Finding the Permanent in the Political
C. S. Lewis as a Political Thinker
by John G. West
The year was 1951, and England was embroiled in a bitter general election campaign. Six years earlier the Conservative Party of Winston Churchill had been thrown out of power. Now the same party, still led by the same indomitable Churchill, was attempting a comeback. The conventional wisdom was that the attempt would fail. The conventional wisdom was wrong. Voters went to the polls on October 25, and the next morning the whole world knew that the the Conservative Party had recaptured control of Parliament and Churchill had regained the post of Prime Minister.
Within a few weeks of the change of power, Churchill’s office sent a letter to C. S. Lewis, inviting him to receive the honorary title “Commander of the British Empire.” One can only guess what Lewis thought when he first read the letter, but one suspects that he appreciated it, for he greatly admired Churchill.1
Despite his admiration, however, Lewis declined the proposed honor. He wrote back to Churchill’s secretary that he was grateful for the recognition, but he worried about the political repercussions: “There are always… knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti–Leftist propaganda, and my appearance in the Honours List wd. of course strengthen their hands. It is therefore better that I shd. not appear there.”2 The letter is characteristic of Lewis, for it shows how diligently he tried to steer clear of partisan entanglements. He was never a party hack like John Milton; he never founded a political movement like G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc; he even shunned giving money to political causes. Prior to World War II, one of Lewis’s students informed him of his work on behalf of the Communist–backed loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. Lewis quickly told the student that he had a rule about not donating money “to anything that had a directly political implication.”3 After the War, Lewis continued to keep his distance from politics. According to stepson David Gresham, Lewis was skeptical of politicians and not really interested in current events.4 Lewis’s own writings seem to bear this out. His wry poem “Lines During a General Election” presents the following rather bleak assessment of politicians: “Their threats are terrible enough, but we could bear/ All that; it is their promises that bring despair.”5 And as far as caring about the “great issues” of his day, Lewis wrote his brother in 1940: “Lord! how I loathe great issues…’Dynamic’ I think is one of the words invented by this age which sums up what it likes and I abominate. Could one start a Stagnation Party–which at General Elections would boast that during its term of office no event of the least importance had taken place?”6
Paradoxically, none of this means that Lewis never said anything important about politics. In fact, he said a great deal–more than most people probably realize. It is startling to note just how many political topics Lewis broached in his writings: crime, obscenity, capital punishment, conscription, communism, fascism, socialism, war, vivisection, the welfare state, the atomic bomb.7 When Lewis talked about these matters, however, it was not in the way most politicians do. He was wholly unconcerned with what political scientists today like to call “public policy”–that conglomeration of compromise, convention, and self–interest that forms the staple of much of our own political diet. If you expect to find a prescription for solving air pollution or advice on how to win an election, don’t bother reading Lewis. He has nothing to tell you. His concern was not policy but principle; political problems of the day were interesting to him only insofar as they involved matters that endured. Looked at in this light, Lewis’s penchant for writing about politics and his simultaneous detachment from the political arena seem perfectly explicable. It is precisely because Lewis was so uninterested in ordinary political affairs that he has so much to tell us about politics in the broad sense of the term. By avoiding the partisan strife of his own time, he was able to articulate enduring political standards for all time.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Lewis’s writings on tyranny and morality.
Fascism and communism were the two most obvious manifestations of tyranny about which Lewis wrote, but they were far from the only kinds of tyranny about which he was concerned.8 Tyranny comes in many forms, most of which are more subtle than Stalin’s gulag or Hitler’s death camps. Lewis knew this, and his most compelling writings on tyranny for us today focus on these more subtle forms of oppression. In particular, Lewis was concerned about the tyranny that could result from the union of modern science and the modern state.
To understand the dangers of a scientific state, one must first understand something about modern science.
Modern science is premised on the notion that all things are determined by material causes. It proposes strict laws that explain natural phenomena in terms of physical, environmental or hereditary necessities–e.g., the ball falls when dropped because of the law of gravity; the dog salivates at the sound of the bell because of environmental conditioning; the mosquito generates other mosquitoes because of its genetic code. Now no matter how necessary such materialistic determinism may be in the study of the natural world, it cannot be applied indiscriminately to humans without destroying the very possibility of knowledge and virtue. Such determinism destroys the possibility of knowledge, according to Lewis, because it undermines the validity of human reasoning;9 it destroys the possibility of virtue because it denies the free choice upon which all virtue depends.
