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Critical Essay by John G. West, Jr.
SOURCE: "Politics from the Shadowlands: C. S. Lewis on Earthly Government," in Policy Review, No. 68, Spring, 1994, pp. 68-70.
In the following essay, West discusses Lewis's views on government, political action, and public morality. According to West, "Lewis championed the time-honored idea of natural law—the belief that the fundamental maxims of civic morality are accessible to all human beings by virtue of their God-given reason."
Even before the film Shadowlands, C. S. Lewis was probably the most widely recognized Christian thinker of the 20th century. By the end of the 1980s, his works—including Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia—had sold more than 70 million copies, an achievement that surely places Lewis among the best-selling authors of all time.
Lewis is most appreciated today for his superlative imagination and his lucid defense of Christian orthodoxy. But he also was a keen observer of social and political affairs. As Americans struggle to define the proper relationship between religious faith, moral principle, and political action, there is much that they might learn from this inimitable British academic.
Permanent in the Political
Turning to C. S. Lewis for advice about politics is undeniably a bit paradoxical. According to stepson David Gresham, Lewis was skeptical of politicians and not really interested in current events. He even observed that he had no use for the "great issues" of his day. "Lord! How I loathe great issues," he wrote in 1940. "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?"
Lewis likewise avoided making partisan commitments. During the 1930s, he told a student that he refrained from donating money "to anything that had a directly political implication"; in 1951, he declined a title offered him by Prime Minister Winston Churchill (whom he greatly admired), because he feared that critics would seize upon the honor as evidence that his "religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda."
Despite this seeming indifference to political life, Lewis wrote about a variety of political topics, including crime, war, censorship, capital punishment, conscription, socialism, vivisection, the welfare state, and the atomic bomb. When he discussed these matters, however, his primary concern was not public policy. Political problems of the day interested him only insofar as they involved matters that endured. Seen in this light, Lewis's habit of writing about politics and his simultaneous detachment from the political arena are perfectly understandable. Uninterested in the partisan passions of the moment, he always tried to find the permanent in the political. As a result, much of what he has to say about public life remains acutely relevant. Indeed, it is the very timelessness of his writings that makes them so timely.
Of all the political lessons we can learn from Lewis, perhaps the most important is that public morality should be founded squarely upon public principles. Unlike some Christian conservatives, he did not believe that civic morality ultimately had to be grounded in the Bible to be legitimate. Nor did he believe that arguments about social morality were fundamentally arguments about religion.
Instead, Lewis championed the time-honored idea of natural law—the belief that the fundamental maxims of civic morality are accessible to all human beings by virtue of their God-given reason. This natural moral code cannot be escaped, he said; it is the source from which all moral judgments spring. Its cardinal virtues—justice, honesty, good faith, magnanimity, beneficence, mercy—are known to be true independently of experience. According to Lewis, these basic precepts form a moral common ground that undergirds all civilized societies. He illustrated this point in his book The Abolition of Man by cataloguing similar ethical injunctions from some of the world's major civilizations.
Lewis was aware that some Christians objected to natural law because they thought it detracted from the dignity of revealed religion. But he could not accept their view. Far from contradicting Christianity, he argued, natural law is actually presupposed by it. Pointing out that a convert to Christianity "accept[s] the forgiveness of sins," he asked:
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 was announced. The idea that Christianity brought an entirely new ethical code into the world is a grave error. If it had done so, then we should have to conclude that all who first preached it wholly misunderstood their own message: for all of them, its Founder, His precursor, His apostles, came demanding repentance and offering forgiveness, a demand and an offer both meaningless except on the assumption of a moral law already known and already broken.
Lewis agreed that Christianity, with its claim to revealed truth about the human condition, deepened one's ethical understanding. But he was insistent that "Christian ethics" not be regarded as "a radically new thing." The practical political consequences of Lewis's understanding of morality are considerable. The present controversy over religion in politics largely hinges on the assumption that the morality espoused by conservative Christians cannot be justified apart from the Bible, and hence it is illegitimate as a guide to secular policy. But according to Lewis, this is a red herring. One does not need to accept the authority of the Bible to know that theft and slander are wrong, or that honoring one's commitment to a spouse or child is a good thing. Civic morality is not the peculiar domain of religion, and Christians who wish to be politically effective (as well as theologically sound) should drive this point home. It is one of the best ways for them to disarm their critics.
Importance of Prudence
Natural law provides a common moral ground for all citizens to enter politics as equals, but it does not provide simple-minded solutions to specific political problems. Nor did Lewis claim that it would. He understood that being morally right is not the same thing as being politically bright. Translating moral principles into public policy requires something more than merely the right moral principles. It requires the virtue of prudence, which Lewis aptly defined as "practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it." The importance of prudence is his second lesson about politics.
Lewis lamented that "nowadays most people hardly think of Prudence as one of the 'virtues,'" and he chided fellow Christians for being especially guilty of this offence. "Because Christ said we could only get into His world by being like children, many Christians have the idea that, provided you are 'good,' it does not matter being a fool. But that is a misunderstanding." In Lewis's view, consequences matter, and one of the problems with idealists in politics is that they often don't comprehend this fact. They crusade for perfect health, universal employment, or everlasting peace, but they don't bother to pay any attention to the disastrous effects their policies, if enacted, would likely bring about.
