C. S. Lewis on Mere Liberty and the Evils of Statism

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For decades,
many Christians and non-Christians, both “conservative”
and “liberal,” have unfortunately embraced an ill-conceived,
“progressive”
(i.e., authoritarian) vision to wield intrusive government powers

as an unquestionable and even sanctified calling for both domestic
and international matters, abandoning the Judeo-Christian, natural-law
tradition in moral ethics and economics. In contrast, the Oxford/Cambridge
scholar and best-selling author C. S. Lewis did not suffer such
delusions, despite the gigantic and deeply disturbing advances and
conflicts of total war, the total state, and genocides that developed
during his lifetime.

Lewis’s
aversion to government was clearly revealed in 1951 when Winston
Churchill, within weeks after he regained office as prime minister
of Great Britain, wrote to Lewis offering to have him knighted as
“Commander
of the Order of the British Empire.”
Lewis
flatly declined the honor
because he, unlike the “progressives,”
was never interested in politics and was deeply skeptical of government
power and politicians, as expressed in the first two lines of his
poem “Lines during a General Election”: “Their threats
are terrible enough, but we could bear / All that; it is their promises
that bring despair.”

Lewis had held
this view for many years. In 1940, he had written in a letter to
his brother Warren, “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?” He further
stated, “I was by nature ‘against Government.’”

In comparison
to such contemporary, “progressive” Christians as Jim
Wallis, Tony Campolo, Ronald Sider, and Brian McLaren, who clamor
for the foolish and disastrous notion of achieving “social
justice” through gigantic government powers (see Robert Higgs’s
book refuting the “progressive” myth in American history,
Crisis
and Leviathan
), was Lewis just ignorant or naive about modern
realities, or was he aiming at a deeper and more significant purpose?
In this article, I only begin to touch on some of Lewis’s many
writings pertaining to the subject of liberty and Christian teachings
because any truly adequate examination would warrant at least an
entire book.

Lewis was unquestionably
and profoundly interested in the ideas and institutions that were
the basis for free and virtuous individuals and communities, but
he was not at all interested in partisanship or campaign politics.
He instead focused on first principles, and public-policy matters
were of interest only as they pertained to questions of enduring
value. As a result of this focus, whereas the work of most modern
scholars and other writers quickly becomes dated and obsolete, Lewis’s
work has achieved increasing timelessness and relevance. His books
continue to sell at an astounding rate, and although Lewis is best
known for his fiction,
he also wrote superb books in philosophy
and theology
, literary
history and criticism
, poetry,
and autobiography,
as well as at last count more than fifty
thousand letters
to individuals worldwide.

Individual
Liberty

Throughout
his work, Lewis infused an interconnected worldview that championed
objective truth, moral ethics, natural law, literary excellence,
reason, science, individual liberty, personal responsibility and
virtue, and Christian theism. In so doing, he critiqued naturalism,
reductionism, nihilism, positivism, scientism, historicism, collectivism,
atheism, statism, coercive egalitarianism, militarism, welfarism,
and dehumanization and tyranny of all forms. Unlike “progressive”
crusaders for predatory government power over the peaceful pursuits
of innocent people
, Lewis noted that “I do not like the
pretensions of Government – the grounds on which it demands
my obedience – to be pitched too high. I don’t like the
medicine-man’s magical pretensions nor the Bourbon’s Divine
Right. This is not solely because I disbelieve in magic and in Bossuet’s
Politique. I believe in God, but I detest theocracy. For
every Government consists of mere men and is, strictly viewed, a
makeshift; if it adds to its commands ‘Thus saith the Lord,’
it lies, and lies dangerously.”

Lewis addressed
not only the evils of totalitarianism as manifested in fascism and
communism, but the more subtle forms that face us on a daily basis,
including the welfare, therapeutic, nanny, and scientistic states.
“Of all tyrannies,” he stated,

a tyranny exercised
for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be
better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.
The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity
may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our
own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval
of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven
yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very
kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured”
against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard
as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached
the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants,
imbeciles, and domestic animals.

Throughout
his books, he defended the rights and sanctity of individuals against
tyranny not just because he opposed evil, but because he considered
a life in freedom – including both social and economic freedom
– to be essential: “I believe a man is happier, and happy
in a richer way, if he had “the freeborn 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.”

As Rodney
Stark
discusses in his book The
Victory of Reason
, Marcus
Tullius Cicero
and others had contemplated the concept of the
self (individualism) and free will before the Christian era, but
it was not until Jesus personally asserted in words and deeds the
concept of universal moral equality before and responsibility
to God and not until Christian theologians made it a central feature
of their doctrine that the rights of each and every individual
were championed and slavery was condemned. This bold advance in
thinking arose in part from the revolutionary insight of methodological
individualism in the study of human behavior, wherein the individual
is considered primary. As Jon Elster notes, “The elementary
unit of social life is the individual human action. To explain social
institutions and social change is to show how they arise as the
result of the actions and interaction of individuals. This view,
often referred to as methodological individualism, is in my view
trivially true.” Austrian
school
economist Murray
Rothbard
similarly wrote, “The fundamental axiom, then,
for the study of man is the existence of individual consciousness.”
Ludwig
von Mises
further stated that “the collective has no existence
and reality but in the actions of individuals. It comes into existence
by ideas that move individuals to behave as members of a definite
group and goes out of existence when the persuasive power of these
ideas subsides.” And Stark has pointed out that although almost
every other early culture and religion viewed human society in terms
of the tribe, polis, or collective, “it is the individual who
was the focus of Christian political thought, and this, in turn,
explicitly shaped the views of later European political philosophers.”

This
focus produced a radical change in a world where, despite notable
but limited exceptions of political decentralization, slavery and
nearly universal and unyielding despotism had ruled, where people
were treated as mere members of a group without rights. With Christianity,
each and every person is “a child of God” or a holy object
(res sacra homo) who has free will and is individually responsible
for the choices he or she makes. In this tradition, Thomas
Aquinas
stated, “A man can direct and govern his own actions
also. Therefore the rational creature participates in the divine
providence not only in being governed but also in governing.”

Read
the rest of the article

September
4, 2010

David
J. Theroux [send him mail]
is the Founder and President of The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif., Publisher of The
Independent Review
, and Founder and President of the C.S.
Lewis Society of California
.

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