If modern science is correct that human thought and conduct are functions of non–rational causes, then the nature of politics changes fundamentally. Under the old order, politics involved serious reflection about justice and the common good. But the more man thinks he is determined by non–rational causes, the less important serious reflection becomes. Under the new order, all that matters is achieving the end result. The only deliberation is among social science bureaucrats, and the only question is not “What is just?” but “What works?” Moreover, since the new order has dispensed with the notion of man as a moral agent, “what works” will almost inevitably be intrusive. As long as man was regarded as accountable for his actions, there were certain limits beyond which the state was not supposed to tread. Laws promulgated under the old system promised punishment, but they could not compel obedience. This is because the very idea of punishment presupposes free choice: One can only be punished after one has done something meriting punishment. If a person is willing to face the consequences of his actions, he can still break the law. His ability to choose is left intact.
If people act because of environmental and biological necessities, however, the government no longer need deal with them as free moral agents. Under the new system, preemption replaces punishment as the preferred method of social control. Instead of punishing you for making the wrong choice, the state simply eliminates your choice. So instead of laws telling us to wear seat–belts, we have passive restraints that automatically strap us into our car seats. Instead of simply being told to pay our taxes, our taxes are automatically deducted from our paychecks.
In this brave new world, the relationship between citizen and state begins to resemble the relationship between master and slave, as Lewis pointed out so perceptively in his essay, “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.” The cardinal difficulty with this type of scientific paternalism is that it undercuts that which makes us human; in the name of saving man from his problems, it abolishes man:
The question… has become… whether we can discover any way of submitting to the worldwide paternalism of a technocracy without losing all personal privacy and independence. Is there any possibility of getting the super Welfare State’s honey and avoiding the sting? Let us make no mistake about the sting. The Swedish sadness is only a foretaste. To live his life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death–these are wishes deeply ingrained in … civilised man.”10
Lewis’s most haunting portrait of this kind of despotism came in his novel That Hideous Strength.11 There the spirit of modern social science becomes incarnate in the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments–NICE, for short. Of course, there is nothing nice about NICE; its social scientists are exactly the type of bureaucratic manipulators that Lewis attacked in nonfiction works like The Abolition of Man.12
At this point one can anticipate several objections: First, isn’t Lewis being unfair to science by implying that it inevitably leads to tyranny? And isn’t he being unfair to scientists by implying that all they want is power to enslave others? And don’t many modern problems–from air pollution to congestion on our freeways–require technological solutions that can be provided only by scientific experts?
Lewis was aware of such objections and replied that he wasn’t against science or scientists per se and that of course he did not think that science would necessarily lead to tyranny of the sort depicted in That Hideous Strength.13 One might be tempted to conclude from this that Lewis’s objection to science was narrow–that all he really opposed was the abuse of science. But such a conclusion would be misleading. For when Lewis said he wasn’t attacking “science” or “scientists” he seems to have had a very specific meaning in mind. He was not attacking science insofar as it was the quest for greater knowledge; he was attacking it insofar it was a quest for power–in particular, for power over man. In practice this meant that while Lewis accepted the legitimacy of natural science he rejected much of the social sciences. Learning about chemistry or biology was acceptable, if not honorable; trying to use chemical or biological maxims to understand the nature of man was not. A glimpse of this view can be found in the character of William Hingest in That Hideous Strength. Hingest is Lewis’s prototype for the “good scientist,” a brilliant and crusty physical chemist who thinks more highly of his family tree than of his scientific prowess.14 Hingest is interested in science for the sake of knowledge rather than power, and he takes a dim view of those who want to use science to control man.15 Indeed, he does not regard as science at all those disciplines that try to use the scientific approach to analyze man. When Mark Studdock talks to him about “sciences like Sociology,” Hingest coldly replies: “There are no sciences like Sociology.”16
As for the objection that we must rely on the advice of scientists, because only they have the answers to today’s complicated problems, Lewis could not agree. Lewis does not dispute that scientists have plenty of knowledge; the problem is that most of it is irrelevant. Political problems are preeminently moral problems, and scientists are not equipped to function as moralists. Said Lewis: “I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value.”17
The cardinal danger of depending on science for political solutions, then, is that science is divorced from those permanent principles of morality upon which all just political solutions depend. Indeed, words like “justice,” “virtue,” “mercy” and “duty,” are terms without meaning within the scientific framework. And so while science is not necessarily tyrannical, it can easily become a tool for tyrants because it has no firm grounding in morality. The same goes for politics: Without a firm grounding in a firm morality, politics easily slides into tyranny.
