C.S. Lewis on Modern Politics: How Totalitarian States Are Masquerading as Democracies

In 1951, Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party regained control of the prime-ministership and Parliament. A few weeks after the election, the Prime Minister’s office wrote C.S. Lewis indicating the Prime Minister would like to bestow upon Lewis the honorary title, “Commander of the British Empire.” Lewis declined Churchill’s offer on account of the honor possibly being used by others as an excuse to diminish him or his work as that of a closet politico. His declination of the honor, however, did not mean that Lewis did not have strong beliefs about political systems. He was just less interested in the politics.

Authors Justin Dyer and Micah Watson help us understand this by giving us “a glimpse of Lewis as a political theorist.” In their recent book, C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law, the two political scientists explain how C.S. Lewis possessed numerous, strong thoughts about politics and sprinkled them, throughout his lifetime, in books and personal correspondence. The Oxford don who dispensed Christian philosophy with astounding clarity also foretold of current political trends with frightening accuracy.

Many do not view Lewis as a political thinker. This an understandable perception seeing his writings do not present themselves as political treatises. And his correspondence, at times, communicated an antipathy toward the topic of governance. But a letter to Mrs. Frank Jones demonstrates an example of the tension present in his being regarding politics. He wrote, “Our papers at the moment are filled with nothing but politics, a subject in which I cannot take any interest.” Yet, he goes on to criticize the Labour government in a well-informed manner. And in other personal letters, Lewis provides informed references to British elections, unions, communist advances in China and Hungary, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and other political topics of the day. An odd way to demonstrate one’s disinterest.

Dyer and Watson believe Lewis’ view of politics was different from others because he focused on the Aristotelian aspect of politics, the polis. The polis is the “comprehensive community, which combined spheres and identities [of] … religion, government, family, school, and business.” Aristotle advocates all this is held together properly with “a view to some good.” This focus is different from the business and machinations of politics, which receive most of the ink or occupy most of the thought-space in a community.

A closer look at Lewis’ life shows his engagement with politics from a young age. At age 10, he wrote an essay “about the future relationship of Ireland and the British crown.” When he reached adulthood, Lewis read, taught, and wrote about numerous political philosophers ranging from Plato to Rousseau to Lenin. But probably, most importantly, Lewis commented and wrote often about the underpinnings of politics, natural law. This was the “permanent in the political,” the truth upon which law and order are founded and continually substantiated. If we recognize how natural law can be the life-blood of the polis’ success at flourishing, “we see that Lewis’ writings brim with political themes,” Dyer and Watson write. These themes are found in The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Abolition of Man, and other books by Lewis. They come from Lewis’ ancient mindset and invade our age with perspective and wisdom.

In chapter two, Dyer and Watson lay out Lewis’ rationality for believing in the existence of natural law. This is accomplished by tracking Lewis’ arguments against Darwinian materialism and “philosophic naturalism” in defense of natural law. Philosophic naturalism is a term Lewis used to refer to an aspect of classical philosophy, namely, reason comes from nature. It is not the creation of a supernatural mind. He contended these two secular worldviews “cannot account for the existence and reliability of reason.”

The force of Lewis’ contention rested in the fact reason is not self-authenticating. It is contradictory to believe a theory of origins wherein thinking is considered certifiably reliable, but there is no provided proof of the “certification” by theory. It does not give an explanation as to how reason came into existence and why it is reliable. “Unless human reasoning is valid no science can be true. … A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid, would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be itself demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials,” Lewis wrote in Miracles.

He explained elsewhere materialism considers reason only synaptic activity in one’s brain, which is the result of “a blind evolutionary process. There is no reason for supposing reason yields truth.” The authors point out this is a critical part of the scientific enterprise. One must have reason in order to ascertain truth. Lewis summed up the idiocy this way. “When you are arguing against [God] you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue [to reason] at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are standing on.”

For the naturalist, Lewis used a different argument for there is some commonality between Lewis and the naturalist: they both believe in matter and the mind, a non-material entity. The difference between the two lies in the origin point for the two realities. “The philosophic naturalist insists that each is an attribute of nature, and nature is an eternal whole.” As a Christian, Lewis believed matter was created by God and contingent on eternal reason. All reasonable thought on earth (natural reason) is a sense expressing this eternal reason. Therefore, nature has begat nothing including reason.

To support his premise, Lewis articulated nature’s capabilities and its incapabilities. “[He] insisted nature is rationally intelligible. … [Hence], nature must either possess a mind or result from a mind.” Of course, he argued that the latter is true and the former is false for naturalists believe “matter predates mind.” He placed the onus on the naturalist to explain how rational thought came from nonrational matter. Or to put it another way, he felt it improbable to go from unreason to reason.

