Erotic love (allegedly) conquers all
C. S. Lewis on why the “right to sexual happiness” makes totalitarian demands
The last thing that C. S. Lewis wrote for publication was a brief article for the Saturday Evening Post. The essay was called “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’,” which — at least to American readers — may have suggested that he was addressing rights claims made in a political setting. But Lewis made it clear that he was not discussing an alleged legal right, but a claim to a moral right. And the happiness in question was not general or generic, but sexual happiness, a state achieved by allowing sexual desires to overrule all other moral considerations.
Lewis wrote that, from an early age, he noticed that “progressive people” were effectively lobbying to treat sex “as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilized people.” Claims made on behalf of sexual impulses put them “in a position of presposterous privilege. The sexual motive is taken to condone all sorts of behavior which, if it had any other end in view, would be condemned as merciless, treacherous, and unjust.”
While Lewis felt there was no good reason to accept the allegedly progressive claims made for the sovereignty of sex, he admitted that there was “a strong cause” which made such claims seem plausible:
“It is part of the nature of a strong erotic passion — as distinct from a transient 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 irresistible 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.
“Unfortunately 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, this is not because they promised at the outset to do so. When two people achieve lasting happiness, this 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 supersedes all the ordinary rules of behavior, we do so not because of what our passion shows itself to be in experience but because of what it professes to be while we are in the grip of it. Hence, while the bad behavior is real and works miseries and degradations, the happiness which was the object of the behavior turns out again and again to be illusory.”
Lewis offered no philosophical or theological explanations for the hope for happiness experienced in sexual desire. But consider this possibility. The unity uniquely known in marriage is given to us as an analogue of the relationship between Christ and the Church, the unity in which the ultimate human fulfilment is secured. Sexual love within the order of marriage is a bodily anticipation of that summum bonum.
Rather than imagining human beings as sexual creatures, who are given the institution of marriage as a way of restricting sexual activity, it may be more accurate to say that we are marriageable creatures — beings whose nature bears witness to God’s purposes — who are given sexuality as a way of deepening and enhancing marriage. Imitations of or substitutes for faithful marriage (e.g., adulterous relationships, which were the focus of Lewis’s remarks) carry with them a compelling counterfeit of that teleological promise. And even a forged token of ultimate good can plausibly (if profoudly mistakenly) be taken as overruling all lesser goods.
The issue of the Saturday Evening Post that contained “We Have No ‘Right to Happiness’” was published on November 22, 1963, the day Lewis died.