But if morality is what we need, how do we go about achieving it? Lewis’s answer to this query is far more controversial than one might suppose.
Many Christians today argue that morality must be founded upon the Bible. The extent to which this belief holds sway can be seen in the catchwords Christians use when they become involved in politics; most argue for a return to “Biblical values,” “Christian values,” “transcendent religious truths,” or (to use the dominant phrase) “traditional values” based on the “Judeo–Christian tradition.” The terms differ slightly, but the bottom–line remains the same: The only real source of morality is Christian revelation.18
Lewis was aware of this view, but rejected it. As he wrote in his posthumously published essay on ethics:
It is often asserted… that the world must return to Christian ethics in order to preserve civilization… Though I am myself a Christian, and even a dogmatic Christian untinged with Modernist reservations and committed to supernaturalism in its full rigour, I find myself quite unable to take my place beside the upholders of …[this] view…
It is far from my intention to deny that we find in Christian ethics a deepening, an internalization, a few changes of emphasis in the moral code. But only serious ignorance of Jewish and Pagan culture would lead anyone to the conclusion that it is a radically new thing.19
Rejecting the notion of a peculiarly “Christian” morality, Lewis argued for the existence of a natural moral law known by all through human reason. This natural moral code cannot be escaped; it is the source from which all moral judgments come. Its fundamental truths–maxims like good should be done and evil avoided, that caring for others is a good thing, that dying for a righteous cause is a noble thing–are known independently of experience. They are grasped in the same way that we know that 2+2=4.
Lewis was certainly not the first to articulate the idea of natural law. As any good medievalist could tell you, “It’s all in Aquinas.” It is also in Paul, Augustine, Cicero, Grotius, Blackstone, and the Declaration of Independence. But this idea of natural law is precisely what many Christians reject, even those who cite Lewis. Unintended ironies often result. In an essay on “Law and Nature” written by one prominent evangelical, for example, extensive favorable citations of Lewis’s Abolition of Man appear on one page, while this denunciation of natural law appears on another: “Even if man can treat the so–called natural laws as absolutes for society and government, the consequence is cruelty to man. Without the reference point in the Bible, there is no basis to judge which laws of nature are applicable to government and man. Depending upon the man or elitist group in power, many different things can be perpetrated and be justified on the basis of natural law.”20
Lewis regarded this point of view as the cobelligerent of modern philosophy. For just as modern philosophy attacked the ability of reason to know an objective moral law, this sort of Christianity considered reason to be too corrupted by sin to know objective morality apart from the Bible. Lewis found this belief disheartening, as he wrote his brother: “Did you fondly believe –I did–that where you got among Christians, there at least you would escape from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought? Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi–Christian slush; only to find that my sternness was their slush…. They all talk like Covenanters or Old Testament prophets. They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all….”21
As far as I know, Lewis never directly addressed the political difficulties of this rejection of natural law by Christians; yet these difficulties must be understood in order to fully grasp the importance of Lewis’s natural law teaching for us today.
The problem with tying all morality to the Bible is that it implies that those who don’t believe in the Bible cannot really be good citizens. After all, if only believers can have access to true morality through the Bible, perhaps only they can be trusted to make the laws. What has been called the theological–political problem resurfaces with a vengeance, for in this situation there exists no common ground on which believers and non–believers can meet for debate and joint action in the political arena. The natural law rescues us from this quagmire by articulating a morality shared by believer and unbeliever alike.
