C.S. Lewis, “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’” (1963).
Analytical Summary and review
This article was initially written for PH103, Boyce college, and has been edited for this blog.
C. S. Lewis is a world-renowned author and leader in the Christian faith. In this short essay written by Lewis, we learn about problems facing his neighbors in the ’60s. Lewis contemplates the statement, so often believed by modern generations, that “we have a right to happiness.” Afterthought and deliberation, Lewis finds his answer that this statement is false, and he uses ethical and social examples to explain his conclusion.
C. S. Lewis presents the modern view of reality that people desire to be happy above all else. People use this belief to justify and, in some cases, flaunt their immoral actions. Lewis uses an example that shows this by sharing the story of one of his neighbors. This gentleman, whose wife had cared for him during a severe sickness for many years and gave birth to and raised his children, decided to leave her because she was no longer as energetic or attractive as she had when they were first married. This shows this gentleman’s reality is based on a worldview that is wholly vain. He determines the value of things, such as relationships on what is best for him.
The author bases the authority of Scripture and on traditional ethical views. Whereas he gives examples of non- ethical people in his story, he does not believe that their beliefs come from actual authority. Lewis makes an argument that if society is looking at a person’s right to be happy on the law, then it is true that the authority of the law gives a legal right to people to partake in legal activities that can lead to happiness. However, Lewis rebuttals that the law is not the ultimate authority, but one must look at what is right and moral when deciding what one should do. Lewis shows that laws apart from God will ultimately be broken and that real joy can never be discovered without God.
In the story of the man who left his wife, we later see his view of more than just metaphysics, but what his thought of what the good life is. We learn of this through his attitude when discussing his ex-wife’s death. Lewis shares that the man’s ex-wife committed suicide after he left her for another woman. The man feels, although shocked by this, shows no remorse or responsibility in her death, but says “But what could I do?…. A man has a right to happiness. I had to take my one chance when it came” (794). This presents his view of ethics that his happiness has more value than those around him. Lewis’s response to this is that culture accepts sexual immorality if it is portrayed as the only way that an individual can find happiness. He later goes on to say that people have come to a point where they believe that happiness cannot be separated from sexual desires. Lewis disagrees with this, arguing that sexual desires themselves do not bring lasting joy if sought after in an improper manner. He states that the culture is very lenient in this area of people’s self-control; however, society is more critical of other areas that display a lack of self-control.
There are two views evident in this essay, the secular and the Christian. The secular view says that to be human is to do what they desire and to pleasure their senses. This view does not believe that natural instincts should be controlled as they bring happiness. In contrast, the Christian view says that ultimately what it means to be human is to do what is right and ethical. He does not mention that these fundamental guidelines are visible in Scripture, but there is an underlying sense that his views come from his Christianity.
Lewis’ message is clear that true love and joy does not come through sexual pleasure, but that it is a new lie that ensnares his generation. Lewis makes it known that he disagrees with this mindset, and that he holds to a more traditional and biblical-based view. Through Lewis’s use of stories about his neighbors, he grasps the reader’s attention and leads them to find the truth.
In conclusion, this essay focuses on the ethical situations of society. Lewis uses an authentic and practical story about his neighbors to explain a significant issue facing society at his time and also today. Lewis points to the reasons that one should not solely follow one’s desires in the pursuit of happiness.