The Politics of C. S. Lewis
If we accept that, for Lewis, the Earth was in truth a spinning speck of dust remotely distant from Heaven in a cosmos centred around God, it is not surprising that Lewis was a sharp critic of politics, ideology and culture in the Twentieth Century. To interpret his political views, such as they were, as ‘conservative’ is an attempt to re-frame them: Lewis was a spokesman for a tradition of Christian thought which had gradually faded over the centuries. He was living in a world which saw itself as centred on the needs and perceptions of humanity: secular humanism, collectivism, scientific utopianism, egalitarianism, ‘progressive’ morality, all of these things had arisen from a different core.
But theocracy or the attempt to use the power of the State to establish a perfect Christian society, was something he was opposed to as well. This can only really be understood by examining how Lewis saw not only human society but the entire universe. We can glimpse this fictively by examining his ‘Space Trilogy’ in which the protagonist Ransom is initially kidnapped and journeys to the world we know as Mars, and later is taken by cosmic powers to the planet we call Venus on a mission. In the trilogy, our world is known in the wider universe as the ‘Silent Planet’: we inhabit a sphere cut off from the rest of the cosmic commonwealth, subverted by a demonic evil which pretends that the darkened reality it enforces is universal. Ransom, at first finding that he has to overcome his own fears and prejudices on this score, soon learns that the universe beyond the orbit of our Moon is completely different from his expectations.
Lewis’s political philosophy is similarly orientated differently. If a Christian universe exists, what should be our attitude to life in this world? Christianity for Lewis was neither world-affirming nor world-denying religion: it wasn’t a ‘religion’ at all, as he said famously:
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
Obviously, in a universe which was truly centred upon a living God, Christ, the secular humanist view that there is no other life except the present one and no worthwhile goals except our own material comfort and happiness drops into insignificance. Nor does the view that inner wholeness and union with the soul of the universe depends upon renunciation of everything including ourselves, hold any weight. These views are both attempts to come to terms with a reality centred around Earth and the self.
Christianity, on the other hand, not in orbit around those things, fosters an approach which both lies outside them and yet enriches the world:
Europe owes the salvation [to Christianity], in those perilous ages, of civilised agriculture, architecture, laws, and literacy itself… this same religion has always been healing the sick and caring for the poor; that it has, more than any other, blessed marriage; and that arts and philosophy tend to flourish in its neighbourhood. In a word, it is always either doing, or at least repenting with shame for not having done, all the things which the secular humanitarianism enjoins. (Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics)
Lewis’s passion for Nordic mythology with its heroic rejection of the doctrine that 'might is right', gives us a glimpse of his position. In a wartime article about the moral content and grandeur of the story of Siegfried in the Nibelungs, as depicted by Wagner, Lewis wrote:
What business have people who call might right to say they are worshippers of Odin? The whole point about Odin was that he had the right but not the might. The whole point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end…. But that does not in the least alter the allegiance of any free man. Hence, as we should expect, real Germanic poetry is all about heroic stands, and fighting against hopeless odds.
On an Earth spinning on the edge of cosmic darkness, the Norse myth captured something which Lewis came to see more clearly in Christianity. It wasn’t because Christianity held that a well person or wealth or art of philosophy or any of those things was the ideal. As Lewis puts it:
the central image in all Christian art was that of a Man slowly dying by torture; that the instrument of His torture was the world-wide symbol of the Faith; that martyrdom was almost the specifically Christian action; that our calendar was as full of fasts as of feasts; that we meditated constantly on the mortality not only of ourselves but of the whole universe; that we were bidden to entrust all our treasure to another world. (Undeceptions)
This is because the human race is in effect a body of pilgrims passing through the ‘Shadowlands’, knowing that the true centre of life lay elsewhere. As such a body, we should care for each other on the way, according to Lewis: Christ stood and wept at the grave of Lazarus even though He was about to raise him from the dead, because death — the punishment of sin — is even more horrible for the Creator, for Life Himself, than for us.
However, such a view brings with it certain political implications: if the human individual is God’s creation, an object of God’s love, dignified with the gifts of conscience, reason and free will, then he or she does not belong to ‘the State’. The modern notion of a political State as a political end is actually only a means to enable people to live together in harmony and in obedience as much as possible to the underlying pattern of things, which isn’t based on the world as we see it. The primary purpose of the fleeting thing known as ‘human society’ is to empower people as much as possible to use their talents, develop relationships, and help each other to know God:
The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden — that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.
This throws up a radical difference between Lewis’s and Christianity’s view of society and the modern perception of it. Political solutions are not possible to the problems of society, because the evil and suffering in the world does not stem from the structures of society or result from any particular set of laws and institutions, but from our fallen human nature. History shows that no amount of social and political change, of destroying and remodelling institutions, has ever succeeded in eradicating incompetence, selfishness, cruelty and tyranny. Suffering, injustice, and crime can never be removed by the elimination of poverty and inequality.
