Catching Up

Posted on December 2, 2012


A new friend reminded me a few emails ago that for every new book he reads, he tries to read three old ones. There is wisdom in that suggestion and I always try to mind my wise friends.

I have been so busy writing books these past few years that I forgot to set some time aside to read what the masters of the past have written.

With this in mind, and with a gentle suggestion from my friend, Jim Simon, a retired Microsoft executive, I ordered C. S. Lewis’s God in the Dock, remembering how much I had enjoyed some of the great English Christian philosopher’s books in the past, such as his Surprised by Joy.

The short essays in God in the Dock are entertaining, thought provoking, and I read some and browsed others as Lewis wended his way through issues of God, Christianity, atheism, physics (entropy given large space in one), miracles, the laws of nature, myths and facts, and other musings of a brilliant, sensitive mind.

That he wrote many of them in the midst of the Second World War while Britain was being blasted by Nazi bombers intent on reducing the English to subservience was amazing to me. The English were fighting for their existence, but still thinking the big thoughts, plumbing the universe, contemplating the things that really matter while yet putting those great English fighters, the Spitfires, into the sky to not only challenge but eventually stem the Nazi onslaught and turn Hitler to think about doing the same thing to the Soviet Union.

At least he didn’t have to send his bombers into the dangerous skies over England whose obstinate people didn’t seem to buy into the idea of a 1000 year old Germanic empire.

But, I digress. I reached the last essay in Lewis’s book and, as usual, was captured by the title, “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness.’”

What’s this? It is in our Declaration of Independence! And, of course, Lewis recognized this. Those words “are especially cherished by all civilized men, but especially by Americans.”

But the real question was “what did the writers of that august declaration mean?” He explains it, a bit at odds with the way I had it explained to me years ago, which is that “happiness” should be translated loosely as “property.” That never was totally convincing to me.

Lewis framed it differently. “The declaration is primarily a denial of the political principles which long governed Europe: a challenge flung down to the Austrian and Russian empires, to England before the Reform Bills (google anything you don’t know), to Bourbon France.” It was a challenge to the old world where people were divided by class and caste.

The Declaration (I’ll capitalize it since I am an American) “demands that whatever means of pursuing happiness are lawful for any [my italics] should be lawful for all; that ‘man’, not men of some particular caste, class, status or religion, should be free to use them.”

I liked that. It is the principle that all men are created equal given some form and life.

But that’s not what Lewis’s essay was all about. He actually was writing about morality, and, most specifically, about sexual mores, and, even more specifically, about some earlier versions and defenses of women’s’ liberation. Ok, ladies, I’ll be waiting for your inevitable responses, but hear out Lewis.

Somehow the pursuit of happiness came to be interpreted as a right to pursue sexual liberation. Unlike other bad forms of behavior—like avarice, greed, cowardice, gossip, lying, and the like—all based on well understood impulses in human nature that have to be bridled, “every unkindness and breach of faith [and all other forms of sexual freedom] seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is ‘four bare legs in a bed.’”

That image has been updated in today’s society although it has a ring of quaintness, almost innocence, compared to today’s reign of promiscuity.

And then he comes to his two final points.

“One is this. A society in which conjugal infidelity is tolerated must always be in the long run a society adverse to women.” Conjugal infidelity has long been surpassed in the fifty years since Lewis wrote this essay (1963) by a libertinage that he predicted.

He explains his first point by claiming that “women…are more naturally monogamous than men: it is a biological necessity. Where promiscuity prevails, they will therefore always be more often the victims than the culprits.” True enough. And he adds, the “quality by which they most easily hold a man, their beauty, decreases every year after they have come to maturity…[and so] “in the ruthless war of promiscuity women are at a double disadvantage. They play for higher stakes and are also more likely to lose.”

And the second point ends his essay.

“Though the ‘right to happiness’ is chiefly claimed for the sexual impulse, it seems to me impossible that the matter should stay there.” Here Lewis strays into the future, and it is not a future he likes.

“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 civilization will have died at heart, and will—one dare not even add ‘unfortunately’—be swept away.”

I thought about everything he wrote in that little essay. Are we at that point of no return in our “modern” society? You pick the evils, and you don’t even need to extrapolate from the past into the future. We have seen the enemy and he is us, as Pogo phrased it so elegantly.

But, on the other hand, I am not English, not European, and don’t care to be like them these days. I live in country founded on the premise of some ideas and ideals yet to be realized. We are a work in progress.

When we stop deliberating and magnify our evils, or, in the world of political invective today, your evils, we will draw the curtain closed and dim the lights. But that’s not us.

We can and should be allowed to pursue our “happiness,” defined in many ways, but also recognize that there are boundaries, God-given and given legal and moral expression by our rules of law and codes of behavior. Finding the middle ground has always been our strength.

Why read old books like those by C. S. Lewis? Because they bring the issues so squarely into view and make us consider the consequences of all we think and do. That is a good writer. And all readers and writers need to read more of the good and great writers.

Don’t forget, three old books for every new one you pick up.

And since I trashed Europeans a few paragraphs above, let me redeem myself and suggest you might put that great new Grisham novel aside for a few days and google Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Dietrich Bonhoeffer and try one of their books.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012 as “The Pursuit of Happiness Must Have Some Boundaries”