C.S. Lewis: Political and Cultural Conservative

A Politics for a Fallen Humanity

BY PHILIP VANDER ELST

Any consideration of C.S. Lewis’s writings on politics and culture must begin by stressing that he was not primarily a political philosopher. What Lewis did say about politics and society flowed from his understanding that Christianity illuminates all aspects of life in this world. With his characteristic vividness and lucidity, Lewis drew attention to truths whose neglect has blighted the modern world and whose recovery is essential if we are to preserve freedom, excellence, and human dignity.

Lewis was a sharp critic of many of the dominant ideological and cultural trends of the 20th century. To the extent that he saw himself as a lonely and beleaguered spokesman for that central tradition of Christian thought which once characterized Western civilization, Lewis can be properly regarded as a political and cultural conservative in the widest and deepest sense of the word. He was a critic of secular humanism and scientific utopianism, and an opponent of collectivism, egalitarianism, and “progressive” morality. Since this body of ideas and assumptions continues, in various forms, to characterize the mentality of most Western intellectuals, Lewis’s critique is still relevant.

In addition, Lewis’s opposition to theocracy, and all attempts to use the power of the State to establish a perfect Christian society, merits close attention given the rise, since his death in 1963, of new theologies which politicize the Gospel and seek to establish Christ’s Kingdom on earth by human efforts.

To understand Lewis’s political philosophy, we must begin with a question. If Christianity is true, what should be our attitude to life in this world? Only if we know the answer to this basic question about what should be our inner orientation can we begin to think intelligently about politics and society.

As Lewis understood, Christianity is neither a world-affirming nor a world-denying religion. It opposes the secular humanist view that there is no other life except the present one and no goals worth pursuing except our own material comfort and happiness. Christianity also rejects the view, implicit in pantheistic religions like Buddhism, that the road to inner wholeness and union with God (or with the soul of the universe) demands the renunciation of the flesh, including all personal commitments, affections, and even our very selves, everything, in short, which binds us to this world of suffering.

Hence, Lewis points out the maddeningly double-edged character of the Christian faith as seen from the outside. It is a religion which, as a matter of historical fact, preserved the secular civilization that survived the collapse of the Roman Empire:

. . . to it [Christianity] Europe owes the salvation, in those perilous ages, of civilized agriculture, architecture, laws, and literacy itself. He would find that this same religion has always been healing the sick and caring for the poor; that it has, more than any other, blessed marriage; and that arts and philosophy tend to flourish in its neighborhood. In a word, it is always either doing, or at least repenting with shame for not having done, all the things which the secular humanitarianism enjoins. (Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics)

But it must also be noted:

that the central image in all Christian art was that of a Man slowly dying by torture; that the instrument of His torture was the world-wide symbol of the Faith; that martyrdom was almost the specifically Christian action; that our calendar was as full of fasts as of feasts; that we meditated constantly on the mortality not only of ourselves but of the whole universe; that we were bidden to entrust all our treasure to another world. (Undeceptions)

To the Christian, Lewis argued, there is no real paradox here, since there is no inherent conflict between our allegiance to God and our appreciation and enjoyment of the world He created. How could there be? It follows from the very concept and doctrine of creation that we should both love and worship our Creator and rejoice in His works, of which we are, in any case, a part. Christians may indeed regard themselves, in Lewis’s memorable phrase, as pilgrims passing through the “Shadowlands,” knowing that true life lies ahead. But that does not mean they care any less than other people about fighting evil and alleviating suffering in this life. We follow one who stood and wept at the grave of Lazarus, Lewis said, even though He was about to raise him from the dead, because death — the punishment of sin — is even more horrible in the eyes of the Creator, of Life Himself, than in our own.

Since the individual is God’s creation and an object of God’s love, dignified with the gifts of reason, conscience, and free will, he does not belong to the State as an animal belongs to a farmer, but has the God-given right to live within a social order which respects his freedom to determine his own destiny as long as he in his turn respects the rights of others. This implies that in the Christian view, the State is not an end in itself like the individual person. The State is only a means, in a fallen world, to enable people to live together in harmony and in obedience to the moral law, so that they can use their talents, develop their relationships, and help each other to know God, enjoy creation, and fulfill their potential.

