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.
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
Lewis's most haunting portrait of this kind of despotism came in his novel
That Hideous Strength. There the spirit of modern social
science becomes incarnate in the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments--NICE,
for short. Of course, there is nothing nice about NICE; its social scientists
are exactly the type of bureaucratic manipulators that Lewis attacked in
nonfiction works like The Abolition of Man.
At this point one can anticipate several objections: First, isn't Lewis
being unfair to science by implying that it inevitably leads to tyranny?
And isn't he being unfair to scientists by implying that all they want is
power to enslave others? And don't many modern problems--from air pollution
to congestion on our freeways--require technological solutions that can
be provided only by scientific experts?
Lewis was aware of such objections and replied that he wasn't against science
or scientists per se and that of course he did not think that science would
necessarily lead to tyranny of the sort depicted in That Hideous Strength.
One might be tempted to conclude from this that Lewis's objection to science
was narrow--that all he really opposed was the abuse of science. But such
a conclusion would be misleading. For when Lewis said he wasn't attacking
"science" or "scientists" he seems to have had a very
specific meaning in mind. He was not attacking science insofar as it was
the quest for greater knowledge; he was attacking it insofar it was a quest
for power--in particular, for power over man. In practice this meant that
while Lewis accepted the legitimacy of natural science he rejected much
of the social sciences. Learning about chemistry or biology was acceptable,
if not honorable; trying to use chemical or biological maxims to understand
the nature of man was not. A glimpse of this view can be found in the character
of William Hingest in That Hideous Strength. Hingest is Lewis's prototype
for the "good scientist," a brilliant and crusty physical chemist
who thinks more highly of his family tree than of his scientific prowess.
Hingest is interested in science for the sake of knowledge rather than power,
and he takes a dim view of those who want to use science to control man.
Indeed, he does not regard as science at all those disciplines that try
to use the scientific approach to analyze man. When Mark Studdock talks
to him about "sciences like Sociology," Hingest coldly replies:
"There are no sciences like Sociology."
As for the objection that we must rely on the advice of scientists, because
only they have the answers to today's complicated problems, Lewis could
not agree. Lewis does not dispute that scientists have plenty of knowledge;
the problem is that most of it is irrelevant. Political problems are preeminently
moral problems, and scientists are not equipped to function as moralists.
Said Lewis: "I dread specialists in power because they are specialists
speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences.
But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and
what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training
gives a man's opinion no added value."
The cardinal danger of depending on science for political solutions, then,
is that science is divorced from those permanent principles of morality
upon which all just political solutions depend. Indeed, words like "justice,"
"virtue," "mercy" and "duty," are terms without
meaning within the scientific framework. And so while science is not necessarily
tyrannical, it can easily become a tool for tyrants because it has no firm
grounding in morality. The same goes for politics: Without a firm grounding
in a firm morality, politics easily slides into tyranny.
But if morality is what we need, how do we go about achieving it? Lewis's
answer to this query is far more controversial than one might suppose.
Many Christians today argue that morality must be founded upon the Bible.
The extent to which this belief holds sway can be seen in the catchwords
Christians use when they become involved in politics; most argue for a return
to "Biblical values," "Christian values," "transcendent
religious truths," or (to use the dominant phrase) "traditional
values" based on the "Judeo--Christian tradition." The terms
differ slightly, but the bottom--line remains the same: The only real source
of morality is Christian revelation.
Lewis was aware of this view, but rejected it. As he wrote in his posthumously
published essay on ethics:
It is often asserted
that the world must return to Christian ethics
in order to preserve civilization
Though I am myself a Christian,
and even a dogmatic Christian untinged with Modernist reservations and committed
to supernaturalism in its full rigour, I find myself quite unable to take
my place beside the upholders of
It is far from my intention to deny that we find in Christian ethics a deepening,
an internalization, a few changes of emphasis in the moral code. But only
serious ignorance of Jewish and Pagan culture would lead anyone to the conclusion
that it is a radically new thing.
