Two Knights for Truth

The Ethics of C.S. Lewis and Dietrich von Hildebrand

C.S. Lewis and Dietrich von Hildebrand would agree that the great intellectual catastrophe of modern times is the value-subjectivism that has invaded not only universities, but society at-large. It is now universally assumed that categories such as good and evil, true and false, and beautiful and ugly refer exclusively to the subjective likes and dislikes of the person uttering a judgment.

The problem with both relativism and subjectivism is that the first can be only relatively true, and the second only subjectively true. Plato refused Protagoras by showing that his position, namely that man was the measure of all things, “of the things that are, that they are; of the things that are not, that they are not,” is by its very nature valid only for the speaker. For another man is just as entitled to deny this proposition, and then the contradictory statement would be “true for him.” But if two contradictory propositions can both be true, man’s intellectual life deserves to be buried for ever.

There are things which are truly subjective. If a person calls a room warm, whereas another calls it cold, they are making subjective judgments, because each proposition obviously refers to how a person feels about temperature, and gives no indication of what the temperature truly is. It is wisdom that teaches us to distinguish between cases in which one refers to subjective experiences, and cases in which this subjectivism should be thrown out of court.

The Abolition of Man is one of the jewels that C.S. Lewis has left us. In chapter two, Lewis displays an uncanny gift to encapsulate in a few lines the inconsistencies of subjectivism:

A great many of those who “debunk” traditional or (as they would say) “sentimental” values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that “real” or “basic” values may emerge.

The difference between objective values, and merely subjectively satisfying experiences, was the theme of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Ph.D. dissertation, written when Lewis was still an adolescent. In fact, in his writings, von Hildebrand distinguishes between three distinct types of importance: “values,” which are objective realities which merit our interest and response because of their intrinsic worth; “objective” or “beneficial” goods, which are the goods that are truly in the line of a person’s best interest, independently of his subjective wishes and desires; and finally what he calls “the merely subjectively satisfying,” that is, something that draws its importance exclusively from the satisfaction it affords a person.

The merely subjectively satisfying objects are removed from the sphere of “the indifferent”—that is, anything incapable of moving a person’s will or emotion—by the fact that they have an appeal for an individual person. No one can convince me that beer is good, as I happen to find it unpleasant and bitter. No one can convince another person that ice cream is good if he does not enjoy eating it. These goods become important for us because we enjoy them, but they cannot be called intrinsically important, for the plain reason that their importance depends upon our appreciation.

Values deserve our interest and response, for their importance is quite independent of our position toward them. Justice is intrinsically good, whether men agree upon this fact, or trample down upon it. If a person disregards justice’s claims, its importance is in no way diminished, but the unjust person has stained himself morally because he has failed to respond to an objective call addressed to him by a moral value. He is the loser; the glorious objectivity of justice is not, and cannot be, shaken by the person’s failure to respond adequately to its demands.

In the history of philosophy, there is a recurring tendency to reduce the value—that is, the intrinsic good—to the level of the personally beneficial good, and to say that the value is important because it benefits the human person. But von Hildebrand in his Ethics shows (in line with Plato’s Gorgias) that there are things that benefit man because they are intrinsically important, whereas there are other things which are important because they benefit man.

It is most important in ethics to distinguish between the categories of value, and the beneficial good. A couple of examples will shed light on this problem. Let us suppose that two men finding themselves in similar financial circumstances are both robbed: in both cases, the thief has stained himself morally, and in both cases two individual men have been hurt in a similar fashion. But it is possible that, unbeknown to the thief, one man is severely damaged by this theft because he is very poor, whereas the other, being immensely rich, does not feel the difference at all. In this case, the harm done to one man is great, whereas the harm done to the other is insignificant. But the fact that the theft is immoral remains, and even though a thief is not hurting a wealthy person by taking his property, he still stains himself morally by doing so.

It is interesting that, in our pragmatic society, people are likely to respond to evil only when they perceive that someone has been hurt—thereby clearly avoiding the moral question. If this is not the case, they are likely to laugh about it and consider it a good joke. Von Hildebrand would not deny that to steal from a poor man is worse than to steal from a rich man, but this does not make the other either good or legitimate.

This fact is particularly striking concerning sexual ethics. Most people consider rape to be horrible; whereas to engage in sex with a willing partner strikes most people as being perfectly all right. I recall a student of mine defending promiscuity on the ground that the people practicing it enjoyed it. “The girl likes it, and so do I; what can be wrong with it?” He would clearly have rejected rape as immoral because the deed was enjoyed only by one of the parties involved. But to his mind, as long as both agreed, a promiscuous relationship was not only permissible, but definitely good. If by “good” he meant “subjectively satisfying,” he was right indeed, but he then completely bypassed the moral question.