This is not to say that the only justification for natural law is political. The overarching reason for Christians to believe in natural law is because it is demanded by revelation itself. Lewis knew this with full force, but before examining his comments we would do well to refer to the Apostle Paul. In chapter two of Romans, Paul argues that “when Gentiles… do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.”22
Now according to Paul, the Gentiles have a knowledge of morality even without having Old Testament revelation. They do that which is right “by nature.” That “by nature” does not mean “by instinct” here is clear from the context, for Paul goes on to describe the process by which the Gentiles come to moral knowledge “by nature”–and the process is a rational one. It consists of the inner mental dialogue of the conscience with “thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” Nor does Paul diminish the rationality of this knowledge by the phrase “written on [or ‘in’] their hearts.” As Lewis argued in The Discarded Image, Paul’s statement here is in complete harmony with the ancient view that morality is dictated by “right reason”–and more particularly, with the Stoic conception of natural law: “The Stoics believed in a Natural Law which all rational men, in virtue of their rationality, saw to be binding on them. St. Paul[‘s]… statement in Romans (ii 14 sq.) that there is a law ‘written in the hearts’ even of Gentiles who do not know ‘the law’ is in full conformity with the Stoic conception, and would for centuries be so understood. Nor, during those centuries, would the word hearts have had merely emotional associations. The Hebrew word which St. Paul represents by kardia would be more nearly translated ‘Mind’.”23
Though Romans 2:14–15 is the single explicit reference in the New Testament to natural law theory, its importance should not be minimized on that account. For it is the context in which this reference to natural law appears that shows us its true importance, not the absence of other references to natural law in the Bible. In the immediate context of the passage, Paul is trying to explain how a just God can condemn wicked Gentiles who have not had the benefit of the Mosaic law. Paul argues that the Gentiles have “no excuse” because they themselves recognize the substance of the moral law by nature. In other words, the natural law allows God to justly condemn wicked Gentiles.
In the broader context of Pauline theology, the necessity of a natural law becomes even more evident once one focuses on the proper function of Old Testament law. Paul emphasized that Old Testament law was worthless as a method to save people from their sins because no one could ever hope to perfectly fulfill it. All the Old Testament law did was to make the Jews conscious of sin so that they would know that they needed a savior; the law demonstrated their need for repentance before God.24 But Christ died to save Gentiles as well as Jews. Because God never promulgated the moral law to them through revelation, Gentiles must have been conscious of their sin through some other route, or they never would have known of their need to repent. This “other route” is natural law. Without it, the Gentiles could not repent and be saved.
Viewed in this way, it does not matter that Romans is the only place where Paul explicitly delineates the natural law for the Gentiles, because the need for a natural law is presupposed by the very preaching of the gospel of repentance to anyone who is not a Jew. As Lewis noted in his essay on ethics: “The convert accept[s]… forgiveness of sins. But of sins against what Law? Some new law promulgated by the Christians? But that is nonsensical. It would be the mockery of a tyrant to forgive a man for doing what had never been forbidden until the very moment at which the forgiveness was announced…Essentially, Christianity is not the promulgation of a moral discovery. It is addressed only to penitents, only to those who admit their disobedience to the known moral law.”25
Lewis made this same argument somewhat more fully in The Problem of Pain.26
Lest one think that I am overstating the case for natural law, let me present a caveat: Natural law provides a basis for Christians to enter politics, but it does not provide simple–minded solutions to specific political problems. Nor did Lewis claim that it would–nor for that matter has any other thinker within the natural law tradition. As Lewis more than once explained (echoing Aristotle’s Ethics): “[M]oral decisions do not admit of mathematical certainty.”27 Natural law only supplies general moral precepts; prudence is required to correctly apply those precepts in particular situations. Hence there is always the chance that one’s political decision will be wrong.28
Contrary to those Christians who reject natural law, however, this problem of uncertainty cannot be solved by replacing the law of nature with the law of revelation as expressed in the Bible. The Bible rarely gives particular advice on specific political issues. It does not tell us whether to build nuclear missiles or invade Panama; it does not inform us what type of social programs to enact, if any; it does not guide us in our choice of the best tax system. The Bible invariably requires interpretation if it is to be used as a political guidebook, and interpretation opens the door for misconstruction. The Bible is infallible; but its interpreters are not. So the Bible can be abused and misused as much as natural law.
Now I am not arguing–and I know Lewis would not argue–that the Bible has no role in the area of morality. But in a society that is not a theocracy the Bible can never be the only standard of morality. The Christians who lived during the American Founding recognized this fact, and their political rhetoric was fashioned accordingly. They spoke regularly of the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” and of acting in accord with both “reason and revelation.” They saw natural law as the necessary meeting point for citizens of all religious beliefs.29 Like the early American Christians, Lewis recognized the inescapable need for natural law. Christians today would do well to heed his advice.
