Lewis’s Rejection of Nihilism: The Tao and the Problem of Moral Knowledge

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Someone looking only for a basis for morality would be indifferent to the answer to this question: for morality can stand on either, and neither one is better or worse than the other. And since this is Lewis’ specific concern in The Abolition of Man, he could use either argument to respond to the nihilist’s charge of question begging and logical circularity, for either explanation shows how it is possible to simultaneously know what is good, true, and beautiful and not know what is good, true, and beautiful. In other words, either solution will enable us to see how it is possible—and what it means—to have choices, to be reasonable, to be passionate about certain things, and to make moral judgments. In other words, to be human.

But religion is not indifferent to the answer. The crucial question in evaluating these two options is, “What is the proper relationship between knowing what passions are proper and having proper passions?” Someone who adheres to option (3) would answer that the knowing must somehow be able to lead to the having. This is what we might call “moral development” or “spiritual progress.” But how, exactly, would this work? How can knowing “what proper passions are” lead to the having of them? The most common answer, from Aristotle to the Bhagavad Gita, from Mohammed to Kant, from the Stoics to Spinoza, is that this change is achieved through practice, or duty. Through one’s will, guided by an understanding of what those passions ought to be (which, on this view, is the Tao), a person can do what the Tao requires, without having a love for it. Gradually, this repeated observance of what the Tao teaches can give birth to a genuine love for it—a love that can grow into a more perfect love. Spiritual progress would be something like acquiring a taste. In the language of religious devotion, we might say of this story that it is a matter of “understanding leading to faith.”

This is a plausible story of course, for why else would it be so widely accepted? But it still leaves out the answer as to how the change takes place: to say that duty and practice can give birth to genuine love does not say how it happens. Similarly, if we say that the motivating force in such a change is a good will, we still have to ask the question of what motivates that will. What makes a person’s will a good will? I am not asking a scientific question here, and it is not something that psychology or genetics or neuroscience can answer. Rather, it is a question about human nature, and about the state of the human soul. This story about the change implies that there is, within man, an inextinguishable desire for justice, for rational living. In this sense, all of the versions of this story are “immanent”; the possibility for change lies within you.

The upshot of this is that the transformation from knowing what are proper passions to actually having proper passions implies a more fundamental condition: having a desire, a passion, for truth, beauty, and goodness.

Which brings us to option (4), and to Christianity.

Throughout the Christian Scriptures, the use of the words “faith” and “belief” show that faith is itself more like a kind of passion than a kind of knowledge. Or, put another way, if it is a kind of knowledge, it is distinct from other kinds of knowledge in that a person cannot be said to have this “knowledge” unless it is manifest in that person’s attitude, in his entire way of life. Abraham, whose “belief was accounted to him as righteousness,” does what God calls him to do: leave Chaldea, go to settle in Canaan, and sacrifice his son, Isaac, who is the child of promise. Hebrews 11, the great chapter on faith, is illustrated with example after example of people doing what they have been told to do; trusting manifested in their attitudes and deeds, even when they did not understand. Amazingly, Jesus himself exhibits such faith—in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on the Cross—by submitting, in love, to the will of the Father, even when he does not fully understand himself. James, too, indicates the essential nature of faith as a way of life: “Faith, apart from works, is dead.”

“Spiritual growth” or “moral development” on this view would mean that the having of proper passions would somehow lead to a clearer understanding of what they are. How? Well, by study, by meditation, and by conversation with those who already know or who have gone on before us. There are many who have—Socrates, Plato, Augustine, St. Francis, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, and Lewis—all of whom are fruit of the Vine: Christ, the First fruit.

Much more could be said in support of this understanding of what counts as faith (or belief) in God, but it is sufficient here to see that this version of the relationship between knowing what passions are proper and having proper passions says that the having is prior to the knowing; the knowing comes as a consequence of the having. In Augustine’s words, it is “faith seeking understanding.”

Obviously, the best case, the definitive case, of being “within the Tao” is the person who both knows what the true and right passions are and has them. The question for us, then, is whether or not this ideal is, or must be, a reality. Is it an ideal that is manifest in any person? (“Clearly not in me,” we all truthfully admit.) Must it be? If this is to be an ideal of Man and for Man, then doesn’t it have to be an ideal manifest by Man? And which Son of Man has ever been just such a manifestation?

Only Christianity tells this story.

David Rozema is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.

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