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

By David J. Theroux for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

This is Part I of a III Part series on C.S. Lewis and Statism. The series originally appeared at the Independent Institute. See part II here and part III here.

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.”[1]

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.’”[2]

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),[3] 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.”[4]

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.[5]

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.”[6]

As Rodney Stark discusses in his book The Victory of Reason,[7] 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.”[8] Austrian school economist Murray Rothbard similarly wrote, “The fundamental axiom, then, for the study of man is the existence of individual consciousness.”[9] 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.”[10] 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.”[11]

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,[12] 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.”[13]

Natural Law

Working from this Christian background, Lewis stressed the importance of the natural law of moral ethics, a code of moral conscience that is inescapable and defines each person as human. Such morality exists on its own independent of subjective choices or experiences, just as one may grasp the inherent truism of mathematics or natural physical laws such as gravity. Lewis drew on the natural-law insights of such thinkers as the apostle Paul, Augustine, Magnus, Aquinas, Cicero, Grotius, Blackstone, Acton, and Locke, and he considered modernist dismissals of such work to be fundamentally erroneous. In particular, both Aquinas’s notion of “common sense” (communis sensus) as described in his Summa Theologica and the legacy of rational theism found in Jewish, Islamic, Christian, and certain pagan writers—the core philosophical system of the West—had a powerful effect on Lewis. To him, the culture of “modernism” is not just an historical aberration of this “common sense,” but a profound threat to the pursuit of truth, goodness, and civilization itself.

This “common sense,” or Lewis’s notion of common rationality, consisted in part of each individual human being’s intrinsic understanding of an objective, universal, and natural legal order of truth and morality (the “natural law,” or what Lewis called the “Tao”[14]), upon which he or she discerns, chooses, and acts.[15] For Lewis, each individual responds to and can come to know and experience this external reality of truth—it is a “common knowledge.” This insight is similar to Adam Smith’s view, as expressed in his 1759 book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, that individuals are born with an innate moral conscience and “sympathy” for the well-being of others and can maintain them by following the natural law.[16]

Lewis likewise claimed that

[i]f a man will go into a library and spend a few days with the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics he will soon discover the massive unanimity of the practical reason of man. From the Babylonian Hymn to Samos, from the Laws of Manu, the Book of the Dead, the Analects [of Confucius], the Stoics, the Plantonists, from Australian aborigines and Redskins, he will collect the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood, the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, and the weak, of almsgiving and impartiality and honesty. He may be a little surprised (I certainly was) to find that precepts of mercy are more frequent than precepts of justice; but he will no longer doubt that there is such a thing as the law of nature. . . . [T]he pretence that we are presented with a mere chaos—though no outline of universally accepted value shows through—is simply false and should be contradicted in season and out of season wherever it is met. Far from finding a chaos, we find exactly what we should expect if good is indeed something objective and reason the organ whereby it is apprehended—that is, a substantial agreement with considerable local differences of emphasis and, perhaps, no one code that includes everything.[17]

Lewis noted that what is common to all these concepts is something crucial: “It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. . . . No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are illogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should obey it.”[18]

As such, Lewis firmly rejected the idea that only those who are Christian can understand or be moral because the natural law is fundamental to human existence and serves as the basis for human choice. He noted that if only Christians were able to be moral or to understand morality, then there would exist an unworkable dilemma in which no one would be persuaded of being (or ever be able to become) moral who was not already a Christian, and hence no one would ever become Christian. “It is often asserted that the world must return to Christian ethics in order to preserve civilization. Though I am myself a Christian, and even a dogmatic Christian untinged with Modernist reservations and committed to supernaturalism in its full rigour, I find myself quite unable to take my place beside the upholders of [this] view. It is far from my intention to deny that we find in Christian ethics a deepening, an internalization, a few changes of emphasis in the moral code. But only serious ignorance of Jewish and Pagan culture would lead anyone to the conclusion that it is a radically new thing.”[19]

Lewis argued that a natural moral law is known to all, and this natural moral code is inescapable; it is the basis for all moral judgments. Its foundational truths such as “caring for others is a good thing,” “good should be done and evil avoided,” “dying for a righteous cause is a noble thing”—are understood regardless of experience, just as we know that 2 + 2 = 4.