The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden — that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. (Mere Christianity)

Two other conclusions follow from his Christian view of man. First, that the primary cause of evil and suffering in the world does not lie in the structures of society or result from any particular set of laws and institutions, but stems from our fallen human nature. The wrong laws and institutions may greatly aggravate the human condition, and much of the evil in the world may indeed be due to the behavior of wicked governments and selfish and corrupt elites, but history as well as common sense tells us that no amount of social and political change, of tearing down and remodeling institutions, has yet succeeded in eradicating all selfishness, cruelty, incompetence, and tyranny. Old evils may mutate, taking new shapes and forms, but they do not disappear, as the course of revolutions prove. Hence the implausibility of the socialist and revolutionary claim that suffering, injustice, and crime can be removed by the elimination of poverty and inequality.

The recognition of this truth leads to the second conclusion about history and politics: that the 19th-century notion of the inevitability of human progress is false. As the record of our own century has demonstrated, man’s increasing knowledge and dominion over nature may have ameliorated the material lot of the human race, but it has also strengthened tyranny and increased the destructiveness and horrors of war.

Human beings, argued Lewis, cannot free themselves in this life from the limitations imposed by their fallen natures, therefore their attempts to establish a perfect society inevitably backfire, tending to recreate and intensify the evils they were meant to abolish. This happens not only because all schemes of social engineering increase the power of the State — and power corrupts — but also because utopian ideologies typically reject the constraints of traditional morality.

Convinced that they possess the key to history and the secret of happiness, and promising heaven on earth, such ideologies invariably affirm that the ends justify the means and that ordinary moral rules are therefore subordinate to the cause of the revolution, the advancement of science, the survival of the race, the progress of mankind, or whatever the latest utopian shibboleth happens to be. But as Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man, and in a wartime essay on “The Poison of Subjectivism,” there can never be any moral justification for jettisoning the traditional precepts of the moral law since the very idea of moral and political progress presupposes a common, objective, and unvarying moral standard. Otherwise, there is no measuring rod by which to determine whether a particular law, philosophy, attitude or practice represents a moral advance or not. Moreover, the idea that traditional judgments of value can be replaced by a more “scientific” ethical system based upon supposedly “real” and “solid” criteria like the advancement of the species or the “survival of the planet,” is illusory, because the moral justification for using these criteria is necessarily derived from the moral code which is supposedly being replaced on the grounds that it is “out of date.”

Although Lewis (given that he died in 1963) never wrote about such matters as abortion, euthanasia, or the use of aborted fetuses in medical research, his treatment of other moral issues and his general moral outlook illuminate some of the central dilemmas raised by these developments. Running through his writings in vivisection, modern sexual mores, and crime and punishment, for example, are three related themes: accountability, stewardship, and the abuse of power — which apply as much in these areas as in the ones he actually wrote about.

Leaving aside the obvious point, in the case of abortion, that unborn babies are fully human and therefore morally entitled to the protection of the law, the main principle underlying the proper Christian response to these question is the one stressed by Lewis: our God-given human status entails, on the one hand, that we have the right to life and individual self-determination, and on the other, that we are accountable for our actions, and are under a duty not only to fulfill our obligations to others, but to treat inferiors with kindness. Hence, argued Lewis, we should condemn adultery and avoidable cruelty to animals, and regard crime as a moral offense deserving punishment rather than a psychiatric disorder requiring treatment.

Lewis’s discussion of the morality of vivisection is particularly interesting in this context, not only because of its contemporary relevance, but because it so clearly reveals his humanity and his hatred of cruelty and tyranny, attitudes rooted in his understanding of the Christian conception of natural law, with its insistence on man’s responsibility before God for his stewardship of creation.

Even if it is the case that the superiority of man over beast is a revealed truth rather than simply a prejudice in favor of our own species, and therefore conforms to a hierarchical order created by God, it does not follow, argues Lewis, that we have the right to do whatever we like with animals. Their lack of a soul

makes the infliction of pain upon them not easier but harder to justify. For it means that animals cannot deserve pain, nor profit morally by the discipline of pain, nor be recompensed by happiness in another life for suffering in this. Thus all the factors which render pain more tolerable or make it less totally evil in the case of human beings will be lacking in the beasts. “Soullessness,” in so far as it is relevant to the question at all, is an argument against vivisection. (Undeceptions)

For Lewis, writing these words in 1947, the victory of vivisection represented the triumph of ruthless utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law, a retrogression also apparent in the area of penal reform. As Lewis explained in a famous essay on “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” (1949), the modern “liberal” notion is that it is wrong to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, since this is mere revenge, and revenge is barbarous and immoral. Instead, it is argued, punishment should be regarded either as a deterrent to protect society or as a means of reforming the criminal. But, this supposedly “humanitarian” approach destroys the concept of justice and represents an assault on human dignity and the legitimate rights of offenders.

