In words that are cherished by all civilized men, but especially by Americans, it has been laid down that one of the rights of man is a right to ‘the pursuit of happiness.’
That quote comes from one of C.S. Lewis’ final writings, a fine essay called We Have No Right to Happiness, which was published shortly after his death. Lewis is right – I’ve never stood in front of a group of people young, old, religious, or secular who don’t aspire in some way to be happy.
But can that pursuit be dangerous for our souls? In the above mentioned essay, C.S. Lewis would seem to say it can…
Lewis points out that often we hold a double standard for morality, recognizing in most areas of our life that we ought to pursue happiness by legitimate means. For C.S. Lewis, a legitimate means to happiness means adhering to the tenets of natural law, the God-given sense of right and wrong placed within each of us. According to the Catechism, natural law is engraved on the soul of every human being (CCC 1954). It’s this sense of natural law that tells us that lying, cheating, and stealing are immoral; and that honesty, fidelity, and sacrifice are virtues to be admired.
In We Have No Right to Happiness, Lewis argues that although we all (rightly) seek happiness – none of us has an unlimited right to happiness based on the idea that we can do whatever we want.
Lewis is not suggesting we’re supposed to be miserable Christians – but you need to follow Lewis’ logic. He saw in our society a tendency to use the pursuit of happiness not only as a goal – but as a justification for the means by which we achieve the goal of happiness. (I want to be happy, therefore it doesn’t matter what I do – or whom I hurt – so long as it makes me happy). Any sane society will agree with Lewis – at least to a point – if I want to kill you because it makes me happy, this is problematic. To murder another person is immoral, and to do so simply because it makes me happy would have society label me some sort of sociopath. But where we seem to be clear on things like murder, our modern society doesn’t see sex in the same way:
…sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilized people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled. Absolute obedience to your instinct for self-preservation 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.’
It is like having a morality in which stealing fruit is considered wrong—unless you steal nectarines.”
Our society claims – in as loud a voice as it can scream – that to try and bridle our sexuality is unnatural and immoral. How DARE anyone (especially the Church) impose on another limits to their ability to express themselves sexually – to their happiness. You’re beginning to see it in the defenses of those who commit heinous sexual crimes against others and against children… a defense built upon their “freedom of expression.” It’s the same defense that used for those who hire prostitutes, who view pornography, who are unfaithful to their spouses, and who take advantage of others who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
But this mentality is not limited to those who struggle with morality. It’s used by many young couples who – although they’ve been taught, and in many cases believe differently – choose not to wait until their wedding night to consummate their marriage. “We love each other, and we have the right to be happy.” It’s used by those who contracept, even though they understand that this changes the meaning of their sexual love. Seeking happiness in this way leads us away from God… and so, of course, C.S. Lewis would write that we have no right to this.
The key to Lewis’ understanding of the pursuit of happiness is that we all have the right to do so by lawful means. And we have in the natural law, the Commandments, and the teachings of Christ a pretty good framework of what “lawful means” are supposed to be. The crux of the matter is quite simple: we try to justify things in the name of being happy because a small part of us knows that something is wrong. This is often the voice of God speaking in our hearts – a voice we can acknowledge, allowing Him to transform us to discover something better than happiness: joy – or a voice we can smother and ignore, with great risks:
…though the “right to happiness” is chiefly claimed for the sexual impulse, it seems to me impossible that the matter should stay there. The fatal principle, once allowed in that department, must sooner or later seep through our whole lives. We thus advance toward a state of society in which not only each man but every impulse in each man claims carte blanche. And then, though our technological skill may help us survive a little longer, our civilization will have died at heart, and will—one dare not even add “unfortunately”—be swept away.” (C.S. Lewis)