C. S. Lewis on Sex, Love, Marriage and the ‘Right’ to Happiness

The last thing that C. S. Lewis wrote before his death in November 1963, was a short essay entitled We Have No Right to Happiness, that was published by the Saturday Evening Post in December 1963, and reprinted in the God in the Dock collection many years later (1998). At the beginning of the piece, Lewis considers whether we have any particular ‘right’ to happiness in general, but spends the greater part discussing the issue of whether anyone can be said to have an unlimited right to sexual or romantic happiness, and whether this can ever really be said to justify abandoning one’s marriage vows. The answer to this query may seem obvious to many, but in an age where commitment seems to be ranked lower amongst our priorities than ever, it is a question worth revisiting.

In the essay, Lewis not only provides a strong critique against those who would claim all sorts of things as a ‘right’ which are, by the nature of the case, not so at all, but also draws attention to the validity of certain claims to rights per se, and to the assumptions we all make (even those who wish to contravene or supersede commonly held or traditional moral values) when making such claims, thus highlighting the absurdity of isolating some aspects of those assumptions (i.e.; of the Natural Law) and arbitrarily raising them above the others. Finally, this particular issue is linked to the wider concerns and ramifications of individualism and relativism – things already prevalent in Lewis’ day, but yet to have gained quite as much of a hold over the popular imagination as they have today.

Lewis begins the piece by describing a hypothetical conversation between himself and a woman named Clare, about a man (Mr A.) who had divorced his wife in order to marry another woman (Mrs B. – who had also divorced her husband) on the grounds that they had fallen in love and, because of the ‘right to happiness’, were justified in abandoning their spouses. Whilst there also exist many much more sympathetic reasons for ending a marriage this rationale is unfortunately not only an increasingly common one, but is also now widely seen to be acceptable by our society. I present here the bulk of Lewis’ response to the situation (and Clare’s approval of it):

I went away thinking about the concept of a “right to happiness”. At first this sounds to me as odd as the right to good luck. For I believe – whatever one school or moralists may say – that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstances outside all human control. A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.

I can understand a right as a freedom guaranteed me by the laws of the society I live in. Thus, I have a right to travel along the public roads because society gives me that freedom; that’s what we mean by calling the roads “public”. I can also understand a right as a claim guaranteed me by the laws, and correlative to an obligation on someone else’s part. If I have a right to receive £100 from you, this is another way of saying that you have a duty to pay me £100. If the laws allow Mr A. to desert his wife and seduce his neighbour’s wife, then, by definition, Mr A. has a legal right to do so, and we need bring in no talk about “happiness”.

But of course this was not what Clare meant. She meant that he had not only a legal right but a moral right to act as he did. In other words, Clare is – or would be if she thought it out – a classical moralist after the style of Thomas Aquinas, Grotius, Hooker and Locke. She believes that behind the laws of the state there is a Natural Law. I agree with her. I hold this conception to be basic to all civilisation. Without it, the actual laws of the state become an absolute, as in Hegel. They cannot be criticised because there is no norm against which they should be judged.

The ancestry of Clare’s maxim, “They have a right to happiness”, is august. In words that are cherished by all civilised men, but especially by Americans, it has been laid down that one of the rights of man is a right to “the pursuit of happiness”. And now we get to the real point. What did the writers of that august declaration mean?

It is quite certain what they did not mean. They did not mean that man was entitled to pursue happiness by any and every means – including, say, murder, rape, robbery, treason and fraud. No society could be built on such a basis. They meant to “pursue happiness by all lawful means”; that is, by all means which the Law of Nature eternally sanctions and which the laws of the nation shall sanction…

…But the question as to what means are “lawful” – what methods of pursuing happiness are either morally permissible by the Law of Nature or should be declared legally permissible by the legislature of a particular nation – remains exactly where it did. And on that question I disagree with Clare. I don’t think it is obvious that people have the unlimited “right to happiness” which she suggests.

For one thing, I believe that Clare, when she says “happiness”, means simply and solely “sexual happiness”. Partly because women like Clare never use the word “happiness” in any other sense. But also because I never heard Clare talk about the “right” to any other kind. She was rather leftist in her politics, and would have been scandalised if anyone had defended the actions of a ruthless man-eating tycoon on the ground that his happiness consisted in making money and he was pursuing his happiness. She was also a rabid tee-totaller; I never heard her excuse an alcoholic because he was happy when he was drunk. A good many of Clare’s friends, and especially her female friends, often felt – I’ve heard them say so – that their own happiness would be perceptibly increased by boxing her ears. I very much doubt if this would have brought her theory of a right to happiness into play.