Retribution, argued Lewis, is the essence of justice since it requires the concept of desert. It is morally right that the punishment should fit the crime because a person who knowingly injures another deserves to be treated in a similar fashion and forfeits his right to the freedom which he has abused. The very idea of punishment affirms the human dignity of the criminal since it recognizes him to be a rational being possessed of free will, and therefore capable of choosing between good and evil and being held responsible for his actions and behavior. The “humanitarian” theory, however, not only separates punishment from justice by rejecting or abandoning this notion of desert; it also treats the criminal as an imbecile or a domestic animal, and paves the way for the creation of a “reformatory” penal regime under which offenders have no rights but are left entirely at the mercy of “experts” whose special sciences and techniques lie outside the moral sphere.

To the objection that the humanitarian theory seeks to reform the criminal rather than punish him, and is therefore not vindictive, Lewis answers:

. . . do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of “normality” hatched in a Viennese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success — who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared — shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust — is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard. (Undeceptions)

Furthermore, argues Lewis, fallen human nature is bound, sooner or later, to transform the humanitarian theory of punishment into an instrument of tyranny, for if crime is regarded as a disease, it follows that disease can be treated as a crime, and who is to say what state of mind some future government may choose to regard as a disease? In a chillingly prophetic passage, Lewis anticipated, in 1949, the employment by Communist dictatorships of psychiatric methods of torturing Christians and other religious and political dissidents:

We know that one school of psychology already regards religion as a neurosis. When this particular neurosis becomes inconvenient to government, what is to hinder government from proceeding to “cure” it? Such “cure” will, of course, be compulsory, but under the Humanitarian theory it will not be called by the shocking name of Persecution. (Undeceptions)

Lewis’s shrewd calculation of the deadly consequences resulting from false philosophies allied to fallen humanity is the central theme of his political thinking. Opposing the modern egalitarian view of democracy, Lewis maintains that men and women deserve an equal share in the government of the commonwealth not because they are equally wise, which is clearly untrue, but because no one is good enough to be allowed irresponsible power over his fellows: “I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, . . . learned over simple, to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast.”

Not only is egalitarianism (as distinct from equality before the law) a false basis for democracy, and a threat to every form of human excellence — moral, cultural, social and intellectual — but it is also incompatible with freedom, since economic and social differences inevitably arise from the free development and activities of unequally endowed individuals, and therefore cannot be suppressed except by force. That is one of the reasons why revolutionary socialist governments are always tyrannical. In addition, totalitarian rulers have a vested interest in discouraging independent individuals and alternative centers of economic, social, and cultural activity; hence their willingness to embrace the forms and rhetoric of egalitarianism and democracy in order to justify their removal of all significant social distinctions. As Lewis’s satirical devil, Screwtape, puts it in his speech to the annual dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils, in Hell:

. . . is it not pretty to notice how Democracy (in the incantatory sense) is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods? You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them “tyrants” then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of corn, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no pre-eminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser, or better, or more famous, or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level; all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. Thus Tyrants could practise, in a sense, “democracy.” But now “democracy” can do the same work without any other tyranny than her own. No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will not of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own in their desire to Be Like Stalks. (Screwtape Proposes a Toast)

Lewis’s awareness of the perils of egalitarianism and the paramount need to set limits to the power of the State, echoes the views of Conservative and classical liberal thinkers like Burke, the authors of the American Constitution, Tocqueville, and Lecky. But unlike them, he failed to make a proper distinction between liberty and the rule of law on the one hand, and democracy — in the sense of majority rule — on the other; yet the potential conflict between the two haunted Conservatives and Liberals in the 19th century and is sadly relevant to post-colonial Africa and the political evolution of many Third World countries.

