An Integrated Argument Against Naturalism Using Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis

 Life is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”[1]

 Since the Enlightenment, naturalism – the philosophy that everything can be explained in physical terms and that there is no reality beyond that of this spatial-temporal world – has come to dominate the West, infiltrating almost every aspect of our culture.  Ultimately, with nothing beyond the physical world, naturalism strips human life of significance and logically leads to nihilism, which is the antithesis of a belief in a good and loving God Who cares for His creation and infuses life with meaning.  As apologists, we typically approach the task of challenging naturalism with arguments that appeal to one’s reasoning faculties.  Though this is an important approach, an apologetic that appeals to both reason and imagination is more effective given the fact that it is often difficult to apply detached propositional truths to one’s everyday life.  Imaginative writings can provide us with case studies of complex philosophical ideas and their consequences – applied philosophy, if you will.  Two texts in particular provide us with such an integrated apologetic: Shakespeare’s Macbeth and C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.  Together, they provide a powerful tool to help the apologist communicate the logical consequences of rejecting God.

MacbethAndBanquo-WitchesInterestingly, the main character from Macbeth and the naturalist arrive at the same nihilistic perspective that life is nothing more than “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”[2] How does a character from an Elizabethan play and a naturalist end up in the same nihilism?  Surely the routes they took to the same conclusion are different?  Though they are different in some respects, they are strikingly similar in aspects that are key.  They both involve what Lewis called “the abolition of Man.”[3]  Both represent mankind’s attempt to escape objective morality and its deliverances upon human conscience. Indeed, one could argue that Macbeth is an imaginative exploration of the death of God in its lead couple’s lives as they try to suppress their consciences and suffer the meaningless despair that results.  In this sense, it parallels our own world where materialistic naturalism has declared that science has buried God and man is left on his own in a universe of meaningless matter that could care less about his existence.  Shakespeare provides us with a case study of the ultimate consequences of naturalism as described in Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.

Macbeth is an excellent choice for an imaginative apologetic for several reasons, not the least of which is that its popularity has not waned since its first production in the early 17th century.  The timeless play about a Scottish general who, with his wife’s encouragement, murders his way into kingship, speaks to us from centuries ago because of its startlingly astute, pre-Freudian psycho-analysis of human nature. The picture he paints of the inner workings of conscience, will, and desire is congruent with our own experience of sin and temptation.  He invites us to reason together with the couple as they contemplate their insatiable desire for the “golden round”[4] and what they must do to attain it.  Through Shakespeare’s dramatic genius, our imaginations are forced into the uncomfortable position of seeing ourselves in his murderous couple.  We recoil at their evil and feel the sense of nihilistic despair that their sins bring into their fictional world.  Herein lies the power of Macbeth and why it is an excellent choice for an integrated apologetic.

Time and time again, Shakespeare makes clear that Macbeth and his wife are fully aware of the evil they are choosing.  He gives us glimpses into their inner lives through various monologues strategically placed throughout the drama.  We identify with the struggle of conscience in Macbeth as he recognizes that there is no good reason to kill a virtuous king such as Duncan to attain the crown.  “We will proceed no further in this business,” he tells Lady Macbeth.[5]  We resonate with the moments where it seems that Macbeth will be able to resist the ambition that is propelling him towards murder after murder.  The apologist can point out that this is the perfect picture of all temptation to sin.  Lewis would call these episodes of reflection the results of a properly functioning “Chest” or “indispensable liaison [officer] between cerebral man and visceral man.”[6]  Macbeth’s reason can tell him the surest way to secure the crown and his emotions can supply the force with which to pursue that end.  Only his conscience, through consulting a transcendent moral law, can determine if such actions are indeed morally good and if he ought to obey them.  And even then, Shakespeare shows us that Macbeth, as a free-will agent, can choose to disregard this knowledge.

