C. S. Lewis: Natural Law, the Law in Our Hearts

by Kathryn Lindskoog and G. F. Ellwood

Ms. Lindskoog and Ms. Ellwood are free-lance writers currently residing in California. Both have written for a variety of religious publications.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  November 14, 1984, p. 1059. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


According to C. S. Lewis, we learn more about God from Natural Law than from the universe in general, just as we discover more about people by listening to their conversations than by looking at the houses they build. Natural Law shows that the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness.

The human race is haunted by the desire to do what is right. People invariably defend their actions by arguing that those actions do not really contradict a basic standard of behavior, or that the standard was violated for good reasons.

The first five chapters of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (1953) discuss this objective norm to which people appeal and by which they expect others to abide. Lewis claims that although everyone knows about the law, everyone breaks it. He further asserts that something or somebody is behind this basic law. This obvious principle of behavior is not created by humans, but it is for humans to obey. Different people use different labels for this law -- traditional morality, moral law, the knowledge of right and wrong, virtue or the Way. We will call it the Natural Law.

According to Lewis, we learn more about God from Natural Law than from the universe in general, just as we discover more about people by listening to their conversations than by looking at the houses they build. Natural Law shows that the Being behind the universe is intensely interested in fair play, unselfishness, courage, good faith, honesty and truthfulness. However, Natural Law gives no grounds for assuming that God is soft or indulgent. Natural law obliges us to do the straight thing regardless of the pain, danger or difficulty involved. Natural Law is hard -- “as hard as nails” (Mere Christianity, (p. 23).

Lewis uses this same phrase in his moving poem “Love.” In the first stanza he tells how love is as warm as tears; in the second, how it is as fierce as fire; in the third, how it is as fresh as spring. And the final stanza tells how love is as hard as nails.

“Love’s as hard as nails/Love is nails.” They are blunt, thick and hammered through the medial nerve of our creator. Having made us, he knew what he had done. He foresaw our cross and his (Poems, p. 123).

In Lewis’s first chronicle of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the lion Asian predicts this hardness of God’s love by promising to save Edmund from the results of treachery. He says: “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think” (p. 104). When he and the wicked White Witch discuss her claim on Edmund’s life, she refers to the law of that universe as the Deep Magic. Aslan would never consider going against the Deep Magic; instead, he gives himself to die in Edmund’s place, and the next morning comes back to life. He explains to Susan that though the Witch knows the Deep Magic, there is a far deeper magic that she does not know. This deeper magic says that when a willing victim is killed in place of a traitor, death itself begins working backwards. The deepest magic works toward life and goodness.

In Narnia, as in this world, if an absolute goodness does not govern the universe, all our efforts and hopes are doomed. But if the universe is ruled by perfect goodness, Lewis says, we fall short of that goodness all the time; we are not good enough to consider ourselves allies of perfect goodness (Mere Christianity, p. 24). In Narnia, Edmund falls so far short of goodness that he finally realizes, with a shock of despair, his need for forgiveness.

At the end of Mere Christianity’s chapter titled “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe,” Lewis claims that until people repent and want forgiveness, Christianity will not make sense. Christianity explains how God can be the impersonal mind behind the Natural Law and also be a person. It declares that, since we cannot meet the demands of the law, God actually became a human being to save us from our failure.

Lewis was aware, of course, that the presence of natural and moral evil in the world makes governance by absolute goodness seem questionable at best. He understood the poet A. E. Housman’s bitter complaint against “whatever brute and blackguard made the world” (Last Poems, IX). But Lewis asks by what standard the creator is judged a blackguard. Any such lament for Natural Law or its rejection in itself implies an objective order.

Lewis was deeply concerned that many people in this century are losing their belief in Natural Law. He spoke about this in the Riddell Memorial Lectures at the University of Durham, published in 1947 as The Abolition of Man.

In Abolition he uses “the Tao” as shorthand for Natural Law or First Principle. This word choice is perhaps unfortunate. It is hard to believe that Lewis read, received (to use his own language) and savored the Tao Te Ching, Taoism’s scripture, and concluded that “Tao” is the most accurate and succinct term for the moral law. Although the Tao is finally ineffable, according to the Tao Te Ching, it is best described as ‘‘the Flow,’’ ‘‘the way things change,” “the Life” or “the Source.” To follow the Tao is indeed to live morally, for it requires respecting the lowly and avoiding oppression and pride. However, the Tao ultimately accepts the status quo, whether good or evil. Lewis might have done better to stay with the term moral law, Natural Law or, if he preferred Chinese thought, “the Will of Heaven.” (Confucianism occasionally does use “the Tao” in the narrower sense of “the Will of Heaven”; however, this is not the word’s primary meaning in Taoism.)

