C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Sexual Appetite by Mark Gonnella

Sex is an odd thing to discuss during war.  Yet it was precisely this topic that was discussed on October 11, 1942—in the midst of the turmoil of World War II.  The discussion was a BBC broadcast given by C.S. Lewis in which he discussed the matter of sexual morality in the Christian tradition.  I highly doubt that a man of his genius would broach a subject he deemed to be irrelevant to the times.  For Lewis, the ongoing physical struggle of World War II did not supersede the ongoing spiritual struggle for the soul of England—a struggle unremitting since the Fall.  Today we lack a systematic physical war, but we most certainly do not lack a spiritual war.  Sex is still important. It is still something that needs to be discussed, only I fear that I may not be the one capable of discussing it.  So, I hope you will allow me to stand upon the shoulders of Lewis and rebroadcast his incisive discussion on sexual morality and what this means for us today.

Lewis is no sanguine Christian; he knows the condition of man, and he knows the difficulty of modern day ‘sex-talk.’  Not a man to typically mince words, Lewis plainly asserts that “Chastity is the most unpopular of the Christian virtues” (Lewis 95).  The reason for such unpopularity is that it seems substantively contrary to our nature: the most ‘natural’ inclination to modern man is his sexual inclination, and anything to the contrary seems oppressive, counter-intuitive, and Victorian.  Lewis is aware of this disposition and he thus approaches the problem logically—he proposes the only two tenable answers left to this quandary: either Christianity is mistaken in its sexual morality or our instinct has gone amiss.  Clearly, Lewis argues that it is the latter that is in error and he proceeds to delineate his argument by appealing to nature itself:

The biological purpose of sex is children, just as the biological purpose of eating is to repair the body.  Now if we eat whenever we feel inclined and just as much as we want, it is quite true most of us will eat too much: but not terrifically too much.  One man may eat enough for two, but he does not eat enough for ten.  The appetite goes a little beyond its biological purpose, but not enormously.  But if a healthy young man indulged his sexual appetite whenever he felt inclined, and if each act produced a baby, then in ten years he might easily populate a small village.  This appetite is in ludicrous and preposterous excess of its function.

Lewis is appealing to the Natural Law, the law inscribed on our hearts and which is a reflection of the eternal law.  In other words, Lewis is arguing that we are directed to a particular end and therefore our nature reflects the means by which we obtain that end.  Lewis is essentially saying that just because we have natural appetites does not mean that they are under our whim.  Complex things come with instruction manuals, and there is no doubt that sex is a complex thing.  It has a few purposes, but Lewis just focuses on its biological purpose, which is procreation.  But the question Lewis is concerned with is whether we should indulge in something simply because it is there, and if there is such a thing as too much indulgence.  Lewis affirms that there is such a thing, and modern man’s indulgence in his sexual appetite has reached the level of excessive.

Anyone who reads Lewis knows that he has a penchant for images, so it is no surprise that Lewis buttresses his original claim, that our sexual instinct is perverted, by employing a thought-provoking analogy:

Now suppose you come to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us? (Lewis 96)

Lewis responds trenchantly to the objection that, perhaps, if such a world existed, it would only reveal a societal state of starvation—that the preoccupation with sex is not due to corruption but to starvation.  However, given the number of abortions each year, the sales revenue for the contraceptive industry, and the degree of sexual saturation in our media, it is quite difficult to argue that we suffer from sexual starvation.  Another invocation that this image renders is the fact that many, I would hope, who came across such a civilization would instantly know that something has gone wrong with the appetite to eat. If not pornography but films of steak and eggs littered our internet, if magazine covers proliferated with photos of sandwiches and salads, if men spent hours each day looking at videos of women making roast-beef sandwiches, there is no doubt that it would become clear to everyone that there is a pandemic of a perverted appetite for food.  If this would be the case, then why is it so difficult to discern that our sexual instincts have suffered the same fate? Lewis’ answer will most undoubtedly perturb the modern mind: “Contraceptives have made sexual indulgence far less costly within marriage and far safer outside it than ever before” (Lewis 97).  Perhaps, in addition to spiritual decay, the reason why the sexual instincts perversion is so hard to detect is that we now have means to make such detection difficult. If means were created to mitigate the effects of obesity or, even, eradicate them altogether, and if there were machines that would reproduce food to avoid famine, then the perversion of our instinct to eat would be quite difficult to detect as well.

Another reason for this difficulty, Lewis argues, is the fact that “for the last twenty years, we have been fed all day long on good solid lies about sex” (Lewis 97). In contrast, the reason why food obsession is more obvious than sex obsession is because we have not been inundated with lies concerning food, and thus we all know the consequences of food obsession, such as obesity, gluttony, and using up precious resources.  There is no propaganda extolling us to eat as much as we want when we want to, or that it is “natural” to eat profusely.  However, lies about our sexual appetite have been proliferating for centuries, with more complexity and vigor than ever before.  The consequence of such proliferation is inflation.  The sexual appetite, like any other appetite, grows by indulgence, and the underpinnings of such growth, of our actions, is a false ideology—an ideology that says the problem is not active sexual appetites but inactive ones, that the reason for the present mess, if it is indeed still called a mess, is our many years of repression.  Freud wanted to liberate our sexual appetite from its societal coma, but what he really liberated was our ability to reason and our reliance on our conscience, which in turn enslaved us to pop psychology as a means to solve the mystery of human nature.  Lewis responds with the simple observation:

They tell you sex has become a mess because it was hushed up. But for the last twenty years it has not been. It has been chattered about all day long. Yet it is still a mess.  If hushing up had been the cause of the trouble, ventilation would have set it right.  But it has not. I think it is the other way round. I think the human race originally hushed it up because it had become such a mess.

