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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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Nowhere is this clearer than in Lewis's writings on tyranny and morality.

Fascism and communism were the two most obvious manifestations of tyranny about which Lewis wrote, but they were far from the only kinds of tyranny about which he was concerned.[8] Tyranny comes in many forms, most of which are more subtle than Stalin's gulag or Hitler's death camps. Lewis knew this, and his most compelling writings on tyranny for us today focus on these more subtle forms of oppression. In particular, Lewis was concerned about the tyranny that could result from the union of modern science and the modern state.

To understand the dangers of a scientific state, one must first understand something about modern science.

Modern science is premised on the notion that all things are determined by material causes. It proposes strict laws that explain natural phenomena in terms of physical, environmental or hereditary necessities--e.g., the ball falls when dropped because of the law of gravity; the dog salivates at the sound of the bell because of environmental conditioning; the mosquito generates other mosquitoes because of its genetic code. Now no matter how necessary such materialistic determinism may be in the study of the natural world, it cannot be applied indiscriminately to humans without destroying the very possibility of knowledge and virtue. Such determinism destroys the possibility of knowledge, according to Lewis, because it undermines the validity of human reasoning;[9] it destroys the possibility of virtue because it denies the free choice upon which all virtue depends.

If modern science is correct that human thought and conduct are functions of non--rational causes, then the nature of politics changes fundamentally. Under the old order, politics involved serious reflection about justice and the common good. But the more man thinks he is determined by non--rational causes, the less important serious reflection becomes. Under the new order, all that matters is achieving the end result. The only deliberation is among social science bureaucrats, and the only question is not "What is just?" but "What works?" Moreover, since the new order has dispensed with the notion of man as a moral agent, "what works" will almost inevitably be intrusive. As long as man was regarded as accountable for his actions, there were certain limits beyond which the state was not supposed to tread. Laws promulgated under the old system promised punishment, but they could not compel obedience. This is because the very idea of punishment presupposes free choice: One can only be punished after one has done something meriting punishment. If a person is willing to face the consequences of his actions, he can still break the law. His ability to choose is left intact.

If people act because of environmental and biological necessities, however, the government no longer need deal with them as free moral agents. Under the new system, preemption replaces punishment as the preferred method of social control. Instead of punishing you for making the wrong choice, the state simply eliminates your choice. So instead of laws telling us to wear seat--belts, we have passive restraints that automatically strap us into our car seats. Instead of simply being told to pay our taxes, our taxes are automatically deducted from our paychecks.

In this brave new world, the relationship between citizen and state begins to resemble the relationship between master and slave, as Lewis pointed out so perceptively in his essay, "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State." The cardinal difficulty with this type of scientific paternalism is that it undercuts that which makes us human; in the name of saving man from his problems, it abolishes man: "The question… has become… whether we can discover any way of submitting to the worldwide paternalism of a technocracy without losing all personal privacy and independence. Is there any possibility of getting the super Welfare State's honey and avoiding the sting? Let us make no mistake about the sting. The Swedish sadness is only a foretaste. To live his life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death--these are wishes deeply ingrained in … civilised man."[10]

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