Lewis claims in Abolition that until quite recent times everyone believed that objects could merit our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. Some emotional reactions were assumed to be more appropriate than others.

This concept is vividly represented in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Edmund’s emotional responses are inappropriate from the very beginning: When his brother and sisters imagine pleasant creatures they would like to meet in the woods, he hopes for snakes; when the children meet the wise old professor, Edmund laughs at his looks; when Edmund meets the White Witch, his initial fear quickly turns to trust; and when the Witch gives him a choice of foods, he stuffs himself with sinister Turkish Delight candy. He is resentful and aloof toward his sister Lucy and is suspicious even of the good Robin and Beaver who come to guide the children to safety. Instead of noticing the Beaver’s house, he looks at the Witch’s castle in the distance. When the name Asian first is spoken to the four children, they all have wonderful feelings, except Edmund, who senses a mysterious horror. Later events teach Edmund to respond like the others.

Lewis notes that Aristotle believed that the aim of education and the essence of ethics are to make pupils like and dislike what they ought. According to Plato, we need to learn to feel pleasure for the pleasant, liking for the likable, disgust for the disgusting, and hatred for the hateful. In early Hindu teaching righteousness and correctness corresponded to knowing truth and reality. Psalm 119 says the law is “true.” The Hebrew word used for truth here is “emeth,” meaning intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, and a firmness and dependability as solid as nature.

This meaning is reflected in the final book of Narnia, The Last Battle (1956), in which Lewis introduces a young man named Emeth who had grown up in an oppressive country where people worship an evil god named Tash. Despite his upbringing, Emeth is an honorable and honest man who seeks to do good. He dies worshiping Tash but finds himself in Asian’s presence. He responds with reverence and delight. Everything he thought he was doing for Tash was counted as service to Aslan instead. Because he liked the likable and hated the hateful, Emeth was Aslan’s friend long before he knew Aslan.

Lewis was alarmed by the number of people who deny that some things are inherently likable, debunking traditional morality and Natural Law, and thinking that basic values can -- and should -- change. Some try to substitute necessity, progress or efficiency for goodness. To have any meaning, however, necessity, progress or efficiency must relate to a standard outside themselves. Often that standard will be, in the last analysis, the preservation of the self-proclaimed moral innovator or the propagation of the society of his or her choice. Such people are skeptical of all values except their own, disparaging other frameworks as “sentimental” (Abolition, p.19).

Lewis’s analysis shows that if Natural Law is sentimental, all value is sentimental. No propositions like “our society is in danger of extinction” can give an adequate basis for a value system; no observations of instinct such as I want to prolong my life” give any substance to a value system. Why is our society valuable? Why is my life worth preserving? Only the Natural Law -- asserting that human life has value -- gives a basis for a coherent value system.

“If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved,” Lewis claims. “If nothing is obligatory for its own sake, then all conceptions of value crumble. No values are independent of Natural Law. Anything judged to be good is such because of values in the Natural Law. The concept of goodness springs, from no other source.

Thus, modern ethical innovations are simply shreds of the old Natural Law, sometimes isolated and exaggerated. If values are retained, so is Natural Law. According to Lewis, there never has been and never will be a radically new value or value system. The human mind can no more invent a new value than create a new primary color.

Admittedly, imperfections and contradictions appear in historical manifestations and interpretations of Natural Law. Some reformers help improve our perceptions of value. But only those living by the Law know its spirit well enough to interpret it successfully. People who live outside Natural Law have no grounds for criticizing it, or anything else. A few who reject Natural Law intend to take the next logical step as well: living without any values, disbelieving all values, and choosing to live governed only by whims and fancies.

Lewis’s poem “The Country of the Blind,” published in Punch in 1951, presents an image of these people (Poems, p. 53). He imagines life as a misfit with eyes in a country of eyeless people who no longer believe vision ever existed.

This poem tells of “hard” light shining on a whole nation of eyeless people who are unaware of their handicap. Blindness developed gradually through many centuries. At some transitional stage a few citizens still have eyes and vision after most people are blind. The blind are normal and up-to-date. They use the same words their ancestors had used, but no longer know their concrete meaning.

