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This paper was written by John G. West, Jr..
Senior Fellow, Discovery Institute
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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. 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; 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
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
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