18 April (1940): C.S. Lewis to Mary Neylan

C.S. Lewis writes to a former student named Mary Neylan, clarifying and defending his Christian understanding of marriage. In the letter, Lewis elucidates his views, namely, that “being in love” is not an adequate basis for marriage, and that the man should be the “Head” of the couple (“Do you really like women in authority? When you seek authority yourself, do you naturally seek it in a woman?”).

Dear Mrs Neylan

(1) On the marriage service. The three ‘reasons’ for marrying, in modern English are (a) To have children. (b) Because you are very unlikely to succeed in leading a life of total sexual abstinence, and marriage is the only innocent outlet, (c) To be in a partnership. What is there to object to in the order in which they are put?

 The modern tradition is that the proper reason for marrying is the state described as ‘being in love’.  Now I have nothing to say against ‘being in love’: but the idea that this is or ought to be the exclusive reason or that it can ever be by itself an adequate basis seems to me simply moonshine.

 In the first place, many ages, many cultures, and many individuals don’t experience it—and Christianity is for all men, not simply for modern Western Europeans.  Secondly, it often unites most unsuitable people. Thirdly, is it not unusually transitory? Doesn’t the modern emphasis on ‘love’ lead people either into divorce or into misery, because when that emotion dies down they conclude that their marriage is a ‘failure’, tho’ in fact they have just reached the point at wh. real marriage begins. Fourthly, it wd. be undesirable, even if it were possible, for people to be ‘in love’ all their lives. What a world it wd. be if most of the people we met were perpetually in this trance!

 The Prayer Book therefore begins with something universal and solid—the biological aspect. No one is going to deny that the biological end of the sexual functions is offspring. And this is, on any sane view, of more importance than the feelings of the parents.  Your descendants may be alive a million years hence and may number tens of thousands. In this regard marriages are the fountains of History. Surely to put the mere emotional aspects first would be sheer sentimentalism. Then the second reason.  Forgive me: but it is simply no good trying to explain this to a woman. The emotional temptations may be worse for women than for men: but the pressure of mere appetite on the male, they simply don’t understand. In this second reason, the Prayer Book is saying ‘If you can’t be chaste (and most of you can’t) the alternative is marriage.’ This may be brutal sense, but, to a man, it is sense, and that’s that. The third reason gives the thing that matters far more than ‘being in love’ and will last and increase, between good people, long after ‘love’ in the popular sense is only as a memory of childhood—the partnership, the loyalty to ‘the firm’, the composite creature. (Remember that it is not a cynic but a devoted husband and inconsolable widower, Dr Johnson, who said that a man who has been happy with one woman cd. have been equally happy with any one of ‘tens of thousands’ of other women.  i.e. the original attraction with turn out in the end to have been almost accidental: it is what is built up on that, or any other, basis wh. may have brought the people together that matters.)

 Now the second reason involves the whole Christian view of sex. It is all contained in Christ’s saying that two shall be ‘one flesh’. He says nothing about two ‘who married for love’: the mere fact of marriage at all—however it came about—sets up the ‘one flesh’. There is a terrible comment on this in I Cor VI 16 ‘he that is joined to a harlot is one flesh’. You see? Apparently, if Christianity is true, the mere fact of sexual intercourse sets up between human beings a relation wh. has, so to speak, transcendental repercussions—some eternal relation is established whether they like it or not.

 This sounds very odd. But is it? After all, if there is an eternal world and if our world is its manifestation, then you would expect bits of it to ‘stick through’ into ours. We are like children pulling the levers of a vast machine of which most is concealed. We see a few little wheels that buzz round on this side when we start it up—but what glorious or frightful processes we are initiating in there, we don’t know. That’s why it is so important to do what we’re told (cf.—what does the Holy Communion imply about the real significance of eating?)

 From this all the rest flows. (1) The seriousness of sexual sin and the importance of marriage as ‘a remedy against sin’ (I don’t mean, of course, that sins of that sort will not, like others, be forgiven if they are repented, nor that the ‘eternal relations’ wh. they have set up will not be redeemed. We believe that God will use all repented evil as fuel for fresh good in the end.) (2) The permanence of marriage wh. means that the intention of fidelity matters more than ‘being in love’. (3) The Headship of the Man.

