Christian colleges in a pagan culture
C.S. Lewis: A Political Primer
We must recover the spirit of freedom.
The publication last year of Michael Ward’s After Humanity, a painstakingly detailed and authoritative commentary on C.S. Lewis’s 1943 masterpiece The Abolition of Man, reminded all who needed to be reminded that the English don and Christian apologist was a thinker of rigor and depth and a man of the utmost erudition. Ward traces every influence that informed that little book and makes sometimes oblique references and insights manifest to Lewis’s readers. In the process, Ward highlights the sheer wisdom that informs every paragraph of that discerning work. Readers of The Abolition of Man will learn about the precise little Green Book that Lewis had in mind in Part I of Abolition (the grammar book that taught the grossest form of emotivism and subjectivism to young students). They will better appreciate the classical Christian roots of Lewis’s affirmation of the essential connectedness of reason and spiritedness in the governance of the soul (in contrast to the “men without chests” all around us who lack both principles and courage). They will become familiar with the myriad philosophical, ethical, and religious texts that informed Lewis’s account of the Tao or the Way—the cross-cultural first principles of practical reason which are the starting point of all moral judgment—and the rich reflection on the nature of nature and the nightmare entailed in the effort to conquer human nature, which concludes what is Lewis’s undoubtedly most philosophical book.
While Lewis saw an intimate connection between theism and humanism, moral judgment and an affirmation of transcendent order, The Abolition of Man is not a brief for theism per se. Rather, it provides a defense of the natural moral law that is available to reason and experience independent of revelation or even natural theology. As Lewis made clear in essays such as “The Poison of Subjectivism” and “On Ethics,” written around the same time as The Abolition of Man and later published in the posthumous 1967 collection Christian Reflections, he did not believe that Christianity was the source of a new and original ethics. Christianity brought forth an admirable deepening and internalization of what St. Paul called “the law written on the hearts of men.” Even in its appeal to penitence, surely a distinctive hallmark of the Christian faith, it addresses itself “only to those who admit their disobedience to the known moral law.” The Golden Rule—“do onto others as you would have them do unto you”—is only a deepening of the near universal moral imperative: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” Nietzsche, with his talk of the “blond beast,” masters and slaves who belong to nearly different species, and “Caesar with the soul of Christ,” put forward radical moral innovations—including a (qualified) valorization of cruelty. But Christianity in Lewis’s estimation offered no ethical innovations per se. Lewis also made the jarring claim that God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. “The good is uncreated” yet inherent in the sovereign goodness of God. The power of the Christian God is eternally subordinate to his wisdom and goodness, to speak in a rather anthropomorphic way.
Reading Michael Ward’s book sent me back to some of Lewis’s essays addressing matters of ethical and political import in Compelling Reason, an excellent 1996 collection of his “Essays on Ethics and Theology” edited by Walter Hooper. I have already mentioned “The Poison of Subjectivism,” an essay that serves as a most accessible précis of The Abolition of Man available. Among other compelling arguments, Lewis demonstrates that political reform, and even revolution, presupposes the very Tao or Way, the non-negotiable moral standards that the impatient revolutionary is so keen to reject. When the yearning for justice loses its connection to the moral law, its raison d’être collapses. An admirable concern for justice quickly transmogrifies into cruelty, injustice, and raw nihilism as we saw (and as Lewis saw with a front row seat) with the totalitarian regimes and ideologies of the twentieth century. Today, we see this perverse logic at work with self-proclaimed “social justice warriors” who take reckless aim at the ethical traditions of the West and make disinterested intellectual pursuits well-nigh impossible. They confuse justice with a nihilistic spirit of negation and repudiation.
I would also recommend Lewis’s powerful 1940 essay “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” which can also be found in the aforementioned collection, Compelling Reason. Originally delivered to a society of pacifists near the beginning of World War II, in this lucid essay Lewis eschews cheap polemics. In it, he also writes explicitly as a Christian believer. While the Christian must beware of peevishness and the spirit of revenge, if he must strive for reconciliation with friend and foe alike, charity also demands that he defend the vulnerable from the rapaciousness of the tyrant and invader. War is a great evil, Lewis insisted, but it is not the greatest of evils. Lewis parted ways with believers and secularists alike who associated charity with pacifism and complete self-abnegation. He did not believe that the “dominical sayings” trotted out to justify pacifism do anything of the sort. He did not think that Christ Jesus was referring to war in the Sermon on the Mount and finds no evidence that Jesus would have opposed legitimately constituted authorities from protecting a third party against a homicidal murderer or invader. Lewis argues, compellingly in my view, that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had in mind something much more like “the frictions of daily life among villagers.” Lewis adds that “one of the few persons whom Our Lord praised without reservation was a Roman centurion.” He did not ask him to put down his arms.