It is important to note that the significance of Macbeth’s inner conflict is lost on the modern naturalist who would reduce all such reasoning to a battle of valueless impulses. We can challenge him to account for Macbeth’s struggle to suppress what appears to be the weaker instinct of not murdering Duncan.  Lewis writes, “whence do we derive this rule of precedence … Is there another instinct of a higher order directing us to do so, and a third of a still higher order directing us to obey it — an infinite regress of instincts?”[7]  The naturalist must assume that this outburst of conscience arose from an instinct over and above his instinct to murder.  He must assert that this instinct has been conditioned into Macbeth by nature and society.  Yet, Lewis would write that in the very act of determining that one instinct is preferable, we are assuming something beyond them as arbiter for “the judge cannot be one of the parties judged: or, if he is, the decision is worthless and there is no ground for placing”[8] Macbeth’s impulse not to murder Duncan over his impulse to do so.  A key point to make is that if Macbeth were to suppress his instinct for ambition and resist murder at any point in the play, we cannot praise him, for “no kind of factual observation and no appeal to instinct will give [us] a ground for this opinion”[9] unless we appeal to something outside of Macbeth’s instincts.

The theistic answer is that Macbeth’s conscience was not being acted on from within the material world, but from beyond through the Moral Law, or Tao.  This law not only acts on his conscience, it grounds his choices as being either objectively evil or good, something that we can’t help but feel.  Indeed, we can see that even his reasoning faculties were aware of the force of such grounding.  Beforehand, Macbeth admits that only ambition is driving his desire to murder Duncan and that this was somehow in violation of this real moral code.  He was looking for a way to justify the murder so that he could live with his conscience after the deed was done.  All the naturalist is left with are the words of Shakespeare’s witches, “fair is foul, and foul is fair.”[10] This is the fog that blankets over any statements of value we may wish to apply to the Macbeths’ moral choices.  With no transcendence to add value, our bad choices are no better or worse than our good ones.  Lewis writes, “In what way does Instinct, thus conceived, help us to find ‘real’ values?”[11]

A similar conundrum for the naturalist presents itself in the character of Lady Macbeth.  In her, we find someone who asks to have all of her better instincts suppressed so that she can gain what she desires for her and husband.  “Come, you spirits / And fill me, from the crown to toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty,” she famously cries out.[12]  Theists call it “selling her soul to the devil”, but how can the naturalist account for her actions?  As apologists, we should ask the naturalist to describe the instinct that is compelling her to suppress the others.  Indeed, she is even willing to suppress what theists and naturalists alike agree is one of the strongest female instincts, that of protecting her young.  The impulse to protect one’s progeny can be seen throughout the animal kingdom and is presumably the most basic with respect to survival.  Yet, Lady Macbeth declares that while nursing a child, “I would, while it was smiling in my face, / Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,  / And dash’d the brains out,”[13] if that is what was required to attain the crown.  Shakespeare gives us a powerful picture of the opposite of what a naturalist would claim as our most basic instinct:  our selfish genes’ desire to be carried on to the next generation.  At no point can one surmise that Lady Macbeth is unaware of what she is choosing, as well.  This a portrait of sinning with eyes wide open, not one of a person who has “submitted to the inevitable”[14] actions of instincts upon her will.

Perhaps the most important question the naturalist must ask is why our murderous couple cannot live with the knowledge of their deeds?  The angst of the violated conscience is powerfully portrayed from the moment the first murder is carried out. “Better be with the dead,/Whom we to gain our peace have sent to peace,/Than on the torture of the mind to lie/In restless ecstasy” Macbeth proclaims with startling accuracy even as he is planning to commit his next murder.[15]  “All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand” Lady Macbeth will cry with undeniable acuity from her final phantom-like, final state.[16]  Once Macbeth and his wife have given into their ambitious instincts and murdered Duncan, Shakespeare shows us that a process has begun that becomes more difficult to halt the longer they allow it to continue.  “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill,” Macbeth tells his wife as he refuses her request to share with her his plans to murder Banquo and his son.[17]  Lewis would agree, for he wrote that “good and evil both increase at compound interest”[18] and every sin represents a new way we have allowed evil to gain a foothold in our hearts.  There is a cumulative effect here that seems to defy the reductionist account of a battle of impulses.  “This disease is beyond my practice”[19] and “more needs she the divine than the physician,”[20] Shakespeare’s doctor concludes upon observing the effects of a deeply burdened conscience on Lady Macbeth.  The apologist would agree.

