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Thursday, December 01, 2005

C. S. Lewis on contraception, part II

In C. S. Lewis on contraception, I wrote that I didn't know of any statement of Lewis' that would indicate a clear position against contraception. I had forgotten about his statements in Mere Christianity. On page ix of the Preface, he writes,

In Book III [of Mere Christianity], which deals with morals, I have also passed over some things in silence, but for a different reason [than controversy over doctrine]. Ever since I served as an infantryman in the first world war I have had a great dislike of people who, themselves in ease and safety, issue exhortations to men in the front line. As a result I have a reluctance to say much about temptations to which I myself am not exposed. No man, I suppose, is tempted to every sin. It so happens that the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion. I therefore did not feel myself qualified to give advice about permissable and impermissable gambling: if there is any permissable, for I do not claim to know even that. I have also said nothing about birth control. I am not a woman, nor even a married man, nor am I a priest. I did not think it my place to take a firm line about pains, dangers and expenses from which I am protected; having no pastoral office which obliged me to do so.

In Book III, however, he does mention contraceptives, though not to state a “yea” or “nay” position (p. 76 in the chapter on sexual morality):

...before accepting sexual starvation as the cause of the strip-tease, we should have to look for evidence that there is in fact more sexual abstinence in our age than in those ages when things like the strip-tease were unknown. But surely there is no such evidence. Contraceptives have made sexual indulgence far less costly within marriage and far safer outside it than ever before, and public opinion is less hostile to illicit unions and even to perversion than it has been since Pagan times. Nor is the hypothesis of “starvation” the only one we can imagine. Everyone knows that the sexual appetite, like our other appetites, grows by indulgence. Starving men may think much about food, but so do gluttons; the gorged, as well as the famished, like titillations.

Lewis' mention of contraception here differs on three points from statements in his other works:
1. He does not present contraceptives in light of natural law, as in The Abolition of Man, or of eugenics, population control, or any other manipulation of human reproduction

2. He presents the idea that sex (or some sex) within marriage is an indulgence

3. He mentions the “cost” of procreation


A few comments:

Lewis' statement on contraception here comes from a practical angle more than a philosophical one.

The suggestion that marital sex, in general, is an indulgence may be a bit careless on Lewis’ part; I think (though of course I don’t know) that if one had asked him, Lewis would’ve granted that God didn’t give married people sex merely for indulgence and children (“the biological purpose of sex is children”) and nothing else. Certainly the nature of sex within marriage is different from that of sex outside of marriage in major underlying ways, although in other ways it is the same, as are many of the effects. But I think that the purpose of Lewis’ statement is 1) to allude to the idea of separating the major biological consequence of sex from the pleasure of sex, which is a common dissension, and 2) even more than that, to merely state that there is probably more sex occurring within marriages because of contraceptives than there would be without them.

It is interesting, though, that Lewis states that the sexual appetite, in general, grows by indulgence. Applied to marriage, this is a curious statement. Surely he means that the sexual appetite as a primary driving force grows by indulgence; not the appetite in context of and in service to a marriage.

Lewis does acknowledge, both in the Preface and in the later chapter of Mere Christianity, that there is a cost involved in procreation. This cost is often regarded as irrelevant or unworthy of consideration by supporters of natural family planning or those who eschew family planning altogether. However, I think that the issue of cost involves a myriad of aspects with varying degrees of legitimacy. (what is legitimate and what isn’t being itself a matter of dispute) The cost will be different for each family, though many points of cost will be the same among families if to differing degrees. Cost in itself is certainly not something to be avoided (at all costs...), but the nature of each cost certainly must be considered and dealt with. I believe that this matter belongs in the category in which Lewis puts it, namely, of minding one’s own business and not assuming one knows someone else’s.

The issue of faith also plays in, insofar as saying that if one obeys God, one will find oneself provided for. But, alas, for every story “proving” this, there is another that disproves it. (Anecdotal evidence, i.e., “testimony,” is plentiful, but more reliable evidence is hard to come by.) This is not to say that God does not provide, but God has made us stewards and caretakers, not just of the earth but of those things He gives us. He may not “rescue” us if we are irresponsible. He may not even rescue us if we are responsible. He gives us freedom to make decisions that affect the well-being of our families. Some may say that the only decisions we can make are ones either of faith or from lack of faith, and this may be true. But if that’s the case, and if God is the giver of faith, then where does that leave us? How does faith relate to obedience? Do we need a certain amount of faith in order to obey? It seems to me that sorting out issues of obedience vs. faith on the subject of contraception is a very complicated, not to mention personal, matter.

