Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight.

At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more.

When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,

and when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.

~C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Sunday, January 9, 2011

On "We Have No Right to Happiness"

Read the essay: We Have No Right to Happiness

“We Have No Right to Happiness” is a fascinating essay.  Lewis covers a wide range of topics and addresses a lot of sticky questions in only three short pages.  He begins by recounting a tragedy that occurred as the result of a divorce.  The story is all-too familiar—a man and a woman divorce their spouses in order to remarry in the hopes that they will once again be happy, as they were at the start of their first marriages.  Despite their seemingly innocuous motives, however, the divorce has unforeseen emotional consequences, and causes the man’s former wife, who, earlier in life, poured herself into nursing him through a long illness, to commit suicide.
I can’t help but notice here what a masterful writer Lewis is.  He delivers the news of Mrs. A’s tragic death with a subtlety and power that turned my opinion of Mr. A completely on its head almost without my noticing it.  It’s no wonder, I think, that people so often find themselves agreeing with Lewis’s arguments.  Not only do many of his statements have the ring of truth, but his writing is incredibly persuasive.
Lewis continues to make a host of excellent points.  What do we mean when we claim to have a “right to happiness”, or at least to the pursuit of such? he asks.  The idea of a right—as a legal guarantee of something—and happiness—which is often outside the realm of human control—don’t seem to fit together.  No human law can promise happiness to every individual.  Thus, what is meant by a “right” in this case must be a moral right.  It is never morally wrong to act in a way that will secure one’s happiness; and, furthermore, the laws of society should reflect that underlying moral law.  Surely, though, that can’t be right.  No one has a right to do anything and everything—to commit atrocities, and disregard the rights of others—in the name of happiness.  The “right to happiness”, then, must mean that everyone has a right to do whatever is legal in order to obtain happiness.  This idea seems strange—of course people have a right to do whatever is lawful—until placed in historical context.  The important idea is that everyone possess this right, not just the wealthy and privileged.  All people have an equal right to act within the bounds of the law to pursue their own happiness.
But what is meant by “happiness”, especially in the case of Mr. A and Mrs. B?  Lewis argues that in modern arguments “happiness” almost always means sexual happiness and fulfillment.  Sexual desire, he remarks, is placed on a pedestal in our society, allowed a free reign which we would find shocking if applied to any of our other impulses.  “Absolute obedience to you instinct for self-preservation,” he says, “is what we call cowardice; to your acquisitive impulse, avarice.  Even sleep must 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’.”  We give precedence to our sexual impulse because of its strength, and because of what it seems to promise—untold happiness, lifelong contentment.  However, in the end the promises of our desire may turn out to be false.  We may be happy for a while, even a very long time, if we get what we want.  But passion fades.  Happiness that lasts, Lewis notes, does so not only because the people involved are in love but also because they are steady, loyal, and flexible, willing to stick to their promises even when things get rough.
I’d like to say one last thing, about Lewis’s second to last paragraph.  I don’t entirely agree with his statements about women.  What he says about women being “more naturally monogamous than men” might be true or might not, I don’t know; and his assertion that men mostly care about a woman’s beauty and women about a man’s personality is certainly stereotypically true.  But I would like to think better of my brothers than that.  I will say that no man will ever win my heart who doesn’t love all of me—including my ugliness, inner and outer—and who’s only looking skin-deep.  I would also like to think that having a loving, safe place to call home and raise a family (“domestic happiness”) is important to men as well as to women.  I’ve heard plenty of young men say they’re eager to be fathers and husbands—and plenty of young women say they just aren’t interested in being mothers and wives.  I respect Lewis a great deal, but I can’t accept his rather shallow views in this area.  Stereotypes do both women and men a disservice.


  1. I think you made an excellent point in your discussion of sexual desire. Lasting happiness involves loyalty, even in the midst of trials.

  2. Too true. Thanks for the praise. :)

  3. It's fun to see you doing these reflections :)

    I find it a tad bit amusing at how we Americans did sometimes nettle Lewis! And this is a rare case where I'm not in full agreement--though I can see where he might think that the pursuit of happiness is limited to only sexual happiness, but I have always understood that phrase to mean that I'm not subject to another deciding my life for me--for example, I don't have to be a doctor just because the government wants me to be a doctor. I can pursue what God has put in my heart to pursue. Granted, that doesn't mean that people don't blow it out of context and make it twisted. Though I would have to argue that most divorces are results of more than just a dissatisfaction with sex--even those who divorce in order to marry someone else.

    As for that second to last paragraph, Lewis has a lot to back him up. And he says that women keep men "most easily," he does not say it's the only thing that keeps men. Men are very visual (we know this) while women are more mental (for lack of a better term--we internalize things, we want to talk, we are more in tune with out emotions, we want, as you want, to be taken as a whole person). His views are far from shallow--they are based in a good understanding of how God created men and women, how men and women work, our fears and our tendencies.

    And as a credit to our brothers in Christ, the majority of them seek to go past the basic impulses, they do look to love the whole person. And we daughters of God, in the same way, are looking for more than just safety and security. But that doesn't change the fact that beauty is still the thing that will most quickly attract a guy--that's not to say that they won't look deeper, just that they see beauty first in most cases.

  4. You make very good points, Nia. The way Lewis talks about women still bothers me a bit--maybe it's just his tone, even if what he says is true. I really liked what you said about the 'right to happiness' being the freedom to decide what to do with your life. Many Americans don't think about this, but people in other countries don't always have that freedom, to verying extents. I had an Indian-American friend in high school who's parents told her it wasn't worth her time to study humanities and pushed her into the sciences, to be a doctor. She was (and still is) happy studying medicine, but it wasn't entirely her choice. And Lauren has told me that in China, government officials will literally select children to be sent to special boarding schools to learn wushu or gymnastics. By the time they are teenagers they're phenomenal at what they do, and I'm sure some if not most of them grow to love it. But again, they didn't choose it.

    The freedom to choose what you want to do does come with a cost, however. You have to motivate yourself to do well at it. This is something I often encounter when practicing wushu. I almost wish that, at a young age, my parents had started giving me martial arts lessons. I would be so far ahead of where I am now! But I would have lost that initial joy of finding out about wushu all on my own, and deciding to try it out, and working hard at it even though no one was forcing me to.

  5. I agree that Lewis seems kind of shallow in how he ends the essay. I also liked how you talked about the death of Mr. A. I'd comletely forgotten that was even in the essay. I also thought more about sexual desire and less about what happiness and a right to it meant. Good insights.