This is Part II of a III Part series on C.S. Lewis and Statism. The series originally appeared at theIndependent Institute. See Part I here and Part II here.
Collectivism and Statism
Lewis consequently drew a clear distinction between the reality of the importance for individual liberty and the tendencies to fall prey to the absurdities and dangers of collectivism:
The first of these tendencies is the growing exaltation of the collective and the growing indifference to persons. . . . if one were inventing a language for “sinless beings who loved their neighbours as themselves” it would be appropriate to have no words for “my,” “I,” and “other personal pronouns and inflexions.” In other words . . . no difference between two opposite solutions of the problem of selfishness: between love (which is a relation between persons) and the abolition of persons. Nothing but a Thou can love and a Thou can exist only for an I. A society in which no one was conscious of himself as a person over against other persons, where none could say “I love you,” would, indeed, be free from selfishness, but not through love. It would be “unselfish” as a bucket of water is unselfish. . . . [In such a case] the individual does not matter. And therefore when we really get going . . . it will not matter what you do to an individual.
Secondly, we have the emergence of “the Party” in the modern sense—the Fascists, Nazis, or Communists. What distinguishes this from the political parties of the nineteenth century is the belief of its members that they are not merely trying to carry out a programme, but are obeying an important force: that Nature, or Evolution, or the Dialectic, or the Race, is carrying them on. This tends to be accompanied by two beliefs . . . the belief that the process which the Party embodies is inevitable, and the belief that the forwarding of this process is the supreme duty and abrogates all ordinary moral laws. In this state of mind men can become devil-worshippers in the sense that they can now honour, as well as obey, their own vices. All men at times obey their vices: but it is when cruelty, envy, and lust of power appear as the commands of a great superpersonal force that they can be exercised with self-approval.
Lewis understood that without this necessary natural-law framing of social, legal, and political culture, mankind would no longer be recognized as worthy of rights or even common decency, but instead would be left defenseless to any and all forms of oppression:
Our courts, I agree, “have traditionally represented the common man and the common’s view of morality.” It is true that we must extend the term “common man” to cover Locke, Grotius, Hooker, Pynet, Aquinas, Justinian, the Stoics, and Aristotle, but I have no objection to that; in one most important, and to me glorious, sense they were all common men. But that whole tradition is tied up with ideas of free-will, responsibility, rights, and the rule of nature. Can it survive in Courts whose penal practice daily subordinates “desert” to therapy and the protection of society? . . . For if I am not deceived, we are all at this moment helping to decide whether humanity shall retain all that has hitherto made humanity worth preserving, or whether we must slide down into sub-humanity imagined by Mr. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell and partially realized in Hitler’s Germany.
We hence have the basis for the scientistic “brave new world” in which the citizen and government become slave and master, exactly what Lewis critiqued in his essay “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.” And, of course, what all of this means is the elimination of what makes mankind human in the first place. As Lewis explained the problem, “The question has become whether we can discover any way of submitting to the worldwide paternalism of a technocracy without losing all personal privacy and independence. Is there any possibility of getting the super Welfare State’s honey and avoiding the sting? Let us make no mistake about the sting. . . . To live his life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death—these are wishes deeply ingrained in civilized man.”
This theme recurs throughout Lewis’s work, including in both his fiction and his nonfiction. For example, in the third volume of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, he describes a disturbing world in which a scientific elite creates a totalitarian system in order to coercively engineer a new mankind via the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E. for short. The bureaucrats and planners of N.I.C.E. are exactly what he earlier attacked in his masterly book The Abolition of Man.
And in Lewis’s novel The Screwtape Letters, the demonic Screwtape instructs his pupil Wormwood to mislead his human “patient” by using the convoluted “progressive” concept of “social justice” in order to twist what appears to be Good into Evil and seduce the person into sin: “On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy [God] demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience.”
For Lewis, science should be a quest for knowledge, and his concern was that in the modern era science is too often used instead as a quest by some for power over others. Lewis did not dispute that science is an immensely important tool to understand the natural world, but his larger point is that science cannot tell us anything that is ultimately important regarding what choices we should make. In other words, Lewis shows that “what is” does not indicate “what ought” to be. Scientists on their own are not able to address moral ethics, and all social and political questions are exclusively questions of morality. Lewis furthermore viewed as nonscience, or scientism, all those disciplines that attempt to replicate the scientific method to analyze man: “[T]he new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge. . . . If we are to mothered, mother must know best. . . . Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend. Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about science. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value.”
Lewis “dread[ed] government in the name of science” even more. For him, the connection was clear: “That is how tyrannies come in.”
In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. . . . 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 dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnipotent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement? . . . The question about progress has become the question whether we can discover any way of submitting to the world-wide paternalism of a technocracy without losing all personal privacy and independence. . . . All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others. They will be simply men; none perfect, some greedy, cruel and dishonest. The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it had done before?
