The Law of Human Nature

The Law of Human Nature

Every one  has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes  it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely  unpleasant; but however it sounds,  I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?”-“That’s my seat, I  was there  first”-“Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you  any  harm”-  “Why should  you  shove in first?”-“Give me a  bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”-“Come on, you promised.” People say things like that  every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.

Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying  that the other man’s behaviour does not  happen to  please him.  He is  appealing  to some kind of  standard  of behaviour  which he expects  the  other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: “To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out that  what  he  has been  doing  does  not really  go against  the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some  special reason in this particular case why the person  who took the seat first should not  keep it, or that things were quite different  when he was given the bit of orange, or that something  has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise. It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in  mind  some kind of  Law or  Rule  of  fair play  or decent  behaviour or morality or  whatever you like to  call it, about which they  really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might,  of course, fight  like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarrelling means trying to  show  that the  other man is  in the wrong. And there would be no sense in  trying to do that  unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as  there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul  unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.

Now this Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature.  Nowadays,  when we talk of  the  “laws of  nature”  we usually mean things like gravitation, or heredity, or the laws of chemistry. But when the older thinkers called the Law of Right and Wrong “the Law of Nature,” they really meant the Law of Human Nature.  The idea was that, just as all bodies are  governed by the law of gravitation and organisms by biological laws, so the creature  called man also had his law-with this great difference, that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it.

We  may put this in another way. Each  man is at every moment subjected to  several different sets of law but there is only one of these which he is free to  disobey. As  a  body,  he is subjected to  gravitation  and  cannot disobey it; if  you leave  him unsupported in mid-air, he has no more choice about falling than a stone has. As an organism, he  is subjected  to various biological laws  which he  cannot disobey any more than an  animal can. That is, he cannot  disobey those laws which he shares with other things; but the law which is peculiar to  his human nature, the law  he does not share  with animals or vegetables or inorganic  things, is the  one he can disobey if he chooses.

This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every one knew it by nature and  did  not need to be taught it. They did not mean, of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who  did not  know it, just as you find a few  people who are colour-blind or have no ear for a tune. But  taking the race as a whole, they thought that the human idea of decent behaviour  was  obvious to every one. And I believe they were right. If they  were  not, then all the things  we  said about the war  were nonsense.  What was  the sense in saying the enemy were in the  wrong unless Right  is a  real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practised? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have  had  to fight them,  we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair. I  know that  some  people  say the idea of a Law  of  Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different  civilisations  and different ages have had quite different moralities. But  this  is  not  true.  There have  been differences  between  their moralities,  but  these  have  never  amounted  to  anything  like  a  total difference.

If anyone  will take the  trouble to compare the  moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians,  Babylonians,  Hindus,  Chinese, Greeks  and Romans, what will really  strike him will be how very like they  are to each other  and to our own. Some of the evidence for this I have put together  in the appendix of  another  book  called  The Abolition of  Man; but  for  our present purpose I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality  would  mean. Think  of  a country  where  people were admired  for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might  just as well try to imagine a country  where  two  and  two made five. Men  have differed  as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to-whether it was only your own  family, or your  fellow  countrymen, or everyone. But  they have always agreed that you ought  not to  put yourself  first. Selfishness has never been  admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they  have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.

But the most remarkable thing is this. Whenever you find a man who say she  does not believe in a real Right  and  Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later.  He  may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to  him he  will be complaining “It’s  not fair” before you  can say Jack Robinson. A  nation may  say treaties  do  not matter, but then,  next minute, they  spoil  their case  by saying that  the  particular treaty they want to break was an unfair one.  But if treaties do not matter, and if there is  no such thing  as Right and Wrong- in other words, if there is  no Law of Nature-what  is  the difference between a fair treaty  and  an unfair  one? Have they not let  the  cat out  of  the bag  and  shown  that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?

It seems,  then,  we are forced to  believe in a real Right  and Wrong. People may  be sometimes mistaken about them,  just as people sometimes  get their sums wrong;  but they are not  a matter of mere taste and  opinion any more than the multiplication table. Now if we are agreed about that, I go on to my next point, which is  this. None of us are  really keeping the Law  of Nature. If there are any exceptions among you, I apologise to them. They had much better read some  other work, for nothing I am  going  to say  concerns them. And now, turning to the ordinary human beings who are left:

I  hope  you will not  misunderstand what I am going to  say.  I am not preaching, and Heaven knows I do not pretend  to be better than anyone else. I  am only  trying to call attention to a fact; the fact that this year,  or this  month, or,  more likely, this very day, we  have  failed  to  practise ourselves  the kind of  behaviour we expect from other people.  There may be all sorts of excuses for us. That time you  were so unfair  to the  children was  when  you were  very  tired. That  slightly  shady business  about  the money-the one you have almost forgotten-came when you were very hard up. And what you  promised to do for  old  So-and-so and  have  never done-well, you never would have promised  if  you had known how frightfully busy  you  were going to  be. And as for  your behaviour to your wife (or husband) or sister (or brother) if I knew how irritating they could  be, I would  not wonder at it-and who the dickens am I, anyway? I am just the same.  That is  to say, I do not succeed in keeping the Law of Nature very well, and the moment anyone tells me I am not keeping it, there starts up in my mind a string of excuses as long as your arm. The question at the moment is not whether they are good excuses. The point is that they are one more proof of how deeply, whether we like it or  not, we  believe in the Law of Nature.

If we  do not  believe in decent behaviour, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is, we believe in  decency  so much-we  feel the Rule or Law pressing on us so- that we cannot bear  to face the fact that we are breaking  it,  and consequently we try to shift the  responsibility. For you  notice that  it is  only  for our bad behaviour  that we find all these explanations. It is only our bad  temper that we  put down to being tired or worried or hungry; we put our good temper down to ourselves.

These, then,  are the two points  I wanted to  make. First, that  human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in  a certain way, and cannot  really get rid of it. Secondly,  that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law  of Nature; they break it.

These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.


From Mere Christianity, Chapter 1: The Law of Human Nature

by C.S. Lewis.



4 thoughts on “The Law of Human Nature

  1. The law of reciprocity is what you speak of. It does not require a god as C.S.Lewis would have us believe. It is the foundation of social context and construct. It does not appear to apply to animals who are not social/pack creatures naturally. Even animals observe and use the law of reciprocity… it is not a human law, never mind a law from god. All the gods gave us laws. Seldom to they fit the one law we can all agree on. It is a law from nature.

  2. Thanks for sharing this with us, John. It’s been quite a while since I’ve read Mere Christianity. 🙂 Had a question for you. I’m reading a book called “Yesupadam” by Terri Whitaker , subtitled “Reaching India’s Untouched”. I’m about in the middle , but was flipping to the back and noticed the name John David involved with Yesupadam and the Love-n-Care Ministries. Is this you or your dad?
    God bless you!

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