C. S. Lewis on Politics

Lewis had much to say about political matters:

When one thinks about the incomparable C. S. Lewis one normally thinks about the great Christian apologist that he was, or the author of famous children’s books, or the celebrated professor of English literature. One does not usually think of him as one who spoke or wrote much about political matters.

But he did. Scattered throughout his writings are various discussions about political matters, democracy, freedom, equality, law and justice, tyranny and the like. From talks he had given, or essays he had written, political matters quite often appear in the Lewis corpus.

And they are fully relevant for the times we now live in, especially as we see Statism on the rise, and the suppression of individual liberties. Here then are just a few of his writings on politics to whet your appetite for more. I urge you to try to read the whole context of each quote.

In a 1943 piece for the Spectator titled “Equality” (republished in Present Concerns: Essays by C. S. Lewis), he says this:

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

 

This introduces a view of equality rather different from that in which we have been trained. I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent. I don’t think the old authority in kings, priests, husbands, or fathers, and the old obedience in subjects, laymen, wives, and sons, was in itself a degrading or evil thing at all. I think it was intrinsically as good and beautiful as the nakedness of Adam and Eve. It was rightly taken away because men became bad and abused it. To attempt to restore it now would be the same error as that of the Nudists. Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty.

 

But medicine is not good. There is no spiritual sustenance in flat equality. It is a dim recognition of this fact which makes much of our political propaganda sound so thin. We are trying to be enraptured by something which is merely the negative condition of the good life. And that is why the imagination of people is so easily captured by appeals to the craving for inequality, whether in a romantic form of films about loyal courtiers or in the brutal form of Nazi ideology. The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved.

In his 1945 essay “Membership” (found for example in Transposition and Other Addresses) he made similar points, including:

I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.

 

That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple, to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. . . . But since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality. The authority of Father and Husband has been rightly abolished on the legal plane, not because this authority is in itself bad (on the contrary, it is, I hold, divine in origin) but because Fathers and Husbands are bad. Theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us. Even the authority of man over beast has had to be interfered with because it is constantly abused. gutenberg.ca/ebooks/lewiscs-transposition/lewiscs-transposition-00-h.html#ch03membership

And in his 1949 “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” (found in God in the Dock) he said the following:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

And in a later reply to criticism of his piece he wrote this:

If I am not deceived, we are all at this moment helping to decide whether humanity shall retain all that has hitherto made humanity worth preserving, or whether we must slide down into the sub-humanity imagined by Mr Aldous Huxley and George Orwell and partially realised in Hitler’s Germany. For the extermination of the Jews really would have been ‘useful’ if the racial theories had been correct; there is no foretelling what may come to seem, or even to be, ‘useful’, and ‘necessity’ was always ‘the tyrant’s plea’.

In his 1959 tract Screwtape Proposes a Toast (a follow-up to his 1942 The Screwtape Letters) there is a discussion on the issue of democracy. Screwtape, the veteran demon says this:

You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate. And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word Democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of human feelings. You can get him to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided.

Thus we find that throughout much of his career he was speaking to the social and political issues of the day. They may not have been his primary focus, but they were a regular concern of his.

Image of The Making of C. S. Lewis (1918–1945): From Atheist to Apologist
The Making of C. S. Lewis (1918–1945): From Atheist to Apologist by Poe, Harry Lee (Author) Amazon logo

Postscript

As a concluding thought, three items found on the same page of a new book are worth mentioning here. I am reading through the second book of the three-volume biography of Lewis by Harry Lee Poe, and these three things stood out. First, Lewis was often asked to speak at British military bases to help lift the morale of the soldiers during the war.

Second, it is interesting to note how often the BBC and the Guardian actually asked him to contribute articles or radio broadcasts during this period. They were almost always about the Christian religion and its relevance for contemporary culture. (Of course today these two British media giants are among the most secular-left and anti-Christian outfits around. How times have changed.)

Third, Lewis was widely read, and that included books and articles on various political matters. The following quote discusses all three of these things, and nicely ties together the quotes I featured above:

Lewis’s popularity had just begun to rise dramatically, for since he began speaking at RAF bases, The Screwtape Letters began to appear in serial form in the Guardian on May 2 [1941] and would continue to appear each week for another thirty weeks. His books had reached a modest audience, but the Guardian reached a mass audience. By the time he began his BBC broadcasts in August, he would already have a following.

 

A year earlier, during the third week of April 1940, Lewis had read Christopher Dawson’s Beyond Politics. What struck Lewis about the book was the distinction Dawson drew between the ideal of freedom and the ideal of democracy. The idea of democracy as propounded by Rousseau and embodied in the French Revolution placed it emphasis on the “general will” of the community over against the individual. The idea of freedom as expressed by the English placed its emphasis on the rights of the individual over against the will of the whole. Dawson traced modern English notions of freedom to the Nonconformists of the seventeenth century, who sought religious liberty, and to the English aristocracy, which asserted its rights over against the crown. Dawson concluded that without freedom, modern democracy and modern dictatorship are “twin children of the Revolution” with their emphasis on the community or collective or state.

With history repeating itself today with the rise of the collectivist state over against the individual (all in the name of keeping us safe), the wisdom and insights of Lewis – and others – are needed now more than ever. To repeat, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”

[1720 words]

6 Replies to “C. S. Lewis on Politics”

  1. Anyone who has read Lewis’ That Hideous Strength will be aware that Lewis very much distrusted a State ideologically linked to Science as we presently are since the Covid crisis began. Here is a further quote that expresses Lewis’ view.

    Under modern conditions any effective invitation to Hell will certainly appear in the guise of scientific planning’—as Hitler’s regime in fact did. Every tyrant must begin by claiming to have what his victims respect and to give what they want. The majority [of people] in most modern countries respect science and want [government] to be planned. And, therefore, almost by definition, if any man or group wishes to enslave us it will of course describe itself as scientific planned democracy.
    (C. S. Lewis  1982: “A Reply to Professor Haldane.” pp. 74-75 – On Stories and Other Essays on Literature. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

  2. On the other hand, we know from the ancients that a visitor describes six kinds of governments:

    Rule for the common good by one, by a few, or by the many; and
    Selfish or tyrannical rule by one, by a few, or by the many.

    This scheme of political analysis is as vibrant today as we discuss politics.

    But the visitor touches also on a seventh kind of government, one that “we must separate out from the other constitutions, like a god from men.” In a fallen world, this divine government exceeds human capacity. A good, virtuous statesman can only know imperfectly the virtues and vices of the citizens to inspire them to a more virtuous life.

    It takes a divine ruler to know men perfectly, and thus only God could rule perfectly thus we pray “thy Kingdom come…..”, “Come,Lord Jesus”

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