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This paper was written by John G. West, Jr..

Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute

Included with the gracious permission of "Dr. Zeus", creator of "Into the Wardrobe", a popular website devoted to C.S. Lewis. The original online copy of this paper can be found here.

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Articles > The C.S. Lewis Archive > Finding the Permanent in the Political: C. S. Lewis as a Political Thinker

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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.[1]

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."[2] 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."[3] 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.[4] 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."[5] And as far as caring about the "great issues" of his day, Lewis wrote his brother in 1940: "Lord! how I loathe great issues…'Dynamic' 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?"[6]

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.[7] 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.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Footnotes

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