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Finding the Permanent in the Political:
C. S. Lewis as a Political Thinker
by John G. West, Jr.
Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute
Reprinted with permission of the author
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.
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." 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." 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.
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." And
as far as caring about the "great issues" of his day, Lewis wrote
his brother in 1940: "Lord! how I loathe great issues
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?"
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.
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.
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