• 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.

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    Joseph
    Sobran (1946–2010), conservative turned libertarian, was one
    of the most significant American writers. See his
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    intellectual journey
    .

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