The Virtue of Moderation: C. S. Lewis on Sex & Other Appetites

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mere Christianity" by C. S. Lewis. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What exactly is moderation? When should we practice moderation, and when should we practice abstinence instead?

God calls on everyone to choose good over evil, but how do we know what is “good”? In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis argues that Christianity instructs us to be good by following Christian virtues, or moral principles that can be applied to a wide range of situations. One of these is moderation.

Continue reading to understand Lewis’s take on the virtue of moderation, including his perspective on sexuality.

The Virtue of Moderation

Lewis explains that moderation is the ability to control your appetites and impulses. Christian virtue calls on you to practice self-control when it comes to food, alcohol, sex, and other forms of indulgence and sensual pleasure. He explains that the virtue of moderation sometimes calls on you to limit how much you consume, but it can also require you to recognize the things you need to give up entirely if they are too difficult for you to control.

(Shortform note: While Lewis approaches moderation from a religious perspective, many psychologists consider moderation to be just as important to general psychological well-being. In Dopamine Nation, Anna Lembke writes that compulsively indulging in pleasurable activities like drugs, sex, or gambling can cause your brain to develop a “tolerance” to pleasure. This will force you to seek these pleasurable activities in increasingly high amounts just to keep from feeling bad, thereby locking you into a cycle of addiction.)

Lewis writes that sexual appetites require more specific instructions than other bodily appetites. He provides two reasons why:

  • The difference in intensity: Lewis argues that the appetite for sex is out of proportion with its purpose. While sexuality is essential for creating children, Lewis writes that sexual appetites arise more often than is necessary for pursuing this end.
  • The difference in consequences: The consequences of indulging in compulsive sexuality are higher than those of compulsively overeating or drinking alcohol. Lewis writes that overindulgence in sex can lead to the creation of unplanned children that partners may not be willing or able to support.

Because sexual appetites are different from other temptations in both their intensity and consequences, Lewis argues that they require a different solution than moderation. In traditional Christian teaching, the solution is a strict binary choice: abstinence or monogamous marriage. This will, at minimum, prevent the birth of children who lack two committed parents to support them. Thus, Lewis argues that the only acceptable place for sexuality is within a monogamous marriage. He also argues that the Christian conception of marriage is not primarily focused on feelings or personal fulfillment but rather on having children and creating a stable home in which to raise them.

What Do Other Major Religions Say About Premarital Sex?

Lewis argues that the Christian prohibition on sex outside of marriage is not simply a preference of the Christian religion, but a response to fixed features of human nature. Recall also that Lewis argues that morality differs very little between cultures on the important issues. By this logic, we’d expect the world’s other major religions to share Christianity’s view on premarital sex—but is this the case? 

To answer this question, let’s explore what the world’s three next largest religions (by number of adherents) say on this point.

Islam: Like Christianity, Islamic doctrine strictly prohibits premarital sex and adultery. A study measuring the frequency of premarital sex by religion shows that Muslims are less likely to report engaging in premarital sex than followers of any other major religion.

Hinduism: Hindu teachings on sexuality vary from region to region—unlike Christians or Muslims, Hindus don’t universally adhere to the same set of holy texts. In general, Hindu teachings determine the morality of a sexual act based on its intention and consider procreation within marriage a much better intention than personal pleasure. While Hinduism typically does not strictly prohibit premarital sex, Hindu societies have very strong social taboos against premarital sex that aren’t considered part of the religion. According to the above-cited study on the frequency of premarital sex, Hindus are less likely to report engaging in premarital sex than Christians, but more so than Muslims.

Buddhism: Buddhism also does not explicitly prohibit premarital sex. However, Buddhists consider any craving for pleasure to be a source of suffering, and therefore monks and nuns adhere to strict celibacy. Buddhist morality judges all actions by their consequences, so reckless sexual behavior could be considered immoral if it leads to a negative outcome. That said, Buddhists are more likely to report having premarital sex than Christians, Hindus, or Muslims.
The Virtue of Moderation: C. S. Lewis on Sex & Other Appetites

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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