I include this discussion of Lewis’ statements and views from Mere Christianity because, awhile back, I wrote a series on The Abolition of Man, in which Lewis mentions contraception, as well as a series on contraception itself (of which this post is the latest installment), in which I saw fit to include what Lewis said about contraception in TAOM. Part of the context of the debate over contraception relates to the point of TAOM, which was to suggest the effects of technology upon mankind and his future in relation to his essence as a natural and spiritual creature (natural law). This led to focus upon Lewis’ opinion on contraception in general, for whatever instructive purpose it may serve.

On a tangential but related note, I think that Lewis' views on contraception ought to be taken into account when, as seems to be happening of late (as has happened before), one considers questions as to the integrity of his own sexual practices and how they correlate with his writings and the way his writings ought to be considered. Either he was inconsistent, and led the dual (or multiple) life that some suggest, or, he wasn't, and he didn’t. This is not to say that he may not have committed, at some times, things that he believed were morally wrong, but it is different from saying that he consistently lived a lifestyle inconsistent with his stated moral beliefs.

(update/clarification: Lewis's standards and conduct in the sexual arena were quite different prior to his conversion to Christianity than after it; it would be improper to discount this when considering his post-conversion writing on the subject. I daresay that in comparing his behavior and thinking from both before and after his conversion, he was able to see the difference in stark contrast and appreciate that much more keenly the truth of what he was saying about sexual morality in Mere Christianity.)

10 Comments:

  • Well done. I'm not sure how I missed this for several days.

    By Blogger Martin LaBar, at 2:56 PM  

  • "It is interesting, though, that Lewis states that the sexual appetite, in general, grows by indulgence. Applied to marriage, this is a curious statement. Surely he means that the sexual appetite as a primary driving force grows by indulgence; not the appetite in context of and in service to a marriage."

    This is an interesting question. In a marriage, generally, I'm assuming, sexual activity gradually tapers off until death. Was this your objection to the idea that the appetite would grow with indulgence? How different would sheer frequency, say, be between married and unmarried sexually active people of similar ages?

    I would argue that sex within marriage behaves very much like any other appetite given significant gratification within a disciplined sphere. The appetite expands to fill the sphere of frequent relations with an extremely available partner, then begins to shift and change as it encounters the limits of this: things that are forbidden within marriage, such as partnering with other people.

    This is part of the reason I'd argue that marital sex is more different from extra-marital sex toward the end than it is toward the beginning. It is only as time passes that it becomes less an obvious natural action and more a disciplined aspect of a more organized, directed whole.

    By Blogger Nate, at 12:35 PM  

  • Hi Nate, thanks for your comment. You asked,

    ...Was this your objection to the idea that the appetite would grow with indulgence?

    I was thinking more of the fact that sex in marriage occurs within a constant, long-term relationship and is therefore (in a healthy marriage) driven by the marriage itself and not by desire alone. I can’t answer your question about frequency as related to age, but my un-expert comment would be that frequency is affected by other factors besides age, marital status, and the age of the marriage.

    I don’t know that, as a general rule, desire fills and then pushes against the limits of the sphere of marriage (even given the fact that availability is not a constant, nor is its level always “extreme” within marriage), especially if by “the limits of marriage” you mean that one must think monogamy. I would say that it is the marriage itself, not merely its “limits,” that shapes and directs desire. But I don't think this shaping affects appetite by way of indulgence or lack thereof. There may be “seasons” of desire related to age, what’s going on within the marriage, and other factors.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 11:28 PM  

  • 3. He mentions the “cost” of procreation


    A few comments:

    Lewis' statement on contraception here comes from a practical angle more than a philosophical one.



    Interestingly Bonnie, I didn't take it that way at all. For starters the word "procreation" isn't in the clip you posted. I am taking his entire statement more philosophically. Mabye it's just the way I'm reading it and I'm not saying one way is right and the other wrong, but but my view is entirely different.

    By Blogger Elena, at 8:55 AM  

  • "It is interesting, though, that Lewis states that the sexual appetite, in general, grows by indulgence. Applied to marriage, this is a curious statement. Surely he means that the sexual appetite as a primary driving force grows by indulgence; not the appetite in context of and in service to a marriage."

    "I was thinking more of the fact that sex in marriage occurs within a constant, long-term relationship and is therefore (in a healthy marriage) driven by the marriage itself and not by desire alone."

    I'm afraid I don't really understand your objection, then, to Lewis's original formulation. It sounds like you have a very specific idea about the inter-relation of sex and marriage that might be worth hearing, if you've still the interest to comment on this.

    By Blogger Nate, at 2:04 PM  

  • Nate,

    I appreciate your interest. I guess I was just surprised at his use of the term “indulgence” in the sentence, “Contraceptives have made sexual indulgence far less costly within marriage.” But perhaps I’m making too much of it. Perhaps he is merely saying the equivalent of “C’tives have made having sex far less costly...”...except that a few sentences later, he makes the statement, “Everyone knows that the sexual appetite, like all other appetites, grows by indulgence.”