Let us examine the same problem from another angle. With regard to racial prejudice, only certain groups are persecuted. For example, in the United States, not to be a WASP is definitely a disadvantage; to be one guarantees access to the best education, the best universities, the best everything. Non-WASPs have had many odds to fight against in order to “make it.” But the moral question is quite independent of whether an individual suffers from a particular prejudice, or whether he is spared. Let us suppose that someone is never unfairly treated, because he happens to have the right background; this does not make the unjust treatment of others any better. Alas, people usually respond to an evil only when it affects them personally. As long as only other people are hurt, they do not care. (This was once strikingly expressed by one of my neighbors whose car was parked next to mine in the garage. As I was lamenting over the fact that my car had been vandalized for the fourth time in three years, she shrugged, “As long as it does not happen to mine, why should I care?” — which is another way of saying: the moral question of vandalism leaves me indifferent; the only thing that bothers me is when I myself am victimized.)

Ethical obligations clearly presuppose the notion of objective values: these values merit a response, call for one, but never “force” man to respond. If he fails to do so, he will be affected — that is, stained with a moral fault; the values are not thereby changed.

The notion of objective value, as opposed to both the beneficial good and the merely subjectively satisfying, is the warp and woof of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s ethics; it is like a golden thread that runs throughout his various works on ethics. Every new work has sharpened and deepened his thought, but the basic structure has not been altered. Whereas social laws are subject to oscillation, the fundamental laws of ethics never change.

C.S. Lewis writes, “Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities; it is quacks and cranks who do that. As Dr. Johnson said: “People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed” (Mere Christianity, page 78).

This is why Christian ethics is not one particular set of ethics among other possibilities, but the full, complete, absolutely valid ethics for all people. As Kierkegaard put it, “Christian ethics is the true ethics.” It is a set of ethics that includes all natural, moral, values—such as justice, honesty, and truthfulness—and it simultaneously crowns this morality with a morality which has become visible through Christian revelation.

Both Lewis and von Hildebrand will insist that humility and charity are the key virtues, and that they are virtues which are not found in the canons of non-Christian ethics. Lewis writes of pride: “I do not think I have ever heard anyone who was not a Christian accuse himself for this vice. And at the same time, I have very seldom met anyone who was not a Christian, who showed the slightest mercy to it in others” (Mere Christianity, page 109).

Lewis’s thoughts echo those of St. Augustine, who observes that the Scriptural teaching concerning repenting the sin of pride “is to be found in none of the books of strangers, not among the Epicureans, not among the Stoics, not among the Manichees, not among the Platonists. Everywhere indeed are found excellent precepts for manners and discipline, but this particular thing, humility, is not to be found” (En. in Ps., Second Discourse on Psalm 31, no. 18, Newman Press translation). The saint adds, “It is this vice [of pride] which makes them scorn to bend their necks beneath the yoke of Christ, constrained though they are yet more tightly by the yoke of sin. Serve they must, yet serve they will not, even when it would be to their advantage. By refusing to serve, they merely withdraw their service from a good Master without finding any escape from servitude, since anyone who will not serve love must need become the slave of sin” (ibid.).

Humility is central in von Hildebrand’s ethics, and in Transformation in Christ he devotes an entire chapter to an analysis of this virtue, which can blossom only when man, the creature, contemplates the infinite perfection of his God. Modesty is a virtue which is possible on a purely natural level; Socrates was a modest man who did not gloat over his own accomplishments, and knew his limitations. But humility is infinitely deeper: “True knowledge of our status as creatures … implies a confrontation of the creature with its Creator: it is not possible except in reference to a personal God. … Furthermore, humility also implies blissful assent to this our creatureliness and ‘non-being.’ What it demands is not a reluctant or resigned admission of our nothingness: it is, primarily, a joyous response to the infinite glory of God” (Transformation in Christ, pp. 128-129).

The acquisition of humility presupposes grace in a special way for the very reason that original sin, which has so severely wounded human nature, was essentially a sin of pride: Eritus sicut dii. It is the humility of the God-man who has not shunned the womb of the Virgin that can heal the wounds that pride has inflicted on our nature.

At the same time, humility is the key to charity. He alone who recognizes joyfully his own nothingness and imperfection can learn to love others with God’s help while seeing their faults and imperfections. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Both Lewis and von Hildebrand distinguish clearly between asceticism and virtues. Virtues are moral values which have become a permanent possession of a person, and which ought to be pursued for their own sake; whereas asceticism is just a means used to help us become free.

If we know a person to be just, kind, truthful, and generous, we know a great deal about his worth as a moral person. But if we are told that someone reduces his food, sleep, and drink to a bare minimum, and that he refrains from smoking, or is a teetotaler, we know nothing as yet about his moral stance. Writes von Hildebrand: “As long as somebody fasts for the sake of keeping the slenderness of his figure, fasting is morally indifferent. If, on the contrary, as in the case of religious ascetic practice, it is chosen as a means to free ourselves from the fetters of concupiscence, i.e., to remove the obstacles for an unfolding of charity in our soul, fasting assumes a high indirect value” (Christian Ethics, p. 260).

One should be deeply saddened upon hearing that another person leads an immoral life, but one should not allow oneself to pass negative judgments on someone who does not practice asceticism. Writes Lewis: “An individual Christian may see 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” (Mere Christianity, p. 76).

