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Mere Christianity by C S Lewis. Who is God?

By Anonymous. Thomas Merton taught me to value self-denial, but a bout of depression forced me to question whether asceticism was the healthiest response to my life. By Nick Scrimenti. By Santiago Ramos. George Weigel resurrects an antiquated and narrow form of Catholicism at a historical moment when the future of the church is in crisis.

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Fiction in Commonweal. To celebrate the publication our summer fiction issue, a new collection of short stories from our archives. By The Editors. Here are the best pieces from our archives. Facebook Twitter RSS. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five, NY. Development by Deck Fifty Design. 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.

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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 instincts.

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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 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?

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.

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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.


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  • But surely it does not follow that the multiplication table is simply a human convention, something human beings 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 questions 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 recognize the same lay running through them all: whereas mere conventions, like the rule of the road of the kinds or clothes people wear, may differ to any extent.

    The other reason is this.

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    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 civilized 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 of Pioneers — people who understood morality better than their neighbors 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 thing, 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 of less true than mine is that New York is a real place, existing quite apart from what either of us thinks.