Mere Christianity: Part II

Book III: Christian Behaviour

This must be that part of Mere Christianity that makes it a classic. Lewis makes very good arguments on how Christians ought to live. Despite its age, the content is still fresh and valid today.

Lewis points our attention to what he calls ‘cardinal virtues’ i.e. those virtues all civilised people recognise. They are prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude.


Prudence means practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it. Nowadays most people hardly think of Prudence as one of the ‘virtues’. In fact, because Christ said we could only get into His world by being like children, many Christians have the idea that, provided you are ‘good’, it does not matter being a fool. But that is a misunderstanding. …  [Christ] wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim. …  God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers.


Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue  was christened ‘Temperance,’ it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further. …  One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting everyone else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see it fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons – marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

One great piece of mischief has been done by the modern restriction of the word Temperance to the question of drink. It helps people to forget that you can just be as intemperate about lots of other things. A man who makes his golf or his motor-bicycle the centre of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge, or her dog, is being just as ‘intemperate’  as someone who gets drunk every evening.

Justice and Fortitude

Justice… is the old name for everything we should now call ‘fairness’; it includes honesty, give and take, truthfulness, keeping promises, and all that side of life. And fortitude includes both kinds of courage – the kind that faces danger as well as the kind that ‘sticks it’ under pain. ‘Guts’ is perhaps the nearest modern English. You will notice, of course, that you cannot practise any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one into play.

Lewis goes on to say that there’s a difference between doing a prudent and temperate action and being a a prudent and temperate person. This distinction is necessary to avoid some wrong ideas:

  1. We might think that, provided you did the right thing, it did not matter how or why you did it – whether you did it willingly or unwillingly, sulkily or cheerfully, through fear of public opinion or for its own sake. But the truth is that right actions done for the wrong reason do not help to build the internal quality or character called a ‘virtue’, and it is this quality or character that really matters.
  2. We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.

Continue to Part 3.