more scientific a man is, the more (I
believe) he would agree with me that this is the job of science – and a very
useful and necessary job it is too. But why anything comes to be there at
all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes –
something of a different kind – this is not a scientific question. If there
is ‘Something Behind’, then either it will have to remain altogether unknown
to men or else make itself known in some different way. The statement that
there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are
neither of them statements that science can make. And real scientists do not
usually make them. It is usually the journalists and popular novelists who
have picked up a few odds and ends of half-baked science from textbooks who
go in for them. After all, it is really a matter of common sense. Supposing
science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole

Now the position would be quite hopeless but for this. There is one
thing, and only one, in the whole universe which we know more about than we
could learn from external observation. That one thing is Man. We do not
merely observe men, we are men. In this case we have, so to speak, inside
information; we are in the know. And because of that, we know that men find
themselves under a moral law, which they did not make, and cannot quite
forget even when they try, and which they know they ought to obey. Notice
the following point. Anyone studying Man from the outside as we study
electricity or cabbages, not knowing our language and consequently not able
to get any inside knowledge from us, but merely observing what we did, would
never get the slightest evidence that we had this moral law. How could he?
for his observations would only show what we did, and the moral law is about
what we ought to do. In the same way, if there were anything above or behind
the observed facts in the case of stones or the weather, we, by studying
them from outside, could never hope to discover it.
The position of the question, then, is like this. We want to know
whether the universe simply happens to be what it is for no reason or
whether there is a power behind it that makes it what it is. Since that
power, if it exists, would be not one of the observed facts but a reality
which makes them, no mere observation of the facts can find it. There is
only one case in which we can know whether there is anything more, namely
our own case. And in that one case we find there is. Or put it the other way
round. If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not
show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the
architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in
that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be
inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in
a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves.

Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions? In the only case where you
can expect to get an answer, the answer turns out to be Yes; and in the
other cases, where you do not get an answer, you see why you do not. Suppose
someone asked me, when I see a man in blue uniform going down the street
leaving little paper packets at each house, why I suppose that they contain
letters? I should reply, ‘Because whenever he leaves a similar little packet
for me I find it does contain a letter.’ And if he then objected – ‘But
you’ve never seen all these letters which you think the other people are
getting.’ I should say, ‘Of course not, and I shouldn’t expect to, because
they’re not addressed to me. I’m explaining the packets I’m not allowed to
open by the ones I am allowed to open.’ It is the same about this question.
The only packet I am allowed to open is Man. When I do, especially when I
open that particular man called Myself, I find that I do not exist on my
own, that I am under a law; that somebody or something wants me to behave in
a certain way. I do not, of course, think that if I could get inside a stone
or a tree I should find exactly the same thing, just a I do not think all
the other people in the street get the same letters as I do. I should
expect, for instance, to find that the stone had to obey the law of gravity
– that whereas the sender of the letters merely tells me to obey the law of
my human nature, he compels the stone to obey the laws of its stony nature.
But I should expect to find that there was, so to speak, a sender of letters
in both cases, a Power behind the facts, a Director, a Guide.

Do not think I am going faster than I really am. I am not yet within a
hundred miles of the God of Christian theology. All I have got to is a
Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law
urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when
I do wrong. I think we have to assume it is more like a mind than it is like
anything else we know – because after all the only other thing we know is
matter and you can hardly imagine a bit of matter giving instructions. But,
of course, it need not be very like a mind, still less like a person. In the
next chapter we shall see if we can find out anything more about it. But one
word of warning. There has been a great deal of soft soap talked about God
for the last hundred years. That is not what I am offering. You can cut all
that out.

NOTE:- In order to keep this section short enough when it was given on
the air, I mentioned only the Materialist view and the Religious view. But
to be complete I ought to mention the In-between view called Life-Force
philosophy, or Creative Evolution, or Emergent Evolution. The wittiest
expositions of it come in the works of Bernard Shaw, but the most profound
ones in those of Bergson. People who hold this view say that the small
variations by which life on this planet ‘evolved’ from the lowest forms to
Man were not due to chance but to the ‘striving’ or ‘purposiveness’ of a
Life-Force. When people say this we must ask them whether by Life-Force they
mean something with a mind or not. If they do, then ‘a mind bringing life
into existence and leading it to perfection’ is really a God, and their view
is thus identical with the Religious. If they do not, then what is the sense
in saying that something without a mind ‘strives’ or has ‘purposes’? This
seems to me fatal to their view. One reason why many people find Creative
Evolution so attractive is that it gives one much of the emotional comfort
of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences. When you are
feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the
whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to
think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and
carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something
rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and
no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned
about when we were children. The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can
switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of
religion and none of the cost. Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of
wishful thinking the world has yet seen?