    Since the context of these statements is a discussion of sexual morality, namely, a defense of chastity in a society that has become “obsessed,” “warped,” and generally unprincipled in the area of sex, it doesn’t appear that he is making any moral statement about marital sex except to contrast it to unchastity: “There is no getting away from it: the old Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’” (Mere Christianity, p. 75) He spends the rest of the chapter describing and defining sexual intemperance, i.e., indulgence in sex outside of marriage.

    Lewis published this text in 1943; he was a bachelor until 1957. He wrote the text with no experience as a married man, which he notes in the preface (as quoted in the post.) Had he written it as a married man, I feel certain that he would not have changed a thing except perhaps for the sentence I’ve questioned, in order to clarify its import.

    My own statements about extramarital sex vs. marital sex have mainly to do with the fact that a person’s sexuality outside of a long-term, committed relationship cannot belong to another the way it does in a marriage, and therefore is bound to be mainly about the self. Though a person may feel it to be about the other as well, or profess it to be, it cannot be, because it is ultimately “married” to no one but the self. This is the type of sexuality that “grows by indulgence,” I think, whereas a healthy marital sexual relationship grows the marriage, not the sexual appetite itself.

    Does that clarify?

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 12:03 AM  

  • Your last paragraph comes the closest to illuminating me as to your objection. It is certainly possible, by the way, that we are pursuing a humourously fine point--I'm willing to be slightly ridiculous for the sake of something interesting. I hope you are, too.

    If it is perhaps the case that marital sexuality "grows the marriage", isn't it also true that it could still grow itself? Extra-marital sex, after all, even if it is as self-bound as you say, has effects on other things: how you relate to romantic partners, to romance in general, and all manner of things. All of these are consequences of sex in relationship to things outside of itself.

    But if we look at sexuality qua sexuality, even within marriage, isn't it the case that it remains an appetite? Doesn't it still provide Lewis with a strong example of an appetite that can be amply provided for, and still desire more?

    I am very interested in the idea that sexuality is transformed in a certain, specific way when within the context of marriage, but I think it could be dangerous to categorize it so blithely as another thing altogether. Lewis, it seems to me, was saying that in a certain sense, sex is always sex. And I agree. Sex within marriage is merely sex directed toward the best end, not a transformation of the thing itself.

    Am I making my objection at all clear? I hate to belabor a point, but I feel I'm doing it so little justice.

    By Blogger Nate, at 2:00 AM  

  • Nate,

    As long as attempts to define and understand points are being made seriously and charitably, and as long as the points uphold as worthy a cause as the proper understanding of sex, I think a discussion is worth having. I'm willing to pursue a point that I believe is larger than “humorously fine.” :-)

    Yes, I think one could say that marital sex grows itself, but it is not distinct from the marriage itself. I do not deny that extra-marital sex has effects on other things; in fact, I think that this is one of the main reasons extra-marital sex is problematic. A person may learn things somewhat in the abstract that can be applied to another or various persons, but this again makes these various aspects relational to oneself and one's own skill-building, so to speak, than to a particular relationship, i.e., a marriage.

    Insofar as it is biologically driven, certainly the sex drive remains an "appetite" within marriage, but I don't believe it can achieve "ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function" as Lewis characterizes a thoroughly indulged extra-marital sexual appetite. (have you read the chapter in Mere Christianity? I can best explain my meanings by referring to portions thereof.)

    I don't know that I'm "blithely categorizing marital sex as another thing altogether" -- see the paragraph in the post that begins, "The suggestion that marital sex, in general, is an indulgence may be..." Of course, in some ways, "sex is always sex." And I would agree that sex within marriage is sex directed toward a proper end. But I strongly disagree that the thing itself is not transformed by marriage. The basic act itself and some portions of its functions are not, but its identity and meaning certainly are, as are significant portions of its functions. It's also a matter of purity.

    (Don't worry, I'm not doing the subject justice either, by a long shot, which is not to say that you aren't!)

    You might want to read some other things I've written about marital sex - they are contained within a series of posts on masturbation, of all things, but I think I explain my basic view of sex better there than I'm doing here. this is the first post. (Specifically see point #10)

    (I fixed the link; gave the wrong one before)

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 10:12 PM  

  • In 1947, Lewis wrote a letter in which he explicitly refused to state that contraception was sinful in light of his bachelorhood and the issue, therefor, having no immediate application to himself. He added, however, that he would hate to defend it in light of the nearly universal Christian teaching against it until his own Church, the Anglican Communion, permitted it, with limitations, at its 1930 Lambeth Conference. Thus, at a minimum, he certainly had strong reservations about it even if he was unwilling to outright condemn it. You may find the letter on page 798 of Volume 2 of his Collected Letters.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:35 PM  

  • Thank you, Anon, I’m glad to know about that.

    Based on the sources I know of, I would agree with your assessment.

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 11:11 PM  

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