As Paul stated, “When Gentiles do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.”[20]

In his book The Discarded Image, Lewis showed that Paul’s statement completely conforms with the view that morality is determined by “right reason” or the Stoic idea of natural law: “[T]he Stoics believed in a Natural Law which all rational men, in virtue of their rationality, saw to be binding on them. St. Paul[’s] statement in Roman’s (ii 14 sq.) that there is a law ‘written in the hearts’ even of Gentiles who do not know ‘the law’ is in full conformity with the Stoic conception, and would for centuries be so understood. Nor, during those centuries, would the word ‘hearts’ have had merely emotional associations. The Hebrew word which St. Paul represents by kardia would be more nearly translated ‘Mind.’”[21]

Lewis posed similar arguments in his books The Problem of Pain and Christian Reflections.[22] However, like all natural-law proponents, he was careful to note that natural law does not afford easy or precise solutions to all questions. Echoing Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics he noted that “moral decisions do not admit mathematical certainty.”[23]

David J. Theroux is Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of The Independent Institute, Publisher of The Independent Review, and Founder and President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California. He received his B.S., A.B., and M.S. from the University of California, Berkeley, and his M.B.A. from the University of Chicago. Books produced by Mr. Theroux have been the recipients of the Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize, Templeton Freedom Award, two Mencken Awards for Best Book, seven Sir Antony Fisher International Memorial Awards for Best Book, two Benjamin Franklin Awards, four Independent Publisher Book Awards, and three Choice Magazine Awards for Outstanding Book.

This is Part I of a III Part series on C.S. Lewis and Statism. The series originally appeared at the Independent Institute. See part II here and part III here.

Footnotes for Part I

[1] C. S. Lewis, “Lines during a General Election,” in Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964), 62.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis, ed. Warren H. Lewis (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966), 179.

[3] Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). Also see his book on the disastrous myth of the “progressive” state in America since 1930,Depression, War, and Cold War: Challenging the Myths of Conflict and Prosperity (New York: Oxford University Press for the Independent Institute, 2009) as well as Arthur A. Ekirch Jr., The Decline of American Liberalism (Oakland, Calif.: Independent Institute, 2009), and Jonathan Bean, ed., Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader(Lexington: University Press of Kentucky for The Independent Institute, 2009).

[4] C. S. Lewis, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” in C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays in Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1970), 315.

[5] C. S. Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” in God in the Dock, 292.

[6] Lewis, “Is Progress Possible?” 314.

[8] Jon Elster, Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 13.

[9] Murray N. Rothbard, “The Mantle of Science,” in Scientism and Values, ed. Helmut Schoeck and James W. Wiggins (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1960), 177.

[10] Ludwig von Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science: An Essay on Method (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2006), 80.

[12] See, for example, Thomas J. Thompson, “An Ancient Stateless Civilization: Bronze Age India and the State in History,” Independent Review (Winter 2005): 365–84; Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988); David Friedman, “Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case,” Journal of Legal Studies 8, no. 2 (1979): 399–415; Joseph R. Peden, “Property Rights in Ancient Celtic Law,” Journal of Libertarian Studies 1, no. 2 (1977): 81–95; and Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).

[13] Quoted in Berman, Law and Revolution, 25.

[14] Lewis’s use of the term Tao (literally meaning the “way” or “path”) to describe natural moral law should not be confused with the Chinese naturalist philosophy of Taoism (Daoism), the various forms of which uphold nihilism, ethical skepticism, relativism, mysticism, intuitionism, and primitivism.

[15] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 18–19, 83–101. Also see C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1952), and Lewis, God in the Dock.

[16] Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 1976), 47–48.

[17] C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), 77–78, emphasis in original.

[18] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 19.

[19] Lewis, Christian Reflections, 44, 46.

[20] Paul, Romans 2:14–15 [NIV].

[21] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 160.

[22] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 39; C. S. Lewis, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” inChristian Reflections, 78–80.

[23] C. S. Lewis, “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” in On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), 80.


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