As the strength of evil’s foothold increases, Macbeth’s reasoning faculties begin to waver.  His instinct for survival begins to dominate, drowning out all hope that reason may provide.  Importantly, this is where the nihilism begins to set in, too.  We can see that Macbeth’s reasoning skills decline as his conscience is ignored.  Fatalism begins to dominate and, after seeing Banquo’s ghost, he remarks to his lady that “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”[21]  Shakespeare illustrates Lewis’s point well that when sin accumulates or one’s animal instincts are given reign, one does have a sense that they are no longer in control.  Lewis writes, “without the aid of trained emotions, the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.”[22]  Through Macbeth, we are given a vivid picture of the consequences of ignoring our consciences.  It destroys not only our ability to behave morally, it destroys our reasoning faculties, as well.  This forces Macbeth’s free-will into a box not unlike that of the naturalist’s in that it is completely at the beck and call of his animal instincts.

When a conscience is either ignored or never developed, our animal instincts will dominate our reasoning.  Lewis warned that this will create an increased susceptibility to propaganda.  This is particularly evident with Macbeth and the witches’ growing ability to manipulate him to do their bidding.  They play off his uncontrolled fear.  They only need mention Macduff’s name to ensure that Macbeth will attempt to murder him and his entire family.  This parallels Lewis’s contention that the dehumanizing reductionism of naturalism causes mankind to be controlled by “mere appetite.”[23]  Thus reduced to his animal instincts, like Macbeth, man is easily manipulated by propaganda.  Macbeth declares with prophetic foreboding, “to know my deed, ‘twere best not to know myself,”[24] and by the end of his murderous career, he truly is but a shell of his former self, as is his wife.  In the end, he is nothing but the witches’ pawn. The end result for the naturalist is not unlike that of Macbeth, when he insists on reducing his conscience to nothing more than matter and instincts.

Interestingly, as Shakespeare’s murderous couple continue to fight remorse, one natural instinct is sacrificed: sleep.  The playwright uses sleep to paint a picture of the physical consequences of ignoring one’s conscience.  Perhaps some of the most poetic (and prophetic) lines in the play are spoken by Macbeth when he tells his lady of the frightening voices he heard after his first murder.  “Macbeth does murder sleep,” a voice cries.  “Innocent sleep … that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care, / The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, / Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, / Chief nourisher in life’s feast,” Macbeth says to his wife upon hearing the voice.[25]  Indeed, after murdering a man in his sleep, both Macbeth and his wife’s sleep will never be the same.  Their guilty consciences will never again experience its healing properties.  Macbeth has murdered his peace as it slept in his home.  As apologists, this demonstrates the power of our consciences.  A materialistic account of its origins overlooks such crucial data and is, therefore, insufficient.

Evil’s foothold is strong in the Macbeths as they continue to choose to ignore their consciences.  Even a witch can feel the presence of Macbeth’s twisted nature as he approaches their lair:  “By the pricking of my thumbs, / Something wicked this way comes.” [26]  By this point, Macbeth is almost completely given over to his most basic animal instinct of survival.  His decision to suppress remorse and choose power over repentance twists his perspective such that even at the death of Lady Macbeth, the love of his life, he can only see meaninglessness.  Apologists can point out that it was Shakespeare’s Christian faith that gave him such keen insights into the effects of evil on human nature. In a very real sense, the fall of Macbeth and his wife parallels the Biblical tale of mankind’s own fall from grace in that ancient Eden setting.  Through imagery of darkness, blood, and chaos that increases as the murderous couple’s sin escalates, Shakespeare creates a picture that is a microcosm of our own world’s drama where humanity’s sin has introduced a certain amount of apparent randomness and meaninglessness into the created order.