Not only did the doctrine of Creation construct Lewis’ view of reason’s reliability, but so did the doctrine of the Fall. Lewis’ argument begins with addressing the materialist. Despite the Fall, one must presume reason is reliable and this must be so in order to make an argument, even “an argument against reason.”  Regarding the Christian critic, this person would contend reason is now fully depraved and hence “worthless.” But again, one must use reason to deem reason worthless. If reason is worthless, it is unknown whether the assumed effect of the Fall on reason is accurate. The Christian making this argument (that reason is fully depraved) is using the very reason the person has deemed unreliable.

Lewis’ defense of the reliability of reason was crucial for reason was an integral part of his moral reality framework. It was intertwined with goodness because of natural law. This intertwining enabled one to “think and argue intelligibly about moral reality.”

The German theologian, Karl Barth, is the critic-exemplar of Lewis’ belief in natural law and chapter three dives into this dissention. Barth was a firm believer in all theological knowledge coming from Christ and Christ alone. Claims of truth being found in nature, reason, history, or culture were false and completely untrustworthy. He believed the heresy of the “German Christian” movement, a blend of Nazism and Christianity, had been grown in the soil of supposed natural law. Despite natural law being embraced by Catholics and Protestants and affirmed by Luther and Calvin, Barth’s skepticism is summed up in his questioning of “who is to judge what use of nature, reason, and history is rightful and true.” When determining what natural law is he feared culture, history, and philosophy were over-sized influencers.

Lewis pushed back against Barth by addressing the threat which emanated from Barth’s own country. “If your moral ideas can be true and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something—some Real Morality—for them to be true about,” Lewis said during the BBC broadcasts that would eventually comprise Mere Christianity. The law of nature is thus because “people thought everyone knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it. And I believe they were right. If they were not, then all the things we said about the war were nonsense. What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced?”

Lewis fortified his argument with two key points. First, “human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. [Secondly], they do not in fact behave in that way,” Lewis declared. He considered these two claims to be the basis “of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in”: there is a natural law and mankind naturally rebels against it.

In regards to Barth’s contention of no objectivity in moral law, Lewis feared the worst if objectivity in morality was disregarded. “It will certainly end our species … if it is not crushed,” he said. If there is no moral objectivity, but only moral subjectivity, then the Germans have every right to claim their ideology is just as valid as another country’s. Lewis’ logic is encapsulated in an analogy he provided: there must be a measuring rod independent of that which is measured else no measuring can occur.

At the end of chapter three, Dyer and Watson begin showing how Lewis’ writings reflect his philosophy. For instance, The Abolition of Man teaches “political trends in the modern world are related, ultimately, to a philosophical rejection of the natural-law tradition.” Then in That Hideous Strength, Lewis illustrated the reality quite potently believing a fiction piece would be more impactful and receive fewer counter-arguments from society than a philosophical work. In the book’s preface, he writes his desire is that the truth might be seen as if for the first time “stripp[ed] … of [its] stained-glass and Sunday School associations.” The thrust of this book and his other pieces of fiction were not “primarily to win debates, but … rather … shape emotional dispositions through moral education.”

Lewis contends the roots of the rejection of natural law were formed by the ideas put forth in the 16th century. At the beginning of that century, “eternal verities” were abolished and by the end, man was abolished himself completely ruled by his passions and void of reason. Lewis termed these people, “men without chests,” an apt description for many politicians driven more by their passion for power and popularity than by reason.

Chapter four begins in earnest with an examination of Lewis’ thoughts on politics and the effect of his belief in natural law and fallen man upon the subject. So what does happen when man’s fallenness corrupts natural law and objective morality is no more or barely visible? In such a situation, moral nihilism fills the cultural vacuum of a country and not too far behind is totalitarianism. Germany was swallowed by Nazism for a time. Russia was consumed with Communism for the better part of a century. Yet, Lewis believed totalitarianism could take over liberal democracy just the same albeit in a different form: “a benevolent scientific bureaucracy, which destroys or damages mediating institutions such as the church and the family, and makes genuine freedom … difficult to achieve.” The leaders in such a government will “take charge of the destiny of others. … [themselves] simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel and dishonest.”

A scientific bureaucracy is now possible given the advancements in science, technology, and the intertwining relationship governments have with its citizenry. For instance, many more enjoy greater health, longevity, and leisure than at any other point in history. Lewis saw democratic governments as eager to spread the benefits to all for that is the crux of democratic thinking: equality enjoyed by all. Hence, he saw a deadly combination in liberal democracies: technological advancements, moral nihilism, and power. This totalitarian state shrouded in democracy made possible by the degradation of education and the de-evolution of language caused by sixteenth-century philosophy.

