In this chapter, Lewis will discuss the Christian idea of “a good man.” In order to do so, Lewis will study the technique of psychoanalysis. It’s important to keep in mind that although Freud and Jung (the two most influential psychoanalysts) had theories about morality, their true area of expertise was psychology. Therefore, we should take Freud and Jung with a grain of salt whenever they try to generalize their conclusions and speak about life in general.
This is one of the more dated chapters in Mere Christianity. At the time when Lewis was writing, psychoanalysis—defined very briefly, the study of the unconscious mind—was popular in Europe and the U.S., and its founder, Sigmund Freud, was widely considered to be one of the greatest modern scientists. In the 21st century, Freud is more often considered a brilliant but ultimately misguided thinker, who made many legitimate discoveries about the human mind, but also many errors.
Lewis argues that psychoanalysis is not really contradictory to Christianity, though some have claimed that it is. In Christianity, the act of choosing what to do has two distinct steps: first, weighing various thoughts and feelings; second, translating these impulses into an explicit choice or action.
Although Lewis doesn’t spell it out, many of his contemporaries argued that Freud’s belief in the unconscious—a part of the mind that influences human decision-making without betraying its presence—contradicted the Christian belief in the doctrine of free will. In short, if there is a silent, invisible part of the mind that influences our choices, then can we really say that our choices are “free?”
Imagine three men being shipped off to war. The first man has a natural fear of battle; the other two have irrational fears of war, triggered by childhood traumas. Now assume that a psychoanalyst examines the latter two men and cures them of their neuroses. Even though all three men are now mentally “equipped” for battle, it doesn’t change the fact that they all must choose whether or not to fight. In short, psychoanalysis can cure neurosis, but it doesn’t interfere with the essence of morality: free choice.
Lewis argues that the existence of an unconscious mind doesn’t change anything about the doctrine of free will. Whether or not the unconscious is real, humans ultimately make decisions with their conscious minds. True, it might be easier for a non-neurotic person to make certain moral choices, but Lewis also assumes that a just God would take such things into account in judging a person.
Sooner or later, every human being wonders if they would have turned out the same if they’d been born in a different country, had a different upbringing, or been bullied (or not) as a child—in short, humans wonder whether their behavior is the result of a free choice or their upbringing. Lewis’s answer is that upbringing, and most of a person’s psychological makeup, is just “raw material,” not the essence of a person. In the end, the only thing God cares about is a person’s free choices, which are free from mental baggage.
Lewis makes an important distinction between a person’s “circumstances” (e.g., their family, their income, their education, etc.) and their “essence” (e.g., their choices, character, etc.). As Lewis himself will later acknowledge, it can be surprisingly difficult to make such a distinction in practice. Nevertheless, he maintains that all human beings have some “raw material”—an unchanging “self” that makes decisions, independent of psychological baggage. Psychologists would probably disagree with the idea that it’s possible to distinguish the “self” from its “psychological baggage,” and indeed, Lewis doesn’t provide any further information about how this is possible.
As a young man, Lewis was always puzzled when he read Christian philosophy: Christian thinkers seemed to think that “sins of the mind” were more dangerous than murder or rape—sins that, one would think, are far worse. Now that Lewis is an older man, he realizes that the Christian philosophers were right. Sin, at its most basic level, is a mental choice. The external “bigness” of a sin (e.g., how many people are killed or harmed) “is not what really matters” to God; in the end, humans are judged for their secret, internal decisions.
In this passage, Lewis argues that God judges our innermost state of mind, not our actions. Ultimately the weight of a sin has nothing to do with the number of people who are harmed and everything to do with the sinner’s inner state of mind. This is a strange idea, since, in our society, people are punished for their actions based on a combination of action and state of mind. For example, if a man is being tried for murder, the judge would consider the man’s intent (whether he meant to kill or not) and the number of people he killed (the more people, the higher the man’s sentence). Effectively, Lewis is saying that when God judges, he only looks to our choices.
Lewis makes one final point: the more moral we become, the more clearly we see that we are immoral. A truly evil man doesn’t realize how evil he is (just as a man who is fast asleep doesn’t realize he’s asleep). “Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”
Lewis again connects goodness with insight and wisdom, rejecting common criticisms of Christian goodness as narrow-minded or naïve.