 I’m sorry about this—and I feel that my defence of it wd. be more convincing if I were a woman. You see, of course, that if marriage is a permanent relation, intended to produce a kind of new organism (‘the one flesh’) there must be a Head. It’s only so long as you make it a temporary arrangement dependent on ‘being in love’ and changeable by frequent divorce, that it can be strictly democratic—for, on that view, when they really differ, they part. But if they are not to part, if the thing is like a nation not a club, like an organism not a heap of stones, then, in the long run, one party or other must have the casting vote.

 That being so, do you really want the Head to be the woman? In a particular instance, no doubt you may. But do you really want a matriarchal world? Do you really like women in authority? When you seek authority yourself, do you naturally seek it in a woman?

 Your phrase about the ‘slave-wife’ is mere rhetoric, because it assumes servile subordination to be the only kind of subordination. Aristotle cd. have taught you better. ‘The householder governs his slaves despotically. He governs his wife and children as being both free—but he governs the children as a constitutional monarch, and the wife politically’ (i.e. as a democratic magistrate governs a democratic citizen).

 My own feeling is that the Headship of the husband is necessary to protect the outer world against the family. The female has a strong instinct to fight for its cubs. What do nine women out of ten care about justice to the outer world when the health, or career, or happiness of their own children is at stake? That is why I want a ‘foreign policy’ of the family, so to speak, to be determined by the man: I expect more mercy from him!

 Yet this fierce maternal instinct must be preserved, otherwise the enormous sacrifices involved in motherhood wd. never be borne. The Christian scheme, therefore, does not suppress it but protects us defenceless bachelors from its worst ravages! This, however, is only my own idea.

 The Headship doctrine is that of Christianity. I take it to be chiefly about man as man and woman as woman, and therefore about husbands and wives, since it is only in marriage that they meet as epitomes of their sex. Notice that in I Cor XI just after the bit about the man being the Head, St Paul goes on to add the baffling reservation (v. 11) that the sexes ‘in the Lord’ don’t have any separate existence. I have no idea what this means: but I take it it must imply that the existence of a man or woman is not exhausted by the fact of being male or female, but that they exist in many other modes. I mean, you may be a citizen, a musician, a teacher etc as well as a woman, and you needn’t transfer to all these personalities everything that is said about you as a wife quâ wife.

 I think that this is the answer to your view that the Headship doctrine wd. prevent women going in for education. St Paul is not a system maker, you know. As a Jew, he must, for instance, have believed that a man ought to honour and obey his mother: but he doesn’t stop and put that in when talking about the man being Head in marriage.

 As for Martha & Mary, either Christ and St. Paul are inconsistent here, or they are not. If they’re not, then, whether you can see how or not, St Paul’s doctrine can’t have the sense you give it. If they are inconsistent, then the authority of Christ of course completely overrides that of St Paul. In either event, you needn’t bother.

 I very strongly agree that it’s no use trying to create a ‘feeling’. But what feeling do you want to have? Isn’t your problem one of thought, not feeling? The question is ‘Is Christianity true—or even, is there some truth mixed up in it?’ The thing in reading Macdonald is not to try to have the feelings he has, but to notice whether the whole thing does or does not agree with such perceptions (I mean, about good & evil etc) as you already have—and, where it doesn’t, whether it or you are right.

 Term begins on Saturday next. If you and the gudeman cd. come and lunch with me on the following Saturday (27th) it wd. suit admirably. Let me know (address to College)

 Thank you for taking my mind off the war for an hour or so!

 Yours sincerely

 C. S. Lewis

P.S.  don’t think the Marriage Service is ascetic, and I think your real objection to it may be that it’s not prudish enough! The service is not a place for celebrating the flesh, but for making a solemn agreement in the presence of God and of society—an agreement which involves a good many other things besides the flesh.

Distinguish the Church from the bedroom and don’t be silly! Wd. you really think it suitable for erotic excitement to be expressed by the young couple while visiting the family solicitor, while asking for their parents’ blessing, while bidding good-bye to the old home? If not, then why when asking God’s blessing? Do you think a grace before meals should be so written as actually to make the mouth water? If we began holidays with a religious service, wd. you take your bathing suit to Church, and practice a few golf strokes in the choir?

‘Sober and godly matrons’ may be a stickler, if you haven’t read the English School: but you ought to know that all the associations you are putting into it are modern and accidental. It means ‘Married women (matrons) who are religious (godly) and have something better and happier to think about than jazz and lipstick (sober).’ But you must know that as well as I do!



For more on Lewis’ theological views, click here to listen to his only surviving wartime BBC radio broadcast. Transcriptions of these broadcasts were eventually published in a volume entitled “Mere Christianity.”

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