Lewis believed two occupations in the sixteenth century assisted in dooming man philosophically: the magician and the astrologer. The magician “sought power over nature,” Lewis said. The astrologer “proclaimed nature’s power over man.” The former thought led many to think man can do everything. The latter strongly suggested he can do nothing. Lewis saw modern scientists as the sons of the magician who believe every ill in the world can find a cure in science. From the astrologer came the philosophical materialist who believes man is nothing but a slave to nature, his animal instincts.

Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes are the next people to be examined in what is called “the early modern turn” by Dyer and Watson. Bacon effectively persuaded many that final causes are not discernible, i.e. it is not possible to know the purpose or reason for one’s actions. This was a monumental shift Hobbes built upon and used it to “construct a theory of politics and human nature without reference to final causes.” The result was the fluidity of the labels “good” and “evil.” Seeing the metaphysical has been dispensed with, only matter remains. The person (the matter) void of any metaphysical objectivity determines what is good and what is evil.

When Hobbes applied his theory to politics, his application produced this conclusion, “the ultimate source of right is the sovereign state.” Lewis argued against Hobbes in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, and provided his basis for government. The overarching principle guiding him was “God has written the law of just and reasonable behavior in the human heart.” From this, followed “a just civil law is simply a particular application of the principles of natural law to the political life of a community,” write Dyer and Watson. The protection of the citizenry is based upon the belief that human life has value. And if, at any time, a country’s laws contradict natural law, the citizenry has the right to disobey.

“[Government’s] business is to enforce something that is already there, something given in the divine reason or in the existing custom. … If it tries to be original, to produce new wrongs and rights in independence of the archetype, it becomes unjust and forfeits its claim to obedience,” Lewis wrote. If this happens, rulers are no longer rulers. They are leaders.

Rousseau followed Hobbes and provided more intellectual kindling to the bonfire, which was burning down the tower of classical medieval politics. He re-defined the word nature to mean primitive, unmodified, or spontaneous. Thus, he fully eroded what natural law is. For Rousseau, prerational sentiment like “pity and self-love” became king.

Rousseau believed true freedom becomes a reality when all submit to the state and uniformity is achieved. For those so inclined, this became their roadmap to revolution. The noticeable contradiction in his thinking was ironed out by Wilhelm Frederich Hegel, the early nineteenth-century Prussian philosopher and theologian.

Dyer and Watson write, “Hegel appropriated the general framework of salvation history found in Christian traditions and applied it to world events. … The march of History … culminates in the creation of the modern bureaucratic state, which reconciles the apparent tension between law and freedom.” In a nutshell, Hegel sees “true freedom [as residing only] in the arms of the state.” His theory provided the justification needed for many on the Left and the Right who favored totalitarianism.

In some ways, the “modern Enlightenment project” turned out to be less about insight and discovery through reason, and more about a path to justifying an overreach of power. Lewis labeled Rousseau’s proposal as an expression of “’deep hatred of personal freedom hidden in the heart’ of the … project.”

With the “extinction” of good and evil and the ascendant rule of one’s emotions, Lewis saw the product of these two realities, moral subjectivism, a singular force against democracy. This was antithetical to his philosophical foundation carved out by Plato, Augustine, and others. The life support for this new morality was the re-orientation of language, which Lewis fervently argued against.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis zeroed in on the deficiencies of modern education. He urged that students be taught “to love what is lovely and despise what is despicable.” For Lewis, Dyer and Watson write, “A rightly ordered human soul is one in which reason submits to the authority of God, on the one hand, and our emotions and appetites submit to the authority of reason.” With a lack of proper order based upon proper loves, moral subjectivism applied in education results in the ruin of our civilization, and, more importantly, our souls. Lewis contends this occurs because we will “conquer our own nature” and become subject to the whims of “material nature.” As the authors put it, “… nature regains the upper hand over man at the very moment of nature’s seeming defeat.”

The outcome is devastating education and propaganda. Also, legitimate rule and tyranny become one in the same. This leads to a horrific end in the modern era due to its scientific advancements. The advancements paired with an “omnicompetent state” used by the societal influencers of the day will enable them to “make man” in their own image. Lewis illustrated this in That Hideous Strength with a scientific and social engineering agency (N.I.C.E.) whose mission was “to overcome and subdue nature with science.”

Chapters five and six will probably be the most appealing to readers of Dyer’s and Watson’s work. It is in these two chapters where we learn about the most of the details of Lewis’ political thought. And what one finds is both quite helpful and also somewhat surprising.

