C.S. Lewis is primarily known for his fictional works (most popularly the Chronicles of Narnia) and his faith-focused writing, including Mere Christianity. But Lewis believed that claims upon the soul are claims upon the whole of life. In other words, everything Lewis said and wrote about his faith had real-world implications — including political implications. Reading Lewis’s work with this in mind reveals profound political insights. The following, the first of a series, looks at the politics of C.S. Lewis as revealed in eight of his works.
In December 1918, a young man of 20 returned to Oxford University after a year of service among the British forces on the Western Front of the First World War. Heartsick and demoralized, C.S. Lewis completed the degree he had put on hold to fight in the army. His academic performance — in Philosophy, Ancient History and Literature, and English — was dazzling. But he was an embittered, broken man. The carnage of the war had snuffed out whatever diffident faith remained from his Anglican upbringing: he would later describe himself in Surprised by Joy (1955) as having been both “very angry with God for not existing” and “equally angry with him for creating a world.”
No one who met this inveterate atheist then would have guessed that he would someday become one of Britain’s best-known Christians. Today, though, anyone who hears the name C.S. Lewis will immediately think of the celebrated Narnia novels, a fantastically successful series of allegories that have made the Christian outlook freshly compelling to millions of readers. Some also know that Lewis was England’s unofficial theologian throughout the 1940s: in broadcasts, in sermons, in scores of essays and books, he served as the councilor and guide to a nation harrowed by the ravages of yet another World War.
But even though he played a central role in British public life during a crucial moment in the country’s history, Lewis doesn’t register for most people as a political writer. He’s first and foremost a novelist and a Christian apologist, the winsome preacher of an ancient Gospel to a modern world. Of course, though, claims upon the soul are claims upon the whole of life: everything Lewis said and wrote about Christian teaching had implications for his audience as citizens of a great nation in one of the 20th century’s most fraught moments.
And in fact, to revisit Lewis’s works with this in mind is to find them threaded through not just with theological grace, but also with political wisdom. What follows is a consideration of passages from eight works by Lewis from this angle — a survey of the politics of C.S. Lewis. It is the first in a series.
Tyranny For Our Own Good
Near the end of his career, after the war was done, Lewis wrote: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.”
Like so many of his turns of phrase, this line is eminently quotable and ceaselessly quoted. It has had a bit of a moment recently in America, as governors selectively enforced increasingly nonsensical lockdown requirements, citing COVID-19 precautions as their rationale. It never seems to occur to such people that if their orders are in violation of the Bill of Rights, then the argument that they are “for the public good” is actually a shameless irrelevancy.
Lewis understood this, which is why he wrote that “those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
He was arguing that well-meaning tyranny is not simply a misapplication of principles which might, if differently and more sensibly applied, govern a just state. To the contrary: self-righteous, benevolent tyranny is based on premises that are wholly antithetical to those which undergird representative democracies and republics.
Free nations governed by popular sovereignty — the kind of nation that both Britain and the U.S. are supposed to be — are based on the stipulation that what the people deem good is what the state shall do. Benevolent tyrannies, on the other hand, proceed according to the stipulation that what the state deems good is what the people must do. The final outcome of such an outlook is embodied in Narnia’s famous White Witch, who would rather rule over a kingdom of lifeless statues than lose her own grip on control: “I was the Queen,” she insists in The Magician’s Nephew (1955). “They were all my people. What else were they there for but to do my will?”
COVID tyranny is galling not because it won’t produce good outcomes, but because the whole presumption of the thing is that “leaders” (many of them unelected) may determine which outcomes are righteous without accountability to the people whose good they claim to be seeking.
Justice vs. Social Engineering
Lewis made this argument in his 1954 essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” But he wrote that essay to address a debate which is also alive today: the debate over the death penalty. Then, as now, a growing number of Westerners were becoming disgusted with the idea of a merely retributive justice — one that metes out punishment because it is deserved by the criminal, rather than in order to deter or rehabilitate him.
Dispensing at the outset with questions about whether capital punishment can in fact effectively deter or rehabilitate, Lewis argued that all such questions are governed by a wholly different logic than the logic of justice. Justice, argued Lewis, is nothing other than desert: the only way we evaluate the justice of a punishment at all is by asking whether the person punished deserves it. Even the objection that “the death penalty is unjust” boils down to the argument that “no one deserves the death penalty.”
Deterrence and rehabilitation, on the other hand, are forms of social engineering: they view punishment as a tool for making people do what the punishers want. “Thus,” wrote Lewis, “when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’.”
These two different governing ideas of punishment proceed along entirely separate tracks to very different destinations. Justice — though sometimes fearsome and always imperfect — treats the human being as a moral agent whose actions have weight and therefore consequences. By contrast, Lewis argues that “moral busybodies” (today we would call them “Karens”) are interested not in justice but in social engineering, “a dangerous illusion” which “disguises the possibility of cruelty and injustice without end.”
Lewis applied much the same reasoning to one of the central political questions of his life: can a Christian nation go to war? Christ’s injunctions to love the enemy and turn the other cheek weighed heavily on the two generations of British men who were forced in the World Wars to slaughter or be slaughtered.
