No such thing as abstract morality

4 Feb
Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage, written in 1915 by William Somerset Maugham, is not a Christian book. In fact, Maugham was an atheist, and the young protagonist in the novel, Philip Carey, experiences the same shifts in thought that led the author to embrace a Godless worldview. This does not mean the book is without merit. Maugham, like many atheists, was an introspective observer, and many of his insights on relationships, love, art and philosophy are penetrating. Also, the Christianity that Philip abandons is not true Christianity, but a dark legalism taught by his harsh uncle. It made me truly sad that many people are rejecting a Christianity that even I would want nothing to do with; they don’t even know what it is they are rejecting!

It was a cold morning, and he shivered a little; but he had been taught by his uncle that his prayers were more acceptable to God if he said them in his nightshirt than if he waited till he was dressed. This did not surprise him, for he was beginning to realise that he was the creature of a God who appreciated the discomfort of his worshippers.

Reading the book, I was at times frustrated with how close Philip (and the author) seemed to truth, but how far he ended up from it. As he grew up, Philip rejected the graceless God of his uncle, but Maugham understands the inconsistencies in atheism. “From old habit, unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in Him.” Maugham even seems to understand that without the existence of God, there are no grounds for morality.

“Though he had thrown on side the Christian dogmas it never occurred to him to criticise the Christian ethics; he accepted the Christian virtues, and indeed thought it fine to practise them for their own sake, without a thought of reward or punishment.”

Philip is eventually forced to reckon with this inconsistency when confronted by on old philosopher.

“What do you suppose you are in the world for?”

Philip had never asked himself, and he thought for a moment before replying.

“Oh, I don’t know: I suppose to do one’s duty, and make the best possible use of one’s faculties, and avoid hurting other people.”

“In short, to do unto others as you would they should do unto you?”

“I suppose so.”


“No, it isn’t,” said Philip indignantly. “It has nothing to do with Christianity. It’s just abstract morality.”

“But there’s no such thing as abstract morality.”

Modern atheists like Christopher Hitchens claim that their morality is actually superior to Christian morality, because they are moral without the need for afterlife rewards or punishments. Maugham is at least intellectually honest enough to concede that without God, morality itself does not even exist. There is no such thing as abstract morality!- morality is based on something permanent and outside of ourselves.

Unfortunately, the author never satisfactorily provides an answer to the meaning of a life without God. The philosophy that Philip (and I presume the author) ends up with is that life may be meaningless, but we can “make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life”; So that even though your life has no ultimate meaning, you are weaving a beautiful tapestry with your actions (that simply disappears when you die). Maugham is tricky!- He makes an empty and vain worldview sound almost sweetly sentimental. His conclusion is that life is empty, but there is beauty in living a good life, working, getting married, having children, and dying.

But here is the end of that philosophy, in a quote from Maugham one year before his death:

“When I look back on my life…it seems to me strangely lacking in reality. It may be that my heart, having found rest nowhere, had some deep ancestral craving for God and immortality which my reason would have no truck with.” (quoted by columnist Norman Ross, The Chicago Daily News, January 26th, 1964)

I am reminded by that classic C.S. Lewis quote;

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Like Maugham, Lewis was a deep thinking atheist, but one whose thirst for a meaningful universe was finally satisfied when he embraced Jesus Christ.


PS. This was not a negative review of the book. It’s actually a highly enjoyable read, with lots of plot twists, and concise, elegant prose. Recommended for fans of Charles Dickens.


One Response to “No such thing as abstract morality”

  1. Benjamin Finger February 11, 2012 at 2:39 am #

    A conversation I had last night with a dear friend mirrored to a degree a portion of your post.

    We spoke of the problem of pain, faith and morality on ends last night. My dear friend who has shifted from being agnostic to being a full blown atheist (yet for some reason he continues to remain as a pastor for a congregation), argued that the interpetive lens we should see pain as being diminished by the goodness in the world. That we should embrace the joy and beauty in living a good life, working, getting married, having children, and dying (similar to Maugham). I tried to counter much of his example that life has more joy than pain is a first world general luxury (though I believe it personally to be not); but how do we answer the injustices and deep burden of pain experienced by much of the third world. His counter argument was even an ounce of joy should be enough of a delight to live thorugh all of the pain. I got to be honest I just don’t buy it. He then tried to argue similarly to C.S. Lewis that our morality is based on the goodness found in the world and the expression of joy derived from it. Yet for some reason just won’t take that extra step.

    I attempted to counter in that without my faith, I see not for the why for life. How can we make reason for continue existance if there is no divinity. But the very face of pain pushes me ever deeper to believe that there is a God. How can this world be filled with so much suffering, not just the physical, and there not be a God? How can this be the end of everything? No matter how much I have tried in my life to write my story, including the not so great painful aspects, without God; in the end I could find no meaningful ending without Him. It was as if every avenue in my life in which I had tried to live without Jesus, that the very fabric of my being called for their to be a Redeemer. That in the end, no matter how much I did not want to believe in Jesus, I couldn’t help but believe and fall in love with Him. That to finally find an answer, I had to find the entirty of my being and my story in His greater overarching encompassing story. The metanarrative that is our redeemer

    His counter to that was no matter how much he had tried to find his story in the metanarrative provided by the Trinity, he couldn’t see it. That no matter how desperately and starvingly he has longed to believe, he hasn’t been able too.

    So we spoke in the end of how we sadly sees things differently and how ironic in the positions in life we have landed in. That in the end, I couldn’t help but to believe; but for him no matter how much he desired and longed to believe he couldn’t. My argument for morality and ethics is rooted in theology. He attempts to approach morality and ethics from a foundation which he acknowledges is a degree broken, from the beauty and goodness in the world. He did admit though it seemed to lack reality (similar to Maugham).

    So yet i still pray for my friend. Hope in the one day he gains faith not simply the desire for it.

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