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Saturday, February 12, 2005

We have no 'right to happiness': the case of marital infidelity and divorcing for 'love'

"We have no 'right to happiness'" is the title of the last thing that C. S. Lewis wrote for publication and it appeared shortly after his death in The Saturday Evening Post of 21-28 December 1963.

Lewis focuses on sexual happiness in this essay, and in the following extract, describes the psychology accompanying erotic passions. Most of us, I believe, know people--perhaps ourselves--who have voiced similar sentiments while in the throes of love, and who have by them at times even gained much sympathy. (See also The Four Loves) There is no denial of the power of such passions, or any simple outright condemnation of it either. The great objection of Lewis' essay is to the use of such sentiments in attempts to justify or condone what's ordinarily called irresponsible behaviour.

For those of us who are more easily governed by the sway of our emotions, this may serve as a bracing corrective.

In light of the two facts that he wrote this within 2-3 years of his beloved wife's death that ended a happy marriage lasting only slightly more than 3 years, and that of him having never really been romantically involved in all the years leading up to middle-age,* I find his description of the nature of a strong erotic passion especially poignant, and even a little surprising, short as it may be in this particular piece. On the other hand, it is also possible to read a more detached tone in this excerpt, though it is not my preferred interpretation.

*Before Lewis met and fell in love with Helen Joy Davidman, he considered himself a confirmed old bachelor and might have even betrayed a little coyness about the prospect of him sharing a room with a woman. I think it struck him in the beginning as something rather 'naughty.' So set he was in his bachelor ways and mindset! I also think that he never quite recovered fully from the grief of losing Joy and was most ready to join her and His Lord in the heavenly countries shortly after her departure from this world.
When I was a youngster, all the progressive people were saying, 'Why all this prudery? Let us treat sex as we treat all our other impulses.' I was simple-minded enough to believe they meant what they said. I have since discovered that they meant exactly the opposite. They meant that sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilised people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled. ... Even sleep has to be resisted if you're a sentry. But every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is 'four bare legs in a bed.'

It is like having a morality in which stealing fruit is considered wrong--unless you steal nectarines.

... Our sexual impulses are thus being put in a position of preposterous privilege. ... Now though I see no good reason for giving sex this privilege, I think I see a strong cause. It is this.

It is part of the nature of a strong erotic passion--as distinct from a transcient fit of appetite--that it makes more towering promises than any other emotion. No doubt all our desires make promises, but not so impressively. To be in love involves the almost irresitible conviction that one will go on being in love until one dies, and that possession of the beloved will confer, not merely frequent ecstasies, but settled, fruitful, deep-rooted, lifelong happiness. Hence all seems to be at stake. If we miss this chance we shall have lived in vain. At the very thought of such a doom we sink into fathomless depths of self-pity.

Unfortuntately these promises are found often to be quite untrue. Every experienced adult knows this to be so as regards all erotic passions (except the one he himself is feeling at the moment). We discount the world-without-end pretensions of our friends' amours easily enough. We know that such things sometimes last--and sometimes don't. And when they do last, it is not solely because they are great lovers but because they are also--I must put it crudely--good people; controlled, loyal, fair-minded, mutually adaptable people.

If we establish a 'right to (sexual) happiness' which supercedes all the ordinary rules of behaviour, we do so not because of what our passion shows itself to be in experience but because of what it professes itself to be while we are in the grip of it. Hence, while the bad behaviour is real and works miseries and degradations, the happiness which was the object of the behaviour turns out again and again to be illusory. Everyone [except the offending party, Mr. A] knows that Mr A. in a year or so may have the same reason for deserting his new wife as for deserting the old. He will feel again that all is at stake. He will see himself again as the great lover, and his pity for himself will exclude all pity for the woman.
Certainly food for thought.


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