Collision ensues, of course, because ever since the Nineteenth Century there has been a growing belief - expressed perhaps most profoundly through the major philosophical and scientific works of that century, Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Freud’s works on psycho-analysis - in the inevitability of human progress. Such an upward-trending picture of human society and consciousness, underpinned by some kind of idea of ‘evolution’, whether personal, psychic or social, ran totally counter to the traditional model in which humanity proceeded inevitably downwards from a Golden Age or blissful communion with God through the Fall towards everlasting doom.
Human beings, argued Lewis, are inherently trapped by the limitations imposed by their fallen inner natures; any attempt to establish a perfect society will inevitably fail. The power of the State and its ability to engineer society will naturally corrupt anyone involved; traditional morality is undermined and invalidated accordingly. ‘The ends justify the means’ - what counts is ‘the revolution’, ‘science’, ‘the survival of the race’, ‘the progress of mankind’ and so on.
Lewis argued powerfully in The Abolition of Man and elsewhere that these philosophies’ ideas of moral and political progress were based upon a common, objective, and unvarying moral standard in order to have any meaning at all. That traditional judgments of value could be legitimately replaced by a ‘scientific’ ethical system Lewis saw as fundamentally dangerous and alarming.
Traditional morality led Lewis to condemn adultery and avoidable cruelty to animals, for example, and to regard crime as a moral offence deserving punishment rather than a psychiatric disorder requiring ‘treatment’.
We see in Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength what happens when vivisection and other elements of ruthless utilitarianism including ‘penal reform’ triumph over the old world of ethical law, a retrogression also apparent in the area of penal reform. The idea that it is ‘wrong’ to punish a man because he deserves it destroys the legitimate rights of offenders, the concept of justice and represents an assault on human dignity. Proper, measured and appropriate punishment affirms human dignity in criminals, recognising them to be a rational beings capable of choosing between good and evil and being held responsible for their actions and behaviour, whereas the ‘humanitarian’ theory separates punishment from justice by rejecting or abandoning this notion of desert and regards criminals as devoid of rationality and responsibility. This leads to the creation of a new penal regime under which offenders have no rights but are left entirely at the mercy of ‘experts’, as we see in the novel.
To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Viennese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success — who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared — shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust — is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard. (Undeceptions)
In 1949, Lewis anticipated that Communist dictatorships would employ psychiatric methods of torturing Christians and other religious and political dissidents:
We know that one school of psychology already regards religion as a neurosis. When this particular neurosis becomes inconvenient to government, what is to hinder government from proceeding to ‘cure’ it? Such ‘cure’ will, of course, be compulsory, but under the Humanitarian theory it will not be called by the shocking name of Persecution. (Undeceptions)
It would be wrong, though, to imagine that these views stemmed from Lewis placement of himself on a world political spectrum: they are views which naturally arise from a belief in the fallen nature of the human condition, something that could only be remedied by Christ. This means that Lewis supported democracy, but not for the same reasons as many others: men and women deserved an equal share in the government of the commonwealth, he believed, not because they are equally ‘wise’, but because no one is good enough to be allowed unrestricted power over his fellows. This also meant that he opposed theocracy too:
I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretentions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. . . . A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. (Reply to Professor Haldane, Other Worlds: Essays and Stories)
Egalitarianism was a false basis for democracy, and a threat to morality, culture, society and the intellect; it was also incompatible with freedom, as only with free development and activities of unequally endowed individuals could anything flourish
Lewis’s satirical devil, Screwtape, expressed it eloquently here:
. . . is it not pretty to notice how Democracy (in the incantatory sense) is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods? You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them ‘tyrants’ then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of corn, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no pre-eminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser, or better, or more famous, or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level; all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. Thus Tyrants could practise, in a sense, ‘democracy.’ But now ‘democracy’ can do the same work without any other tyranny than her own. No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will not of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own in their desire to Be Like Stalks. (Screwtape Proposes a Toast)
In 1958, Lewis warned in an article he wrote for The Observer:
We must give full weight to the claim that nothing but science, and science globally applied, and therefore unprecedented Government controls, can produce full bellies and medical care for the whole human race: nothing, in short, but a world Welfare State. It is a full admission of these truths which impresses upon me the extreme peril of humanity at present. We have on the one hand a desperate need; hunger, sickness, and the dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnicompetent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement?
It’s tempting to take these views and use them to position Lewis on a conventional political spectrum. But his moral outlook was based on an awareness of the difference between goodness and power. A god worshipped because he is omnipotent, rather than because he is loving and good, is diabolical, he believed. And many others believed with him.