Clare, in fact, is doing what the whole western world seems to me to have been doing for the last forty-odd years. When I was a youngster, all the progressive people were saying, “Why all this prudery? Let us treat sex just as we treat our other impulses.” I was simple-minded enough to believe they meant what they said. I have since discovered that they meant exactly the opposite. They meant sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilised people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled. Absolute obedience to your instinct for self-preservation is what we call cowardice; to your acquisitive impulse, avarice. Even sleep must be resisted if you’re a sentry. But every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is “four bare legs in a bed”…

…The real situation is skilfully concealed by saying that the question of Mr A.’s “right” to desert his wife is one of “sexual morality”. Robbing an orchard is not an offence against some special morality called “fruit morality”. It is an offence against honesty. Mr A.’s action is an offence against good faith (to solemn promises), against gratitude (towards one whom he was deeply indebted) and against common humanity. Our sexual impulses are thus being put in a position of preposterous privilege. The sexual motive is taken to condone all sorts of behaviour which, if it had any other end in view, would be condemned as merciless, treacherous and unjust.

Now though I see no good reason for giving sex this privilege, I think I see a strong cause. It is this. It is part of the nature of a strong erotic passion – as distinct from a transient fit of appetite – that it makes more towering promises than any other emotion. No doubt all our desires make promises, but not so impressively. To be in love involves the almost irresistible conviction that one will go on being in love until one dies, and that possession of the beloved will confer, not merely frequent ecstasies, but settled, fruitful, deep-rooted, lifelong happiness. Hence all seems to be at stake. If we miss this chance we shall have lived in vain. At the very thought of such doom we sink into fathomless depths of pity.

Unfortunately these promises are found often to be quite untrue. Every experienced adult knows this to be so as regards all erotic passions (except the one he himself is feeling at the moment). We discount the world-without-end pretensions of our friends’ amours easily enough. We know that such things sometimes last – and sometimes don’t. And when they do last, this is not because they promised at the outset to do so. When two people achieve lasting happiness, this is not solely because they are great lovers but because they are also – I must put it crudely – good people; controlled, loyal, fair-minded, mutually adaptable people.

If we establish a “right to (sexual) happiness” which supersedes all the ordinary rules of behaviour, we do so not because of what our passion shows itself to be in experience, but because of what it professes to be while we are in the grip of it. Hence, while the bad behaviour is real and works miseries and degradations, the happiness which was the object of the behaviour turns out again and again to be illusory. Everyone (except Mr A. and Mrs B.) knows that Mr A. in a year or so may have the same reason for deserting his new wife as deserting his old. He will feel again that all is at stake. He will see himself again as the great lover, and his pity for himself will exclude all pity for the woman…

…Secondly, though the “right to happiness” is chiefly claimed for the sexual impulse, it seems to me impossible that the matter should stay there. The fatal principle, once allowed in that department, must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance towards a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilisation will have died at heart, and will – one dare not even add “unfortunately” – be swept away.

taken from Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (2002), pp.388-392, Harper Collins.

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9 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis on Sex, Love, Marriage and the ‘Right’ to Happiness

  1. Thank you Michael for this brilliant and perceptive essay from C.S. Lewis… plus a very concise introduction from you. It comes just at the right time, whilst we are still “licking our wounds” after the fear and shocks of the recent Synod on the Family! 😉

    Lewis has really hit the nail on the head with this analysis. How can the breaking of one’s marital vows, deserting your family, making other people (especially the former spouse and children of that marriage) deeply saddened, ever be justified by saying that one has “fallen in love” with someone else and must pursue your “right” to happiness by now living with him/her?
    Frankly speaking this is not true love. It is pure LUST. Sadly nowadays every disordered sin is justified by that little misused word, “love”.
    As a friend of one of my sisters (who had abandoned her husband for another man and lived to regret it) confessed sadly to her: “In the end I discovered that all I had done was to swop one man’s sock drawer for another!” (The break up of her first marriage had left an ongoing series of misery and problems in its wake.)

    However I do believe that some people (mostly those in difficult, unhappy marriages) might, by the pure chances of one’s journey through life, suddenly find themselves attracted to someone else who ‘appears’ to promise all that is lacking in their own marriage. This is a temptation, an occasion of sin, that must be resisted at all cost – usually by putting a distance between you and the other person. If you REALLY loved that other person you would not put their immortal soul in danger. Adultery is a serious mortal sin, and a true Christina wanting what is true and good for everyone, could not give in to this temptation.

    Besides, no “happiness” ever comes from a troubled conscience… (and I cannot see how anyone who breaks God’s Divine Law can ever have happiness or peace of mind.) Real happiness – I prefer the word “joy” – even in times of struggles and suffering, comes from knowing that one is doing God’s will to the best of our fallen human nature.

    • It is a good essay isn’t it – I had thought of posting it a couple of times before, but now seemed the right time, for the reason you mention above!

