The Prophetic C.S. Lewis

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June
13, 2000

Deep
political wisdom can be found in a writer who took very little interest
in politics: C.S. Lewis, a scholar who achieved his greatest fame
as a popular Christian writer.

Lewis was sometimes
laughably ignorant of current events. His friends were once amused
to discover that he was under the impression that Tito, the Communist
dictator of Yugoslavia, was the king of Greece. But the very distance
he kept from politics enabled him to see large outlines invisible
to those preoccupied with the daily news.

During World
War II, Lewis realized that both the Allies and the Axis were abandoning
the traditional morality of the Christian West and indeed of all
sane civilizations. The great principle of this morality is that
certain acts are intrinsically right or wrong. In a gigantic war
among gigantic states, Lewis saw that modern science was being used
amorally on all sides to dehumanize and annihilate enemies. When
peace came, the victorious states would feel released from moral
restraints.

Lewis cited
an old theological question: “It has sometimes been asked whether
God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain
things are right because God commands them. With Hooker [Richard
Hooker, the Anglican theologian], and against Dr. [Samuel] Johnson,
I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead
to the abominable conclusion … that charity is good only because
God arbitrarily commanded it – that He might equally well have
commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then
have been right.” It was dangerous to believe that sheer will,
even God’s will, can be the ultimate source of right and wrong.

Lewis saw a
parallel danger in “the modern theory of sovereignty,”
which holds that the state can make right and wrong by sheer act
of will: “On this view, total freedom to make what laws it
pleases, superiority to law because it is the source of law, is
the characteristic of every state; of democratic states no less
than of monarchical. That doctrine has proved so popular that it
now seems to many a mere tautology. We conceive with difficulty
that it was ever new because we imagine with difficulty how political
life can ever have gone on without it. We take it for granted that
the highest power in the State, whether that power is a despot or
a democratically elected assembly, will be wholly free to legislate
and incessantly engaged in legislation.”

As a result
of the theory of sovereignty, Lewis observed, “Rulers have
become owners.” He added: “We are less their subject 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.” As the state offers us
less and less protection, “at the same time it demands from
us more and more. We seldom had fewer rights and liberties nor more
burdens: and we get less security in return. While our obligations
increase their moral ground is taken away.”

Lewis was alarmed
by another development we now take for granted: state control of
education. He wrote: “I believe a man is happier, and happy
in a richer way, if he has ‘the free-born mind.’ But I
doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which
the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows
an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it
is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of government who can criticize
its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s
the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the
mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that
when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?”

The “new
society” was creating “membership in a debased modern
sense – a massing together of persons as if they were pennies
or counters.” It was “trying to drag the featureless repetition
of the collective into the fuller and more concrete world of the
family.”

More clearly
than even Huxley and Orwell, Lewis saw that politics without morality
could only end in tyranny.

Sobran’s
Reactionary Utopian archives.
Watch Sobran’s last TV appearance
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Joseph
Sobran (1946–2010), conservative turned libertarian, was one
of the most significant American writers. See his
website
and his
intellectual journey
.

The
Best of Joseph Sobran

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