I do not think that von Hildebrand would endorse Lewis’s statement the way it is formulated. He would object to marriage, meat, beer, and the cinema being put in the same category. From what we have said previously, it should be clear why it is so.

Marriage has a high value: being a sacrament, to which the becoming of new human beings with immortal souls is entrusted; it is also a high beneficial good for the person. Meat can benefit a person’s health because it is nutritious, but it is usually sought because it is pleasant tasting; whereas beer and the cinema are typically subjectively satisfying.Their importance is exclusively related to the amount of satisfaction which they afford a particular person. It can be assumed that Lewis would accept these distinctions, but the fact remains that it is misleading to list them all together. Marriage is certainly essentially different from the others, and some brainless people might assume that marriage is to be sought because “it is pleasant and fun,” which would be a deplorable attitude toward this great human good.

To look down upon marriage is definitely not a Christian attitude, but a Christian can be totally indifferent to meat, beer, and the cinema even though it is imperative that he does not condemn others for liking them. Puritanism is not Christian. However, it seems that it is legitimate for a good Christian to regret that another person should make of food, drink, and the cinema as being central to his life. In his book on the Inklings, Humphrey Carpenter relates that Warren H. Lewis once said, “My idea of the happy life … would be to buy a pub, put up one of those “No Beer” notices, lock the customers out, and drink the stuff myself” (The Inklings, p. 130).

We can assume that C.S. Lewis’s elder brother’s comment was meant as a joke; obviously if it was meant seriously, there would be reasons to deplore this attitude. To drink beer can be fun; it can never make a man happy. C.S. Lewis, like von Hildebrand, saw clearly the abysmal difference which exists between pleasure (which can be selected) and happiness (joy, as Lewis calls it), which comes as a surprise. Indeed, Lewis was “surprised by joy.”

The fact that “merely subjectively satisfying” goods can never satisfy man’s longing is indicative of the fact that he, having a soul made to God’s image, is made for higher things. Indeed, St. Augustine was right: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” (Confessions I, 1). While rejecting any form of gnosticism and puritanism, Christianity challenges us to use those goods which are incapable of fulfilling man’s longing, but to use them gratefully.

This is why Christian asceticism is, and remains, a mere means. Whereas the Stoic prides himself on his detachment, the Christian ascetic aims at detachment for the sake of liberating his heart from illegitimate attachments, and training it to “love” in the valid and deep sense of the word.

One can take very different attitudes toward food. The first is the attitude of the glutton, who is exclusively preoccupied with the pleasure that food gives him. There are very many degrees possible in this attitude, but when it becomes a “basic” attitude of a person, it is not only incompatible with a truly Christian attitude, but it becomes one of the capital sins.

On the other hand, Christianity definitely rejects the puritanical attitude according to which pleasure, as such, is sinful. How far from the attitude of St. Augustine, who sees that legitimate pleasures have been placed by God on the road of the tired traveller, moving toward his eternal goal. Just as someone taking a long trip has to stop, from time to time, at an inn, and must restore his strength with food and drink in order to continue on his way; so also the Christian is permitted to enjoy the pleasures that God gives him, provided that he does not put his heart in them, and uses only those pleasures that are legitimate. Likewise, Plato, who was so wary of pleasure, and tells us that one of the main aims of education is to train a child to achieve “victory over pleasure” (Laws, Book VIII), acknowledges that there are legitimate pleasures.

Some people take a “dietitian” attitude toward food, viewing it exclusively as something the human organism needs in order to function. This attitude is neutral from a moral point of view; it is “reasonable” but it is not yet morally praiseworthy.

There is a radical difference between a purely rational attitude to food and drink, and the Christian attitude which uses these goods while thanking God for these his gifts. St. Francis of Assisi thanked Him for his Sister the Moon, for his Brother the Sun, for all goods which God’s bounty has placed on his path.

In his Ethics, von Hildebrand stresses that the more perfect a man becomes, the more will he see merely subjectively satisfying goods, which are legitimate (as opposed to those which are illegitimate, such as perverse pleasures, which are to be shunned in any case) as objective and beneficial goods. It is true, indeed, that what is healthful,, and tastes good is not only pleasant, but also beneficial. As Lewis writes, “I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage” (Mere Christianity, p. 120).

Alice von Hildebrand About Alice von Hildebrand

Alice von Hildebrand, PhD, is a lecturer and author of nine books, including The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.


  1. Avatar EDWARD G STAFFORD says:

    Great stuff. Thanks for this.

  2. I want to thank Dr. Alice von Hildebrand for eliciting so clearly the connections between two of my favorite thinkers. I was introduced to Dietrich von Hildebrand’s writings by Dr. William Marra at Fordham University, and C.S. Lewis was always on my list of favorites. A number of years ago when I was planning on writing my doctoral dissertation on the connection between Lewis and von Hildebrand, it was next to impossible to fine a mentor. I am grateful to Father Robert Lauder of the Philosophy Department of St John’s University who willingly took on the task.
    Clara Sarrocco
    The New York C.S. Lewis Society