Fundamental to C. S. Lewis's conception of prudence was an unflinching realism about the human condition. He believed human beings are both limited and sinful. They are limited in their knowledge about the world around them. They are limited in their ability to do anything about the knowledge they have. And in those cases where they should know what to do—and are able to do it—their judgment is often derailed by their selfishness. As a result, earthly perfection is unobtainable. Political utopians who think otherwise deceive themselves. Their kind of thinking, said Lewis,
… assum[es] that the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure … But I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.
Lewis thought that Christians in politics needed to heed the hard lessons of human imperfection just as much as the secularists. This is particularly so in a society where many people were no longer Christians. In such a situation, Christians ought to recognize the futility of using the government to promote distinctively Christian standards of behavior—as opposed to the shared dictates of the natural law.
Writing about efforts to teach Christianity in state schools, Lewis pointed out that if non-Christian teachers were charged with inculcating Christianity in their pupils, unbelief would be the most likely result. "As the teachers are," he observed, "so they will teach. Your 'reform' may incommode and overwork them, but it will not radically alter the total effect of their teaching … if we were permitted to force a Christian curriculum on the existing schools with the existing teachers we should only be making masters hypocrites and hardening thereby the pupils' hearts."
Another facet of Lewis's prudent realism was his emphasis on political humility. Echoing Aristotle in the Ethics, he more than once explained that specific applications of moral principles "do not admit of mathematical certainty." The more specific the application of a moral principle, the greater the possibility of error—especially when fallible humans are involved. Hence, political partisans should be wary of being too dogmatic. Those who proclaim their political program with absolute certainty are flirting with despotism. If ever they begin to take their exalted rhetoric seriously, they will be tempted to stop at nothing—even tyranny—to push their agenda forward.
This was one reason Lewis opposed the creation of an explicitly Christian political party. Such a group, he feared, would raise the political stakes too high. "The danger of mistaking our merely natural, though perhaps legitimate, enthusiasms for holy zeal, is always great," he said, but a Christian party would make the temptation irresistible. "The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient make-up we can find."
Lewis added that attaching divine certitude to a party platform is a theological blunder as well as a political one. It takes the Lord's name in vain by "pretending that God has spoken when He has not spoken. He will not settle the two brothers' inheritance: 'Who made Me a judge or a divider over you?' [Luke 12:14]. By the natural light He has shown us what means are lawful: to find out which one is efficacious He has given us brains. The rest He has left to us."
Beware the Omnicompetent State
A final political lesson to be learned from Lewis is the moral necessity of limited government. An unrepentant critic of what he termed the "omnicompetent" state, Lewis believed that civil society's chief task was the defense of individual liberties so that citizens could live their lives in their own way. No doubt part of Lewis's support for limited government sprang from his prudent assessment of human nature. "I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man," he remarked in the Spectator. "Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows."
However, Lewis also had a positive reason for defending limited government. Good societies depend upon virtuous individuals, and he knew that individual virtue could never be produced by government decree. Government can make people behave, but ultimately it cannot make them good. That is because virtue presupposes free choice. The society where all acts are compelled is a society where no act can be virtuous. Lewis acknowledged that the freedom required for virtue to flourish also "makes evil possible." But this is the price that must be paid for "any love or goodness or joy worth having."
The problem with the modern welfare state is that it operates on premises antithetical to human freedom and the private institutions that help secure it. Lewis summarized why in an essay in The Observer in 1958: "The modern State exists not to protect our rights, but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name 'leaders' for those who were once 'rulers.' We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, 'Mind your own business.' Our whole lives are their business."
Lewis, who lived through Europe's flirtation with both Communism and Nazism, understood the lure of the omnicompetent state. Confronted by the sheer volume and extent of human misery, people naturally look for an earthly savior; many do not care what they will have to give up to get one. Whatever this desire for earthly salvation is, it is not new.
"In the ancient world," he observed, "individuals … sold themselves as slaves, in order to eat. So in society. Here is a witch-doctor who can save us from the sorcerers, a warlord who can save us from the barbarians, a Church that can save us from Hell. Give them what they ask, give ourselves to them bound and blindfold, if only they will! Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again. We cannot blame men for making it. We can hardly wish them not to. Yet we can hardly bear that they should."
As Americans again hear the siren song of a federal government that offers to fulfill all their hopes and solve all their problems, these words are worth pondering. So are Lewis's many other writings on public life.
C. S. Lewis has much to offer the thoughtful citizen seeking to understand the nature of politics. He convincingly explains how people of faith can become involved in politics without sacrificing either their faith or their reason. He powerfully critiques political idealism that is untempered by prudent realism. And he reinforces with bedrock the moral underpinnings of limited government.
For an academic who once described himself as a cultural "dinosaur," C. S. Lewis's political voice still resonates strongly with relevance and prophetic power for our own day.
This section contains 2,376 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)