Rejecting the notion of a peculiarly "Christian" morality, Lewis
argued for the existence of a natural moral law known by all through human
reason. This natural moral code cannot be escaped; it is the source from
which all moral judgments come. Its fundamental truths--maxims like good
should be done and evil avoided, that caring for others is a good thing,
that dying for a righteous cause is a noble thing--are known independently
of experience. They are grasped in the same way that we know that 2+2=4.
Lewis was certainly not the first to articulate the idea of natural law.
As any good medievalist could tell you, "It's all in Aquinas."
It is also in Paul, Augustine, Cicero, Grotius, Blackstone, and the Declaration
of Independence. But this idea of natural law is precisely what many Christians
reject, even those who cite Lewis. Unintended ironies often result. In an
essay on "Law and Nature" written by one prominent evangelical,
for example, extensive favorable citations of Lewis's Abolition of Man appear
on one page, while this denunciation of natural law appears on another:
"Even if man can treat the so--called natural laws as absolutes for
society and government, the consequence is cruelty to man. Without the reference
point in the Bible, there is no basis to judge which laws of nature are
applicable to government and man. Depending upon the man or elitist group
in power, many different things can be perpetrated and be justified on the
basis of natural law."
Lewis regarded this point of view as the cobelligerent of modern philosophy.
For just as modern philosophy attacked the ability of reason to know an
objective moral law, this sort of Christianity considered reason to be too
corrupted by sin to know objective morality apart from the Bible. Lewis
found this belief disheartening, as he wrote his brother: "Did you
fondly believe --I did--that where you got among Christians, there at least
you would escape from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought?
Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder
of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi--Christian slush; only
to find that my sternness was their slush
. They all talk like Covenanters
or Old Testament prophets. They don't think human reason or human conscience
of any value at all
As far as I know, Lewis never directly addressed the political difficulties
of this rejection of natural law by Christians; yet these difficulties must
be understood in order to fully grasp the importance of Lewis's natural
law teaching for us today.
The problem with tying all morality to the Bible is that it implies that
those who don't believe in the Bible cannot really be good citizens. After
all, if only believers can have access to true morality through the Bible,
perhaps only they can be trusted to make the laws. What has been called
the theological--political problem resurfaces with a vengeance, for in this
situation there exists no common ground on which believers and non--believers
can meet for debate and joint action in the political arena. The natural
law rescues us from this quagmire by articulating a morality shared by believer
and unbeliever alike.
This is not to say that the only justification for natural law is political.
The overarching reason for Christians to believe in natural law is because
it is demanded by revelation itself. Lewis knew this with full force, but
before examining his comments we would do well to refer to the Apostle Paul.
In chapter two of Romans, Paul argues that "when Gentiles
by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even
though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of
the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness,
and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."
Now according to Paul, the Gentiles have a knowledge of morality even without
having Old Testament revelation. They do that which is right "by nature."
That "by nature" does not mean "by instinct" here is
clear from the context, for Paul goes on to describe the process by which
the Gentiles come to moral knowledge "by nature"--and the process
is a rational one. It consists of the inner mental dialogue of the conscience
with "thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." Nor does
Paul diminish the rationality of this knowledge by the phrase "written
on [or 'in'] their hearts." As Lewis argued in The Discarded Image,
Paul's statement here is in complete harmony with the ancient view that
morality is dictated by "right reason"--and more particularly,
with the Stoic conception of natural law: "The Stoics believed in a
Natural Law which all rational men, in virtue of their rationality, saw
to be binding on them. St. Paul['s]
statement in Romans (ii 14 sq.)
that there is a law 'written in the hearts' even of Gentiles who do not
know 'the law' is in full conformity with the Stoic conception, and would
for centuries be so understood. Nor, during those centuries, would the word
hearts have had merely emotional associations. The Hebrew word which St.
Paul represents by kardia would be more nearly translated 'Mind'."
Though Romans 2:14--15 is the single explicit reference in the New Testament
to natural law theory, its importance should not be minimized on that account.