The reason why Christianity is not looked to as a repository for sexual instruction and edification is because people, quite falsely, assume that Christianity has nothing to offer to the discussion, that, in fact, Christianity is the cause of such hatred of sex and that the religion is antithetical to one’s sexual appetite.  However, Lewis contends that when people encourage others to not be ashamed of sex because of the act itself or the pleasure that it induces, Christianity follows the same script, and may even have wrote it:

The old Christian teachers said that if man had never fallen, sexual pleasure, instead of being less than it is not, would actually have been greater….Christianity is almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body—which believes that matter is good, that God Himself once took on a human body, that some kind of body is going to be given to us in Heaven and is going to be an essential part of our happiness..” (98).

However, the problem is when they mean that we should not be ashamed of the present state of the sexual instinct.  As Lewis argues, “If half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips…” then there is something of which we should be ashamed (99).  There is nothing natural about the present manifestation of our sexual instinct; the oddest contradiction in our modern culture is that moderation is encouraged in almost every facet of life except in one’s sexual life.  If the present state of our sexual instinct were what is natural, then the natural course of action would have been gradual decimation of our species: for the sexual appetite is no longer life giving but soul-destroying.

Now the question remains: what are we to do with this mess?  Lewis offers an incremental solution to combating the immense sexual perversion of our society.  First, he wisely asserts that in order to be cured, we must want to be cured.  Physicians, much to their chagrin, must respect our wills.  The Grandest Physician must as well, for God cannot contradict Himself and thus He cannot break his promises.  He cannot grant us free will and then revoke it because we are too foolish to know how to use it.  The difficulty, Lewis argues, is that such a desire cannot rest solely on a verbal commitment, but that it must entail our whole being, for it is our whole being, not our language faculties, that is affected.  Lewis uses the case of St. Augustine to demonstrate this fact: St. Augustine, as you may know, wanted chastity and incessantly asked for it; however, chastity did not come so easily for St. Augustine, and this is because his heart contradicted his mouth.  As Augustine’s mouth begged for chastity, his heart silently asked for more time.

Lewis acknowledges the difficultly of praying for and seeking chastity, for he knows that everything in culture urges you to give up the inane quest and to stop resisting what is “natural.”  The issue, Lewis asserts, is not that Christianity’s demand for chastity outside of marriage is unnatural, but that it is perfectly in accord with what is natural and it is other principles which attempt to control nature that are artificial.  For example, the principle to indulge in one’s sexual appetites whenever one feels inclined is an artificial principle; it is influential because it is based on truth—the truth that the sexual act, in and of itself, is good and natural.  This truth becomes falsified when one adds, “whenever and however one wants.”  Lewis, however, is not unrealistic and is fully aware of the extent of our natural ability to overcome falsehood.  He knows the propagandistic culture, the fecundity of exposure to it, and the burnishing market for its display:

In the first place our warped natures, the devils who tempt us, and all the contemporary propaganda for lust, combine to make us feel that the desires we are resisting are so ‘natural’, so ‘healthy,’ and so reasonable, that it is almost perverse and abnormal to resist them. Poster after poster, film after film, novel after novel, associate the idea of sexual indulgence with the ideas of health, normality, youth, frankness, and good humour (100). 

With this in mind, Lewis remains consistent with his Christian realism: he does not pretend that we are capable of achieving chastity on our own, but that it is only with God’s help that this virtue may be realized.  Realizing still the difficultly of this, Lewis offers some consolation in the reality of our failure: “After each failure, ask forgiveness, pick yourself up, and try again. Very often what God first helps us towards is not the virtue itself but just this power of always trying again” (101).  Trying for chastity, when one realizes the essential nature of it, is not voluntary—rather it is necessitated by our very nature and by the world we live in. One cannot remain moderately chaste, for there is no such thing, and to attempt a middle ground approach in this world will result in a groundless approach; the ground upon which we stand is ever shifting and moving to perdition—to stand idly on it will only move you in the same direction.  Lewis is aware of what imprudence posing an ‘optional question’ to a self-disparaging student would be, namely, that faced with an optional question, one does not consider how one does it but whether one can even do it at all.  Faced with a compulsory question, the student is forced to answer it: the answer may be wrong, but the attempt alone will procure some points; you will doubtlessly get no points for leaving the question blank.  Lewis profoundly contends that “virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog” (102).

Thus, as a Catholic, we cannot avoid the tension of attempting to be who we were created to be while attempting it in such an aversive and counter-virtuous world.  We must remember, “the Lord God is my strength; he will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills” (Hab 3:19).  The temptation to do otherwise may seem stronger, much stronger than your will, but it must always be remembered that being is stronger than non-being, life is stronger than death, and truth is stronger than falsehood.  The fact that temptations seem so immensely tempting is part of the lie that it is built upon.  St. Paul reminds us that God will never allow temptation to fully crush your will (1 Cor. 10:13), and that God will always provide the means by which we resist the temptation. The Church teaches that “human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance  ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace” (CCC 1810).  Lewis’ wisdom reflects the wisdom of the Church in this regard.  Attempting virtue is always preferential to not attempting inasmuch as swimming to the coast is always preferential to allowing yourself to drown because the coastline seems too far.  We must not worry about our failure either, for failure in attempting to be like Christ will only remind us how much we need Him: “the only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection,” Lewis writes (102).  Perfection may seem like a foolish mark at which to aim, but this very mark is not a mark set by man but by God (Lev. 20:26), and God never breaks His promises.

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One thought on “C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Sexual Appetite by Mark Gonnella

  1. Pingback: Clickables + Writing Elsewhere | Bec's Little Black Blog

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