Tag Archives: W. Somerset Maugham

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.