For it is the context in which this reference to natural law appears that
shows us its true importance, not the absence of other references to natural
law in the Bible. In the immediate context of the passage, Paul is trying
to explain how a just God can condemn wicked Gentiles who have not had the
benefit of the Mosaic law. Paul argues that the Gentiles have "no excuse"
because they themselves recognize the substance of the moral law by nature.
In other words, the natural law allows God to justly condemn wicked Gentiles.
In the broader context of Pauline theology, the necessity of a natural law
becomes even more evident once one focuses on the proper function of Old
Testament law. Paul emphasized that Old Testament law was worthless as a
method to save people from their sins because no one could ever hope to
perfectly fulfill it. All the Old Testament law did was to make the Jews
conscious of sin so that they would know that they needed a savior; the
law demonstrated their need for repentance before God. But
Christ died to save Gentiles as well as Jews. Because God never promulgated
the moral law to them through revelation, Gentiles must have been conscious
of their sin through some other route, or they never would have known of
their need to repent. This "other route" is natural law. Without
it, the Gentiles could not repent and be saved.
Viewed in this way, it does not matter that Romans is the only place where
Paul explicitly delineates the natural law for the Gentiles, because the
need for a natural law is presupposed by the very preaching of the gospel
of repentance to anyone who is not a Jew. As Lewis noted in his essay on
ethics: "The convert accept[s]
forgiveness of sins. But of sins
against what Law? Some new law promulgated by the Christians? But that is
nonsensical. It would be the mockery of a tyrant to forgive a man for doing
what had never been forbidden until the very moment at which the forgiveness
Essentially, Christianity is not the promulgation of
a moral discovery. It is addressed only to penitents, only to those who
admit their disobedience to the known moral law."
Lewis made this same argument somewhat more fully in The Problem of Pain.
Lest one think that I am overstating the case for natural law, let me present
a caveat: Natural law provides a basis for Christians to enter politics,
but it does not provide simple--minded solutions to specific political problems.
Nor did Lewis claim that it would--nor for that matter has any other thinker
within the natural law tradition. As Lewis more than once explained (echoing
Aristotle's Ethics): "[M]oral decisions do not admit of mathematical
certainty." Natural law only supplies general moral precepts;
prudence is required to correctly apply those precepts in particular situations.
Hence there is always the chance that one's political decision will be wrong.
Contrary to those Christians who reject natural law, however, this problem
of uncertainty cannot be solved by replacing the law of nature with the
law of revelation as expressed in the Bible. The Bible rarely gives particular
advice on specific political issues. It does not tell us whether to build
nuclear missiles or invade Panama; it does not inform us what type of social
programs to enact, if any; it does not guide us in our choice of the best
tax system. The Bible invariably requires interpretation if it is to be
used as a political guidebook, and interpretation opens the door for misconstruction.
The Bible is infallible; but its interpreters are not. So the Bible can
be abused and misused as much as natural law.
Now I am not arguing--and I know Lewis would not argue--that the Bible has
no role in the area of morality. But in a society that is not a theocracy
the Bible can never be the only standard of morality. The Christians who
lived during the American Founding recognized this fact, and their political
rhetoric was fashioned accordingly. They spoke regularly of the "Laws
of Nature and Nature's God" and of acting in accord with both "reason
and revelation." They saw natural law as the necessary meeting point
for citizens of all religious beliefs. Like the early American
Christians, Lewis recognized the inescapable need for natural law. Christians
today would do well to heed his advice.
See C.S. Lewis, "Private Bates," in Present Concerns
(New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), p. 46.
C. S. Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis, ed. with a memoir by W.
H. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), p. 235.
Lewis, quoted in William Griffin, Clives Staples Lewis: A Dramatic
Life (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), p. 137.
Gresham's views as recounted by Chad Walsh in The Literary
Legacy of C.S.Lewis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), p. 15.
C.S. Lewis, "Lines During a General Election," in
Poems (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964), p. 62.
Lewis, Letters, p. 179.