The iconoclastic Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written that Lewis’s views on war and peace are anachronistic and unworthy of his talents. But this is to give way to the very “chronological snobbery” that Lewis mocked in The Screwtape Letters. Lewis reminds us that to insist on the moral necessity of pacifism is to take a stand at odds with Edmund Burke and Beowulf, Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson, Homer, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Montaigne. It is in important respects to be at odds with the Tao, with practical reason and the moral law as it was articulated throughout the ages.
To oppose pacifism’s morally obligatory character does not mean that one should support bellicosity, imperialism, or national self-aggrandizement as a matter of course. Far from it—a morally sane person should in principle prefer peace to war. But C.S. Lewis was wise and old-fashioned enough to know that no one could really be a “citizen of the world.” And not believing that bodily self-preservation was the great desideratum, he knew that death in war was in the best of cases noble and honorable. Lewis shared an older Christian sensibility that saw no fundamental opposition between Christian faith and the choice of national and personal honor. In contrast, and in contradistinction to the honorable tradition on which Lewis draws, Pope Francis argues in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti that contemporary humanism (conflated with the Gospel and the Christian tradition in Francis’s typical manner) demands a complete moral repudiation of war. Francis makes the modern humanitarian mistake of conflating peace with pacifism, and in doing so gravely misinterprets the political requirements of charity in a fallen world. In this sense, he innovates and breaks with the framework of moral judgment that Lewis calls the Tao in Part II of The Abolition of Man.
Let us turn to one last essay, ”Equality,” also to be found in Compelling Reason (it was originally published in the Spectator in August 1943). This superb little essay provides Lewis’s most compelling explanation of why he was a democrat. He roots his preference for democracy in his belief in “the Fall of Man.” He had no faith in inevitable progress or the intrinsic goodness of the people. Because human beings are “fallen,” “no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.” Lewis adds that “some people were only fit to be slaves,” as Aristotle claimed at the beginning of the Politics. Lewis refuses to contradict him. But he crucially adds: “But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” In a later 1958 essay “Willing Slaves to the Welfare State,” originally published in The Observer as part of a symposium on progress and its limits, Lewis makes clear that science and technology can be used at the service of cruelty, destruction, and tyranny (he refers to the Soviet and Nazi camps, the OGPU, the Gestapo, and the hydrogen bomb). Scientific and technological progress should never be identified with moral progress per se.
As The Abolition of Man had already made clear, Lewis feared that scientists would succumb to an amoral cult of expertise and even aim to engineer (i.e., “condition”) the human soul in ways that were intrinsically perverse and completely destructive of human personhood. Likewise, Lewis defended moral and civic equality and the Imago Dei imprinted in every human soul, while deploring “that stunted and envious sort of mind that hates all superiority.” Lewis believed that “under the necessary outer covering of legal equality,” “the whole hierarchical dance and harmony of our deep and joyously accepted spiritual inequalities should be alive.” How much that lovely phrase expresses, Lewis believed that men had often treated women horribly throughout the ages and that the fairer sex deserved the full range of legal rights and civic protections. At the same time, he believed that a certain kind of feminism risked undermining the intimacy rooted in “some degree of obedience and humility“ that allowed marriage to work and for women to experience genuine erotic pleasure. Fighting words, indeed, in an age of doctrinaire egalitarianism where “rights” trump happiness, love, and mutual accommodation.
As Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah T. Watson point out in their fine 2016 book C.S. Lewis and the Natural Law, Lewis, the Christian apologist and the philosophical scourge of moral subjectivism, supported limited government and was wary of anything that smacked of theocracy for reasons I have already made apparent: The English writer did not trust paternalistic government whether rooted in secular or religious premises. He did not believe in inevitable progress and was skeptical of a welfare state that tried to make its subjects “happy” (in the Sweden of the fifties he saw only “sadness”). In contrast to the spirit of servility and dependence, he lauded the “freeborn mind,” a spirit of independence, self-reliance, and community, faithful to the moral law, that was only possible with limited government and “economic independence.” No relativist or subjectivist, he nonetheless saw sadness and envy at work in socialist regimentation. In a lyrical passage in “Willing Slaves to the Welfare State,” Lewis evoked the freeman who “wants to live in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labor, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death. . . .” All this, too, presupposed the moral framework that Lewis interchangeably called the Tao, practical reason, and the moral law. Is it too late to recover the spirit of the “freeborn mind,” equidistant from moral nihilism and paternalistic servitude? If that attempt is to be made, and it must be, C.S. Lewis is the surest of guides.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.