Although Lewis can be criticized for using the term “democracy” too loosely and for failing to engage in an explicit discussion of the difference between popular government and liberty, he must have been aware of the distinction since he was alarmed by what he saw as the despotic tendencies of modern democratic states. His anxiety was primarily aroused by the dangers inherent in government economic planning and in the humanitarian desire to use the power of the State to eliminate poverty and guarantee everybody’s material welfare from the cradle to the grave. Consequently, while accepting the (false) economic arguments for democratic socialism, which he didn’t feel qualified to criticize, Lewis warned of their likely political consequences in an article he wrote for the Observer in 1958:

We must give full weight to the claim that nothing but science, and science globally applied, and therefore unprecedented Government controls, can produce full bellies and medical care for the whole human race: nothing, in short, but a world Welfare State. It is a full admission of these truths which impresses upon me the extreme peril of humanity at present. We have on the one hand a desperate need; hunger, sickness, and the dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnicompetent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement?

Lewis’s awareness of fallen man’s inevitable tendency to abuse power explains his hostility to socialism, but it is nowhere more evident, or eloquently expressed, than in his opposition to theocracy. Whilst it might seem right in theory, Lewis argued, that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, or that a righteous Church should be given absolute control over society, the temptation to accept a theocratic form of government should be resisted. Christians are not only, like everyone else, fallen, and therefore subject to the same tendency to be warped and corrupted by excessive power; they are likely to become even more oppressive tyrants than their irreligious counterparts, since their theocratic despotism is likely to be reinforced by a perverted self-righteousness which would suppress all inner doubts about their own behavior and silence that voice of self-criticism essential to the correction of all error and injustice:

I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretentions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. . . . A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. (Reply to Professor Haldane, Other Worlds: Essays and Stories)

One has only to recall the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century, the atrocities committed by the Anabaptist rulers of Miinster in the same period, or the grim rule of the “elect” in Calvin’s Geneva, to agree with Lewis about the dangers of theocracy.

Lewis’s opposition to theocracy and to the use of compulsion and the power of the State in religious matters, is not only expressed in his “Reply to Professor Haldane,” but also surfaces in his encyclopedic survey of English Literature in the 16th Century (Oxford University Press, 1954). There he notes with sadness the degree to which intolerance seemed a universal blind-spot which afflicted Catholics, Calvinists, and Anglicans in equal measure, and in deploring this, Lewis has powerful historical as well as philosophical arguments on his side. Quite apart from the moral undesirability of violating freedom of conscience, it can be argued that one of the principal consequences of religious persecution and sectarian hatred during this period was to discredit real Christianity and encourage the growth of an intolerant atheism and anti-clericalism which not only contributed to the Jacobin Terror of the French Revolution, but has gone on to fuel all the totalitarian socialist movements of the twentieth century.

Lewis’s detestation of cruelty and tyranny, and his awareness of its ideological and spiritual roots, is the most interesting feature of his political thinking, but underlying it is a moral outlook pervaded by an acute awareness of the difference between goodness and power, merit and success. God, insists Lewis, should be loved and obeyed because He is loving and good, not because He is omnipotent, since to worship power for its own sake blurs the distinction between good and evil, and is therefore both cowardly and diabolical. That is why, for example, one of the most attractive features for Lewis of Nordic mythology, was its noble and heroic rejection of the doctrine that might is right. In a wartime article celebrating the inability of the Nazis to digest the moral content and grandeur of the story of Siegfried in the Nibelungs, especially Wagner’s version of it, Lewis commented: “What business have people who call might right to say they are worshippers of Odin? The whole point about Odin was that he had the right but not the might. The whole point about Norse religion was that it alone of all mythologies told men to serve gods who were admittedly fighting with their backs to the wall and would certainly be defeated in the end…. But that does not in the least alter the allegiance of any free man. Hence, as we should expect, real Germanic poetry is all about heroic stands, and fighting against hopeless odds.”

It was C.S. Lewis’s great merit as a thinker, scholar and Christian apologist, that like the heroes of his favorite Nordic myths, he never hesitated in all his writings to swim against the ideological and cultural tide, however dominant and threatening it seemed.


Self-Educated American Contributing Editor, Philip Vander Elst, is a British freelance writer, lecturer and C.S. Lewis scholar. After graduating from Oxford in 1973, with a degree in politics and philosophy, he spent more than 30 years in politics and journalism, serving in free market think-tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Economic Affairs, and writing for conservative and libertarian papers on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator, Human Events, the American Spectator, and the Freeman.


Previously published in Crisis Magazine. Used with permission of the Author