      You are absolutely right in what you say about the confusion between love and lust – a confusion which is grounded in the mistaking of love for certain feelings that arise at certain times. The idea that marriage involves a lasting commitment, one that continues when those feelings may well have faded, or that involves sacrifice from both parties, is something foreign to the modern mind it seems, and the vast majority of divorces come about because one or both of the couple have got fed up and want something new, or have been tempted elsewhere. The idea that they may have to work at it and that if they do they could make their relationship even stronger doesn’t seem to occur that often!

      This is all just part and parcel of the instant gratification, I-want, me-me-me, culture we live in though I guess. If we can’t be made happy right now, when we want it, then we chuck it all in and look for something new and more exciting. But we’re all good people though aren’t we… As long as we keep telling ourselves that, we can ignore the fracture-lines we’re causing in our own culture and societies.

      • Well said!

        What makes this whole subject of marriage commitment so much more difficult to accept for many people is the way we, as a society, have discarded the cross. (Remember our post on CP&S entitled “Marriage Crucifix”?) This wasn’t so in former times. Catholic children were brought up to “offer things up” when things went against us, making sacrifices for the conversion of souls (or just as gifts to show our love for God); it was common talk, and we as children joyfully used to remind ourselves of the great graces any little penance would bring. “The Little Way” of St. Therese was something most Catholic children strived to follow, and was shown to us in the good example of our parents and teachers.

        Then everything began to change a few years after the end of Vatican II. Many of us can still not fathom why this happened! The prevalent idea (borrowed from the World) to shun all that requires effort, sacrifice, long-suffering… and to grab anything going that we take a fancy to, suddenly became the right way to think!! It has turned us into a pleasure-seeking, self-obsessed society, where often any type of humility, self-discipline or sacrifice (like that so often needed to keep a marriage together when it goes through rough patches) is seen as crazy!
        (e.g. Look at Toad’s appalling words in a comment on our blog about holy priests who abide by their vows of celibacy!)

        Is it really any wonder that there are so many divorces, couples sleeping around, or living together without bothering to get married (“it’s only a piece of paper” I have heard people say) when our “right to happiness” is the only “right” they can see that counts?
        Yet the cost of that “right to happiness” invariably means a lot UNHAPPINESS is spread to the family and children caught up in this pursuit.

        The faithful bishops among those at the recent Synod wanted to discuss how to strengthen marriage and the family once more, returning to a renewal of traditional Catholic teaching on this Doctrine. Instead they had to battle to keep “the smoke of Satan” from infiltrating the Synod, with all sorts of dangerous Modernist ideas being craftily dressed up as “mercy” and “welcome”!!

        • Yes, I was thinking of your ‘Marriage Crucifix’ article recently actually, with respect to all this Synod business – I think maybe you should send Cardinal Kasper a copy! 🙂

          I agree with all the above, particularly that this clamouring for instant returns eventually leads to widespread unhappiness for everyone. This is really the only way in which I think the Church needs to think about re-presenting her teaching – to show people that it is not just about me or you or the people nextdoor and their ‘rights’, but for the well-being of our societies and culture at large, that what the Church has to offer is embraced. I think that maybe the presenting of this ‘big picture’ might help people to see a bit better why the Church teaches what she does, and then will help them better to see the effects on the individual.

          I have just finished writing a post for tomorrow on Saint John Paul II which touches on all this actually – hopefully have done it and him justice. He is another one, like Saint Teresa, that contributed so much, it is hard to narrow it all down, and the topic overall is a complex one with many different aspects that I couldn’t possibly include – so I have focused on his teaching on the family as a ‘domestic church’.

          • “Yes, I was thinking of your ‘Marriage Crucifix’ article recently actually, with respect to all this Synod business – I think maybe you should send Cardinal Kasper a copy!” 😆

            He could certainly do with reading something like that!
            Or better still, as you say, the profound teachings on marriage and the family of St. John Paul II.
            And your great article today! 🙂

              • What a fascinating article! (I was surprised by some of the comments though.)

                “In their effort to get the conversation back on the familiar tracks of the Western culture wars, the Pope and his bishops are doing serious harm to millions of faithful Catholics trying to live out the Gospel in hostile and often dangerous conditions in the emerging world.”

                It’s what we have been saying all along!

                • Exactly! Seeing as the intent of this Synod (and presumably the next one) is not to address the family at all, but to promote an alternative agenda, I think the best we can hope for is more sorting of the wheat from the chaff! 🙂

                  I didn’t read the comments on the article (try to avoid comments a lot of the time, for the good of my health) – will take a look later though.

  2. Pingback: Saint John Paul II on Love, Truth, the Family and the World | Journey Towards Easter

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