They still speak of light, meaning an abstract thought. If a person with sight tries to describe the gray dawn or the stars or the green-sloped sea waves or the color of a lady’s cheek, the blind majority insist that they understand the feeling the sighted one expresses in metaphor. There is no way to explain the facts to them. The blind ridicule the sighted one for taking figures of speech literally and concocting a myth about a sense perception no one has ever really had.

If one thinks this is a far-fetched illustration, Lewis concludes, one need only try talking to famous people today about the truths of Natural Law which used to stand huge, awesome and clear to the inner eye.

One of those famous people is B. F. Skinner, who answers in Beyond Freedom and Dignity that the abolition of the inner person and traditional morality is necessary so that science can prevent the abolition of the human race. Lewis had already exclaimed in Abolition, “The preservation of the species? -- But why should the species be preserved?” (p. 40). Skinner does not provide an answer, but embraces Lewis’s devious scientific “Controllers” who aim to change and dehumanize the human race to fulfill their purposes more efficiently.

Lewis satirizes this kind of progress in his poem “Evolutionary Hymn,” which appeared in the Cambridge Review in 1957 (Poems, p. 55). Using Longfellow’s popular hymn stanza pattern from “Psalm of Life,” Lewis exclaims: What do we care about wrong or justice, joy or sorrow, so long as our posterity survives? The old norms of good and evil are outmoded. It matters not if our posterity turns out to be hairy, squashy or crustacean, tusked or toothless, mild or ruthless. “Goodness = what comes next.” The poem concludes that our progeny may be far from pleasant by present standards; but that is inconsequential if they survive.

Lewis has often been carelessly accused of attacking science. In fact, he gives us an admirable scientist, Bill Hingest in That Hideous Strength (1945). Significantly, the supposed scientists who direct the NICE have Hingest murdered. For Lewis the enemy is not true science, fueled by a love of truth, but that applied science whose practitioners are motivated by a love of power. In Lewis’s opinion technological developments called steps in humankind’s conquest of nature actually just give certain people power over others. Discarding Natural Law will always increase the danger that some people will control others. Only Natural Law provides human standards that overarch rulers and ruled alike. Lewis even claims that ‘‘dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery” (Abolition, p. 46).

The Magician’s Nephew (1955), the tale of Narnia’s creation, portrays two characters, Jadis and Uncle Andrew Ketterly, who exemplify the Controllers. Both claimed to be above Natural Law; they have “a high and lonely destiny.” Jadis is a monarch and Uncle Andrew is a magician, but both typify modern science gone wrong. Each believes that common rules are fine for common people, but that singularly great people must be free -- to experiment without limits in search of knowledge, and to seize power and wealth. The result was cruelty and destruction. In contrast, the sages of old sought to conform the soul to reality, and the result was knowledge, self-discipline and virtue.

Two examples from Lewis’s verse illustrate this traditional wisdom. The 1956 poem “After Aristotle” praises virtue, describing Greeks who gladly toiled in search of virtue as their most valuable treasure. They would willingly die, or live in hard labor, for virtue’s beauty. Virtue powerfully touched the heart and gave unfading fruit, making those who love it strong.

A second example is “On a Theme from Nicolas of Cusa,” published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1955. The first stanza notes how physical foods are transformed by our bodies when we assimilate them. In the second Lewis suggests that when we assimilate goodness and truth they are not transformed, but we are.

Abolition ends with Lewis’s admonition to pause before relegating Natural Law to no more than another accident of human history in a wholly material universe. To “explain away” this transcendent reality perhaps explains away all explanations. To “see through” the Natural Law is the same as not seeing at all.

This urgent defense of Natural Law has acquired new meaning in our time. Since Lewis published Abolition in 1947, the locus and imminence of the threat to the world has shifted radically. The danger of nuclear armaments was obvious in 1947, but too few existed to threaten all life on earth. Since then weapons have proliferated and metastasized beyond the imaginations of most people of Lewis’s day. Now we face the potential sudden massive destruction of human life (and also, incidentally, libraries and literary heritage). Additionally, the horror would include catastrophic biological aftereffects from probable destruction of the ozone layer and a nuclear winter likely to end all plant and animal life on earth. This scenario echoes the end of the world as foretold in the Norse mythology that Lewis found so compelling.