I ended my last chapter with the idea that in the Moral Law somebody or
something from beyond the material universe was actually getting at us. And
I expect when I reached that point some of you felt a certain annoyance. You
may even have thought that I had played a trick on you – that I had been
carefully wrapping up to look like philosophy what turns out to be one more
‘religious jaw’. You may have felt you were ready to listen to me as long as
you thought I had anything new to say; but if it turns out to be only
religion, well, the world has tried that and you cannot put the clock back.
If anyone is feeling that way I should like to say three things to him.

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I
said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is
often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from that
whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting
nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong
turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the
wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right
road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most
progressive man. We have all seen this when doing arithmetic. When I have
started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start
again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being
pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the
present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making
some big mistake. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go
back. Going back is the quickest way on.
Then, secondly, this has not yet turned exactly into a ‘religious jaw’.
We have not yet got as far as the God of any actual religion, still less the
God of that particular religion called Christianity. We have only got as far
as a Somebody of Something behind the Moral Law. We are not taking anything
from the Bible or the Churches, we are trying to see what we can find out
about this Somebody on our own steam. And I want to make it quite clear that
what we find out on our own steam is something that gives us a shock. We
have two bits of evidence about the Somebody. One is the universe He has
made. If we used that as our only clue, then I think we should have to
conclude that He was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful
place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the
universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place). The other bit of
evidence is that Moral Law which He has put into our minds. And this is a
better bit of evidence than the other, because it is inside information. You
find out more about God from the Moral Law than from the universe in general
just as you find out more about a man by listening to his conversation than
by looking at a house he has built. Now, from this second bit of evidence we
conclude that the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in right
conduct – in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and
truthfulness. In that sense we should agree with the account given by
Christianity and some other religions, that God is ‘good’. But do not let us
go too fast here. The Moral Law does not give us any grounds for thinking
that God is ‘good’ in the sense of being indulgent, or soft, or sympathetic.
There is nothing indulgent about the Moral Law. It is as hard as nails. It
tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful,
or dangerous, or difficult it is to do. If God is like the Moral Law, then
He is not soft. It is no use, at this stage, saying that what you mean by a
‘good’ God is a God who can forgive. You are going too quickly.

Only a Person can forgive. And we have not yet got as far as a personal
God – only as far as a power, behind the Moral Law, and more like a mind
than it is like anything else. But it may still be very unlike a Person. If
it is pure impersonal mind, there may be no sense in asking it to make
allowances for you or let you off, just as there is no sense in asking the
multiplication table to let you off when you do your sums wrong. You are
bound to get the wrong answer. And it is no use either saying that if there
is a God of that sort – an impersonal absolute goodness – then you do not
like Him and are not going to bother about Him. For the trouble is that one
part of you is on His side and really agrees with his disapproval of human
greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception
in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that
unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort
of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if
there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. This
is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an
absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if
it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and
are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is
hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is
the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and
the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we
have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of
absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still
only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great
danger – according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong

Now my third point. When I chose to get to my real subject in this
roundabout way, I was not trying to play any kind of trick on you. I had a
different reason. My reason was that Christianity simply does not make sense
until you have faced the sort of facts I have been describing. Christianity
tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. It therefore has
nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done
anything to repent of and who do not feel that they need any forgiveness. It
is after you have realised that there is a real Moral Law, and a Power
behind the law, and that you have broken that law and put yourself wrong
with that Power – it is after all this, and not a moment sooner, that
Christianity begins to talk. When you know you are sick, you will listen to
the doctor. When you have realised that our position is nearly desperate you
will begin to understand what the Christians are talking about. They offer
an explanation of how we got into our present state of both hating goodness
and loving it. They offer an explanation of how God can be this impersonal
mind at the back of the Moral Law and yet also a Person. They tell you how
the demands of this law, which you and I cannot meet, have been met on our
behalf, how God Himself becomes a man to save man from the disapproval of
God. It is an old story and if you want to go into it you will no doubt
consult people who have more authority to talk about it than I have. All I
am doing is to ask people to face the facts – to understand the questions
which Christianity claims to answer. And they are very terrifying facts. I
wish it was possible to say something more agreeable. But I must say what I
think true. Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the
long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort;
it begins in the dismay I have been describing, and it is no use at all
trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay. In
religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot
get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the
end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth – only
soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair. Most
of us have got over the pre-war wishful thinking about international
politics. It is time we did the same about religion.

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