But Lewis argued that to refrain from fighting against Hitler would be to pervert the relevant commandments. In a 1944 interview, he said:
You are told to love your neighbour as yourself. How do you love yourself?… I do not think that I love myself because I am particularly good, but just because I am myself…. You [may] dislike what you have done, but you don’t cease to love yourself…. You may even think that you ought to go to the Police and own up and be hanged. Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.
To disregard a person’s moral character — to treat him as if his actions make no difference — is not love. It is indifference. Or worse, it is condescension.
Real Christian love — that devoted, terrifying, purifying care whose model is a jealous God and a crucified Christ — cannot shrug off the moral character of the beloved. For God to merely excuse us would be for him to dehumanize us, to lie about the nature of who we are.
We do not really want excuses: we want forgiveness. And forgiveness means acknowledging that our evil is evil.
“Not A Pacifist”
This was not a stance Lewis took lightly or without accountability. In 1940, he had aired his arguments in front of a society of pacifists in a speech called “Why I Am Not a Pacifist.” He pointed out that pure nonviolence, if carried to its logical conclusion by all men of fighting age, would leave the pacifist nations defenseless and the world at the mercy of totalitarians and Nazis.
Lewis hoped that the prospect of world domination by the Third Reich would make clear his point that to refrain from violence is hardly the most loving approach in every instance.
He knew his opponents would counter that pacifism, idealist though it was, represented humanity’s only shot at a world without war. But that notion, he responded, “belongs to a mode of thought which I find quite alien to me. It consists in assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life might be curable if only we can find the right cure.”
Another Christian teaching — that sin and misery are permanent fixtures of a fallen world, capable of being alleviated but never escaped — warned Lewis against the alluring but disastrous temptation to cleanse the world of its imperfections.
Lewis did not imagine that the war he was urging upon the young men of Britain was anything other than an unspeakable horror. He had seen the war himself, and described it with ruthless detail in The Screwtape Letters, his fanciful rendering of Hell’s attempts to capture a human soul. The devils in Screwtape relish “the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosives on the lips and in the lungs, the feet burning with weariness, the heart cold with horrors, the brain reeling, the legs aching.”
It was this unflinching, firsthand grasp of what war meant in the 20th century — hard-won by his own sacrifices and those of his friends in the trenches — that made Lewis’s support for the war so clear-eyed and persuasive, his defense of the British military so powerful and realist.
“What Lies Before Us”
Lewis could urge such self-sacrifice because he believed the rewards of courage would be far more joyous than the agony of service would be painful. That, too, was a hard-won belief. Lewis had to fight his way back to God with greater difficulty, and for longer, than he had to fight England’s enemies on the battlefield. His faith was one which did not rely on easy certainties: he had wrestled ferociously with every clause of it.
Once he had grasped it, Lewis’s Christianity — the richness of heaven in his telling — gave moral and emotional logic to the entirety of his political outlook. He could write unflinchingly in Screwtape about the brutalities of war because he believed in, and could describe with unmatched elegance, the delights beyond this world. In “The Weight of Glory,” preached as a sermon in 1942, he said:
The faint, far-off results of those energies which God’s creative rapture implanted in matter when He made the worlds are what we now call physical pleasures; and even thus filtered, they are too much for our present management. What would it be to taste at the fountain-head that stream of which even these lower reaches prove so intoxicating? Yet that, I believe, is what lies before us.
The sheer pleasure of heaven, which always glowed just outside the frame as Lewis wrote, was what he imagined the soldiers of the war would receive as the final reward for all their courage and consolation for all their misery. It was what gave coherence to his understanding of human justice on earth, and of the free civilizations which governments existed, in his view, to protect.
“On The Edge of a Precipice”
For these reasons Lewis understood the World Wars, horrific as they were, to be nothing other than an intensified version of the perennial human condition. “The war,” he told a group of Oxford students in 1939, “creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”
That speech, published as “Learning in Wartime,” expresses Lewis’s conviction that the great aims of human life — family, art, scholarship, invention — have their meaning because they take place in a fragile world of imminent mortality, yet reach outward toward a heavenly horizon for which we were born but which we cannot yet see.
This outlook was pointedly not limited to wartime: indeed, in Lewis’s work the most eternally consequential things are those which happen out of sight of the world. Jesus said: “Be careful not to perform your righteous acts before men” (Matthew 6:1). For Lewis, part of what this meant was that the eye of heaven itself was upon the mundane, the seemingly unremarkable, aspects of daily life.
In The Great Divorce (1945), Lewis imagines his narrator given a vision of the heavenly realms, where he sees a woman of incomparable loveliness and majesty. He feels certain she must have been a queen on earth, until his guide corrects him: “‘it’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.’” But because of Smith’s immense warmth of heart and daily devotion to those around her, in the truer reality which is Heaven she is “‘one of the great ones.’”
In the conclusion to “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis said: “You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”
He viewed every moment of social and political life as minutely important, not because this or that government or program was important per se, but because the human souls participating in those governments and programs were, every one of them, beings of almost indescribable importance.
Lewis stood here in perhaps the oldest tradition of Judeo-Christian wisdom — the wisdom of Augustine’s City of Godand the Gospel of John and the Prophecy of Isaiah — that though “all flesh is grass,” still it is our God whose word stands forever and our eyes that will see the redeemer at the end of days.
As Europe fell under the shadow of death, Lewis saw what Christian politics really means: he saw that the choices of England’s citizens and the decisions of her leaders, no matter how minute, would be of eternal consequence.
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