CS Lewis

That-Hideous-Strength

That Hideous Strength

Famed Anglo-Irish writer C.S. Lewis issued a prophetic warning against the dangers of the abuse of science in his novel That Hideous Strength. Learn about the relevance of Lewis's novel for today in this video commemorating its 75th anniversary (the novel was published originally on August 16, 1945). Read More ›
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Public Life in the Shadowlands

Even before the film Shadowlands, C. S. Lewis was probably the most widely recognized Christian thinker of the twentieth century. By the end of the 1980s, his books already had sold more than seventy million copies, an achievement that surely places Lewis among the best-selling authors of all time.

Lewis is most appreciated today for his superlative imagination and his lucid defense of Christian orthodoxy. But he also was a keen observer of social and political affairs. As Americans struggle to define the proper relationship between religious faith, moral principle, and political action, there is much that they might learn from this inimitable British academic.

Turning to Lewis for advice about politics is undeniably a bit paradoxical. According to stepson David Gresham, Lewis was skeptical of politicians and not really interested in current events.1 He even observed that he had no use for the “great issues” of his day. “Lord! how I loathe great issues,” he wrote in 1940. “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?”2 Lewis likewise avoided making partisan commitments. During the 1930s, he told a student that he refrained from donating money “to anything that had a directly political implication”3; and in 1951, he declined a title offered him by Prime Minister Winston Churchill (whom he greatly admired), because he feared that critics would seize upon the honor as evidence that his “religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda….”4

Despite this seeming indifference to political life, Lewis wrote about a variety of political topics, including crime, war, censorship, capital punishment, conscription, socialism, vivisection, the welfare state and the atomic bomb.5 When he discussed these matters, however, his primary concern was not public policy. Political problems of the day interested him only insofar as they involved matters that endured. Looked at in this light, Lewis’s habit of writing about politics and his simultaneous detachment from the political arena are perfectly understandable. Uninterested in the partisan passions of the moment, he always tried to find the permanent in the political. As a result, much of what he has to say about public life remains acutely relevant. Indeed, it is the very timelessness of Lewis’s writings that makes them so timely.

Public Morality Based on Public Principles

Of all the political lessons that can be learned from Lewis, perhaps the most important is that public morality should be founded squarely upon public principles. Unlike some Christian conservatives, Lewis did not believe that civic morality ultimately had to be grounded in the Bible to be legitimate. Nor did he believe that arguments about social morality were fundamentally arguments about religion.

Instead, Lewis championed the time-honored idea of natural law — the belief that the fundamental maxims of civic morality are “written on the hearts” (Romans 2:14) of all human beings by God through reason and conscience. This natural moral code cannot be escaped, said Lewis; it is the source from which all moral judgments spring. Its cardinal virtues — justice, honesty, good faith, magnanimity, beneficence, mercy — are known to be true independently of experience. According to Lewis, these basic precepts form a moral common ground that undergirds all civilized societies, a point he illustrated in his book The Abolition of Man by cataloguing similar ethical injunctions from some of the world’s major civilizations.

Lewis was aware that some Christians objected to natural law because they thought it detracted from the dignity of revealed religion. But he could not accept their view. Far from contradicting Christianity, he argued, natural law is actually presupposed by it. Lewis agreed that Christianity deepened one’s ethical understanding. But he was insistent that “Christian ethics” not be regarded as “a radically new thing.” Pointing out that a convert to Christianity “accept[s] the forgiveness of sins,” he asked:

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. The idea…that Christianity brought a new ethical code into the world is a grave error. If it had done so, then we should have to conclude that all who first preached it wholly misunderstood their own message: for all of them, its Founder, His precursor, His apostles, came demanding repentance and offering forgiveness, a demand and an offer both meaningless except on the assumption of a moral law already known and already broken.6

The practical political consequences of Lewis’s understanding of morality are considerable. The present controversy over religion in politics largely hinges on the assumption that the morality espoused by conservative Christians cannot be justified apart from the Bible, and hence it is illegitimate as a guide to secular policy. But according to Lewis, this is a red herring. One does not need to accept the authority of the Bible to know that theft and slander are wrong, or that honoring one’s commitment to a spouse or child is a good thing. Traditional morality of the type we find in the Bible is also reasonable morality, the morality of common sense. Thus, as Christians, we should not be afraid to apply our moral principles to politics. Instead, we should be willing and able to defend our principles as supported by reason as well as revelation. Civic morality is not the peculiar domain of religion, and Christians who wish to be politically effective (as well as theologically sound) should drive this point home. It is one of the best ways for them to disarm their critics.