See, for example, "The Pains of Animals," "Dangers
of National Repentance," "Vivisection," "The Humanitarian
Theory of Punishment," "Delinquents in the Snow," "Is
Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State," in God in
the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids,
Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970), pp. 161--171, 189--192,
287--300, 306--310, 311--316; "Why I am Not a Pacifist," "The
Inner Ring," in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, rev. edition,
ed. by Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 33--53,
93--105; "A Reply to Professor Haldane," in C.S. Lewis on Stories
and Other Essays on Literature, ed. by Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt
Brace Jovanovich, 1982), p. 69--79; all the essays in Present Concerns.
For Lewis's view of both the extreme right and the extreme
left see "To the Author of Flowering Rifle," in Poems, p. 65;
and Stuart Barton Babbage, "To the Royal Air Force," in Carolyn
Keefe, C.S. Lewis: Speaker and Teacher (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971),
p. 67. Also noteworthy is a letter Lewis wrote in 1933 condemning Hitler's
persecution of the Jews. See They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis
to Arthur Greeves (1914--1963), ed. by Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan
Publishing Co., 1979), p. 468.
For Lewis's argument as to why this is the case, see C. S.
Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.,
1960), pp. 14--15.
"Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare
State," p. 316.
C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy--Tale for
Grown--Ups (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1965).
C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan Publishing
Co., 1955), see in particular, pp. 65--91.
See The Abolition of Man, pp. 86--87; "A Reply to Professor
Haldane," pp. 72--73, 74.
That Hideous Strength, p. 57; see also Lewis's comments about
Hingest in "A Reply to Professor Haldane," p. 73.
That Hideous Strength, p. 71.
That Hideous Strength, p. 70.
"Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare
State," p. 315.
For examples of this view see Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation
and Authority (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), VI: 423--427; Greg L. Bahnsen,
By This Standard: The Authority of God's Law Today (Tyler, Texas: Institute
for Christian Economics, 1985), 2--4, 12--28, but note concessions on 141,
171; John W. Whitehead, "The Dangers in Natural Law," Action:
A Monthly Publication of The Rutherford Institute, November 1991, 3, 7;
Bryce J. Christensen, "Against the Wall: Why Character Education Is
Failing in American Schools," in School Based Clinics and Other Critical
Issues in Public Education, ed. by Barrett L. Mosbacker (Westchester, IL:
Crossway Books, 1987), 122--123; Barrett L. Mosbacker, "The Christian,
Morality, and Public Policy," in School Based Clinics, 181--214.
C.S. Lewis, "On Ethics," in Christian Reflections
(Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967),
pp. 44 and 46.
John W. Whitehead, "Law and Nature," in The Second
American Revolution (Elgin, Illinois: David C. Cook Publishing Company,
1982), pp. 185.
Lewis, Letters, p. 177.
Romans 2:14--15 [NIV].
C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval
and Renaissance Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1964),
"Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those
who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole
world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous
in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious
of sin." [Romans 3: 19--20, NIV] Paul implicitly seems to include the
natural law in his discussion here. For he says that the law speaks to "those
under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held
accountable to God." But the "whole world" obviously includes
the Gentiles as well as the Jews; and the only "law " they know
(and the only law that they are "under") is the one "by nature."
C. S. Lewis, "On Ethics," pp. 46--47.
C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan Publishing
Co., 1962), p. 39; also see Lewis's argument in "The Poison of Subjectivism,"
in Christian Reflections, particularly pp. 78--80.
C. S. Lewis, "Why I am Not a Pacifist," in The Weight
of Glory, p. 53. The passage in Aristotle which Lewis is recalling can be
found in the Nicomachean Ethics, 1094b. Lewis explicitly refers to this
passage in "A Reply to Professor Haldane," p. 76.
"A Reply to Professor Haldane," p. 76.
For a development of this idea, see Thomas G. West, "Comment
on Richard John Neuhaus's 'Religion and the Enlightenments: Joshing Mr.
Rorty.'" Prepared for the conference on "The Ambiguous Legacy
of the Enlightenment," sponsored by the Claremont Institute, Claremont,
California, January 27, 1990.
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