There is indeed an apparent meaningless “sound and fury” in this world, even from a Christian perspective.  In that, the apologist can agree with the naturalist.  “Nature, red in tooth and claw” the saying goes and this is not without evidence.  Yet, in the face of such evil as portrayed in Macbeth, it is hard to deny its objectivity and our willful contribution to it.  Lewis wrote that moderns, in our efforts to “see through” first principles, end up seeing nothing in the end.[27]  Yet, it is difficult to imagine that moderns can come away from Macbeth seeing nothing.  We should not only see, but feel covered in blood.  Herein lies the power of Macbeth, for Shakespeare takes the discussion of the objectivity of morality out of the detached, propositional realm, drawing the audience in only to be forced to recoil at the Macbeths’ evil deeds.  Some actions are truly objectively evil!  Some actions do stain our consciences, and with Lady Macbeth we cry “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”[28]  Naturalism can only tell us that her angst-ridden cry has no more value than if she was upset over a broken fingernail.  Lewis himself was challenged by the existence of evil, writing, “my argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.  But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?”[29]

Naturalism’s explanation of conscience turns out to be too simple.  One must deny a great deal of evidence to make it fit.  More importantly, one must admit that that our consciences’ deliverances could have been different.  There is a possible evolutionary scenario in which the Macbeths would not have been plagued by guilty feelings.  More importantly, we as the audience would not have given a second thought to their murderous ambition.  Naturalism can only describe their actions; it cannot comment on whether or not they were wrong in any objective sense.  And, as Lewis would argue, we “cannot get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premises in the indicative mood.”[30]   We cannot go from the descriptive to the prescriptive or from an “is” to an “ought” under naturalism.

In the end, Macbeth gives us a startling case study of Lewis’s argument that naturalism robs mankind of its humanity.  Conscience is the key element by which “man is man,” Lewis contends.[31]  Whether we try to suppress it or deny its signal to us of a transcendent reality, the outcome is the same.  Just as sin strips us of our humanity, so does naturalism, and they both end in nihilism.  This result of naturalism is the greatest tragedy of our age, and I would add that it is made all the worse because, like Shakespeare’s lead characters, it is a tragedy that is entirely self-inflicted and unnecessary.  It is this tragedy that makes an integrated approach to exposing the moral inadequacy of naturalism all the more pressing.


[1] William Shakespeare, Macbeth: With Contemporary Criticism, ed. Joseph Pearce (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 5.5.26-27.

[2] Ibid., 5.5.26.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), 77.

[4] Shakespeare, 1.5.25.

[5] Ibid., 1.7.31.

[6] Lewis, 34.

[7] Ibid., 47.

[8] Ibid., 48-49.

[9] Ibid, 55.

[10] Shakespeare, 1.1.10.

[11] Lewis, 45.

[12] Shakespeare, 1.5.37-40.

[13] Ibid., 1.7.56-58.

[14] Lewis, 46.

[15] Shakespeare, 3.3.19-21.

[16] Ibid., 5.1.51

[17] Ibid., 3.3.54.

[18] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 117.

[19] Ibid., 5.1.57.

[20] Ibid., 5.1.72-73.

[21] Ibid., 3.5.136-138.

[22] Lewis, 34.

[23] Lewis, 94.

[24] Shakespeare, 2.3.73.

[25] Ibid., 36-40.

[26] Ibid., 4.1.44-45.

[27] Lewis, 91.

[28] Shakespeare, 5.1.32.

[29] Lewis, Mere Christianity, 45.

[30] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 43-44.

[31] Ibid., 34.


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