1 See C.S. Lewis, “Private Bates,” in Present Concerns (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), p. 46.
2 C. S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. with a memoir by W. H. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), p. 235.
3 Lewis, quoted in William Griffin, Clives Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), p. 137.
4 Gresham’s views as recounted by Chad Walsh in The Literary Legacy of C.S.Lewis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), p. 15.
5 C.S. Lewis, “Lines During a General Election,” in Poems (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964), p. 62.
6 Lewis, Letters, p. 179.
7 See, for example, “The Pains of Animals,” “Dangers of National Repentance,” “Vivisection,” “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” “Delinquents in the Snow,” “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), pp. 161–171, 189–192, 287–300, 306–310, 311–316; “Why I am Not a Pacifist,” “The Inner Ring,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, rev. edition, ed. by Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 33–53, 93–105; “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” in C.S. Lewis on Stories and Other Essays on Literature, ed. by Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), p. 69–79; all the essays in Present Concerns.
8 For Lewis’s view of both the extreme right and the extreme left see “To the Author of Flowering Rifle,” in Poems, p. 65; and Stuart Barton Babbage, “To the Royal Air Force,” in Carolyn Keefe, C.S. Lewis: Speaker and Teacher (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), p. 67. Also noteworthy is a letter Lewis wrote in 1933 condemning Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. See They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914–1963), ed. by Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1979), p. 468.
9 For Lewis’s argument as to why this is the case, see C. S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1960), pp. 14–15.
10 “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” p. 316.
11 C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy–Tale for Grown–Ups (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1965).
12 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), see in particular, pp. 65–91.
13 See The Abolition of Man, pp. 86–87; “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” pp. 72–73, 74.
14 That Hideous Strength, p. 57; see also Lewis’s comments about Hingest in “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” p. 73.
15 That Hideous Strength, p. 71.
16 That Hideous Strength, p. 70.
17 “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” p. 315.
18 For examples of this view see Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), VI: 423–427; Greg L. Bahnsen, By This Standard: The Authority of God’s Law Today (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1985), 2–4, 12–28, but note concessions on 141, 171; John W. Whitehead, “The Dangers in Natural Law,” Action: A Monthly Publication of The Rutherford Institute, November 1991, 3, 7; Bryce J. Christensen, “Against the Wall: Why Character Education Is Failing in American Schools,” in School Based Clinics and Other Critical Issues in Public Education, ed. by Barrett L. Mosbacker (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1987), 122–123; Barrett L. Mosbacker, “The Christian, Morality, and Public Policy,” in School Based Clinics, 181–214.
19 C.S. Lewis, “On Ethics,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967), pp. 44 and 46.
20 John W. Whitehead, “Law and Nature,” in The Second American Revolution (Elgin, Illinois: David C. Cook Publishing Company, 1982), pp. 185.
21 Lewis, Letters, p. 177.
22 Romans 2:14–15 [NIV].
23 C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1964), p. 160.
24 “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” [Romans 3: 19–20, NIV] Paul implicitly seems to include the natural law in his discussion here. For he says that the law speaks to “those under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” But the “whole world” obviously includes the Gentiles as well as the Jews; and the only “law ” they know (and the only law that they are “under”) is the one “by nature.”
25 C. S. Lewis, “On Ethics,” pp. 46–47.
26 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1962), p. 39; also see Lewis’s argument in “The Poison of Subjectivism,” in Christian Reflections, particularly pp. 78–80.
27 C. S. Lewis, “Why I am Not a Pacifist,” in The Weight of Glory, p. 53. The passage in Aristotle which Lewis is recalling can be found in the Nicomachean Ethics, 1094b. Lewis explicitly refers to this passage in “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” p. 76.
28 “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” p. 76.
29 For a development of this idea, see Thomas G. West, “Comment on Richard John Neuhaus’s ‘Religion and the Enlightenments: Joshing Mr. Rorty.'” Prepared for the conference on “The Ambiguous Legacy of the Enlightenment,” sponsored by the Claremont Institute, Claremont, California, January 27, 1990.