The Importance of Being Prudent

Natural law provides a moral common ground for all citizens to enter politics as equals, but it does not provide simple-minded solutions to specific political problems. Nor did Lewis claim that it would. Lewis understood that being morally right is not the same thing as being politically bright. Translating moral principles into public policy requires something more than merely the right moral principles. It requires the virtue of prudence, which Lewis aptly defined as “practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it.”78 The importance of prudence is a second lesson about politics that might be gleaned from Lewis.

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Douglas Gresham Video

by Perry Bramlett, Louisville, KY The new Douglas Gresham video is out, cost $19.95, Vision Video (Gateway Films, web site www.gatewayfilms.com), Box 540, Worcester, PA 9490, 1-800-523-0226… Running time is about 45 minutes, filmed at DG’s home in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, Rathvinden House… Front of video cover: The Christian Catalyst Collection from the 20th century, picture of DG on front, Read More ›

Personal Reflections

by Larry Repass, Mexico City The Spring and Summer 2000 issues of the Lewis Legacy have been given to me this week and I have devoured them (as usual). I especially enjoyed Larry Gilman’s article and follow-up comparing many passages from The Dark Tower with others from known works by CSL. His enthusiasm for Lewis and his honest approach, his Read More ›

A Book of Gifts: Book Review of The Quilted Grapevine

by Judith Miller The Quilted Grapevineby Nancy Lou Patterson, a reader of The Lewis LegacyThe Brucedale Press, Port Elgin, Ontario, Canada. $14.95 Reviewer Judith Miller, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English at Renison College, University of Waterloo. She teaches Canadian Literature and Creative Writing as well as courses on the genres of literature. She publishes poetry, reviews and critical Read More ›

Book Review of Assault on Mars

Assault on Mars, by Michael D. Cooper (a pseudonym for Jonathan Cooper, Mike Dodd, and David Baumann) Privately printed, Spring 2000. Hardcover. This book is a great example of how modern technology enables creative people to design, publish, and share their books today on their own. Lewis Legacy reader David Baumann is an Episcopal priest in Placentia, California; he is Read More ›

C. S. Lewis’s Anti-Anti-Semitism in The Great Divorce

One of 23 essays in Surprised by C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and Dante (Mercer University Press, Spring 2001) In 1933, the year Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany, Lewis published his allegorical Pilgrim’s Regress. There he warned of a tribe of black-shirted dwarfs named the Swastici, who were vassals to a bloodthirsty northern tyrant named Savage. On November 5, Read More ›

Perry Bramlett’s Lists

The 25 Best Books Written about C.S. Lewis Biographical George Sayer: Jack: A Life of C. S. Lewis James Como (ed) – C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table W Hooper & R L Green – C. S. Lewis: A Biography Humphrey Carpenter – The Inklings Lyle Dorsett – A Love Observed (formerly And God Came In) Studies Chad Walsh Read More ›

Notes from the Dorothy Sayers Essay “Oedipus Simplx: Freedom and Fate in Folklore and Fiction”

Prepared by Kathryn Lindskoog 1. Freud interpreted the story of Oedipus allegorically in order to better communicate his theory that human males have an impulse to kill their fathers and marry their mothers. 2. Such use of old stories is natural and understandable; but it is an error to confuse the original story with the later allegory. The story of Read More ›

The Lewis Legacy-Issue 86, Autumn 2000 Notes

Cheating the Oracle for 3,500 Years The story of Joseph was supposedly written in about 1500 B.C. The story of Oedipus was told by Sophocles in 431 B.C. Virgil’s story of the trenchers was told in about 20 B.C. (The story of Segismund in the play Life Is a Dream was told by Calderon de la Barca in 1636 A.D.) Read More ›