One of the most surprising beliefs by Lewis was his desire not to return to medieval political systems. The authors call this a bit “puzzling” because he was also not a huge fan of the democratic form of governing. The very leveling nature of democracy was seen as most unhelpful to a society for “no man [would be] wiser, or better, or more famous, or even handsomer than the mass.” Thus, Lewis believed “democracy always in the end destroys education.”

To Lewis, a prerequisite for good governance is an acknowledgment of a “natural superior.” Hierarchy is a built-in component. Obedience is built upon it. This is a deficiency of democracy. Its leveling effect is anti-natural law.

Lewis selected key aspects from John Locke’s and John Mill’s works to formulate a workable democracy: Locke’s social contract theory and Mill’s harm principle. Lewis and Locke believed God to be the author of human nature and that every person is equal before God.  Both men believed God had given man a morality that was common to all and not exclusive to Christianity. According to this morality, no man is to harm another. This was the backbone of Locke’s theory, which detailed a mutual execution of duties by the government and the citizenry based upon their positions. The government is to protect and permit its citizens to live out their God-given rights according to their individual preferences, and the citizenry is to live harmoniously without causing harm to any member of society. If the government fails in its duties, the citizenry is justified in revolting. If a citizen fails in his, the government carries the authority to mete out the proper justice.

Mill concurred that government had a responsibility to exercise its power over a person who would do bodily harm to another member of society. Chapter six speaks of a limit, however, to the extent of government’s harm-preventing power. Mill delineated thusly, “He [a person] cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise or even right.” Yet, this is the path Lewis saw modern government going down. In the name of doing good for people or making people good, government would eventually deny private rights via “technological power.”

This is an interesting point of agreement between Lewis and Mill. As a matter of application, Lewis believed the issues of marriage, divorce, homosexuality, and religious education are not to be regulated or prohibited by government. He once wrote, “many acts which are sins against God are also injuries to our fellow-citizens, and must on that account, but only on that account, be made crimes.” The implication being if the sinful act does not harm a fellow-citizen, it should not be made illegal. Dyer and Watson see this use of Mill’s principle by Lewis serving two purposes.

The first, “these limits protect the Church from the temptation to engage in the idolatry of theocracy, what Lewis called the worst of all governments. [Lewis felt Christians were just as susceptible to abuse of power because of mankind’s fallen nature.] Secondly, … Lewis’ conception protects the realm of the political. More specifically, it would protect the common goods of citizens as such from the inevitable bungling and potential tyranny that would result from a government that deliberately engages in soulcraft.”

In our time, there seems to be much governmental bungling and micro-tyranny exercised by portions of the U.S. federal government. How did we get here? Lewis would ascribe the shift to key changes that began in the mid-nineteenth century and continued for about one hundred years. The major change being an educational revolution. No longer were the educated being taught the works of “the ancients” like Plato, Aristotle, Virgil or Horace. Hence, people do not have the past from which the present came and do not have or have less of a proper understanding by which to measure the worth of the present.

Another change is the technological prowess of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: machines are ever-improving. Mankind is lulled into thinking “almost nothing can be turned into almost anything,” according to Lewis. Other changes include “an emphasis on practical knowledge over wisdom,” and “an increasing skepticism toward reason.”

To close out the book, Dyer and Watson use much of the final chapter to provide excerpts from Lewis’ canon that show the application of his belief in natural law and his political theory. For example, in That Hideous Strength, Lewis tells the story of an organization, the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), which is a scientific technocracy hoping to control the whole country. N.I.C.E. believes it can solve or correct all of nature’s problems with the application of science. One of its scientists, Professor Frost, is an exemplum optimi of an amoral conditioner Lewis described in The Abolition of Man.

This work of Lewis’ fiction serves to educate people regarding the outcomes and implications of bad politics and a drifting away from natural law. Lewis saw them as part of a broader education needed by young people. He advocated reform of dangerous political systems would not be solved by a national education policy nor by the passage of legislation, but by an education built on Christian principles. And the place for this to happen was not in the public school system, but he believed the Christian school to be the place for Christian principles to be taught. Only through this method would society possibly be renewed and righted. One could not simply Christianize public education.

At a time, when democracies across the globe seem less interested in being incubators of freedom and more so of bureaucracies, Lewis’ prescient wisdom helps us understand how and why such a promising form of government has been so easily corrupted. Despite favoring a classical liberal democracy, it seemed to be a default position for him. He understood the effect of the Fall upon man and believed a democracy the only viable option to obstruct political tyranny. His honesty about the untrustworthiness of man’s ability to rule is jarring and needed in our day.

In Present Concerns, Lewis admitted, “I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people who believe advertisements, and think in catch-words and spread rumors. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.”



Article was originally published by HarperCollins’ C.S. Lewis blog.