When Marxist biologist J.B.S. Haldane in his article “Auld Hornie, F.R.S.” questioned Lewis for being anti-science and against a “planned world” in his Space Trilogy (“Mr. Lewis’s idea is clear enough. The application of science to human affairs can only lead to hell.”), Lewis wrote the following in “A Reply to Professor Haldane”:
It certainly is an attack, if not on scientists, yet on something which might be called “scientism”—a certain outlook on the world which is casually connected with the popularization of the sciences, though it is much less common among real scientists than among their readers. It is, in a word, the belief that the supreme moral end is the perpetuation of our own species, and that this is to be pursued even if, in the process of being fitted for survival, our species has to be stripped of all those things for which we value it—of pity, of happiness, and of freedom. . . . Under modern conditions any effective invitation to Hell will certainly appear in the guise of scientific planning—as Hitler’s regime in fact did. Every tyrant must begin by claiming to have what his victims respect and to give what they want. The majority in most countries respect science and want to be planned. And, therefore, almost by definition, if any man or group wishes to enslave us it will of course describe itself as “scientific planned democracy.” All the more reason to look very carefully at anything which bears that label.
My fears of such a tyranny will seem to the Professor either insincere or pusillanimous. For him the danger is all in the opposite direction, in the chaotic selfishness of individualism. I must try to explain why I fear more the disciplined cruelty of some ideological oligarchy. The Professor has his own explanation of this; he thinks I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I “stand to lose by social change.” And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp.
As the form of government most consistent with his study of natural law and the nature of man, Lewis settled on democracy (not majoritarianism, but self-government as in Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America), considering it the least bad political structure. It should be established only in order to limit centralized political power, however: “I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man”—or more precisely that man is free to choose good or evil. He realized, though, that
most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who believe advertisement, and think in catchwords and spread rumours. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Man is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.
In his book The Weight of Glory, he similarly noted the need to radically constrain the powers of government, paraphrasing Lord Acton’s axiom on the corrupting influence of power:
I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. . . . [S]ince we have sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality. . . . Theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us.
And he went even further in his condemnation of theocracy, stating, “I detest every kind of religious compulsion: only the other day I was writing an angry letter to The Spectator about Church Parades in the Home Guard!”
For Lewis, legal equality under democracy enriches each individual’s unique, spiritual life: “Under the necessary outer covering of legal equality, the whole hierarchical dance and harmony of our deep and joyously accepted spiritual inequalities should be alive. It is there, of course, in our life as Christians: there, as laymen, we can obey—all the more because the priest has no authority over us on the political level.”
But Lewis fully understood that democracy, if unchecked, becomes egalitarianism and will trample on liberty as a collectivist force for evil by celebrating pride and envy as it fosters tyranny. Lewis’s demonic Screwtape, this time in“Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” once again explains quite eloquently how this very thing has happened historically, even in the supposed pursuit of liberty:
Hidden in the heart of this striving for Liberty there was also a deep hatred of personal freedom. That invaluable man Rousseau first revealed it. In his perfect democracy, only the state religion is permitted, slavery is restored, and the individual is told that he has really willed (though he didn’t know it) whatever the Government tells him to do. From that starting point, via Hegel (another indispensable propagandist on our side), we easily contrived both the Nazi and the Communist state. Even in England we were pretty successful. I heard the other day that in that country a man could not, without a permit, cut down his own tree with his own axe, make it into planks with his own saw, and use the planks to build a toolshed in his own garden.
At the root of the developing tyranny are the things many people may least expect—democracy and egalitarianism:
Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. . . . And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of human feelings. You can get him to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided. . . . [D]unces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” . . . And anyway the teachers—or should I say, nurses?—will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. . . . this would not follow unless all education became state education. . . . Penal taxes, designed for that purpose, are liquidating the Middle Class, the class who were prepared to save and spend and make sacrifices in order to have their children privately educated.
Those who, like Screwtape, wish to establish their own rule and extirpate freedom
must realize . . . that “democracy” in the diabolical sense (I’m as good as you, Being Like Folks, Togetherness) is the fittest instrument we could possibly have for extirpating political democracies from the face of the earth. . . . It is our function to encourage the behaviour, the manners, the whole attitude of mind, which democracies naturally like and enjoy, because these are the very things which, if unchecked, will destroy democracy. . . . The overthrow of free peoples and the multiplication of slave states are for us a means (besides, of course, being fun); but the real end is the destruction of individuals. . . . I’m as good as you is a useful means for the destruction of democratic societies. But it has a far deeper value as an end in itself, as a state of mind which, necessarily excluding humility, charity, contentment, and all the pleasures of gratitude or admiration, turns a human being away from almost every road which might finally lead him to Heaven.
Above all, Lewis was a keen observer of the world he lived in, consistently recognizing the implications of every development in the galloping socialism of post–World War II England:
[T]he political philosophy implicit in most modern communities . . . has stolen on us unawares. Two wars necessitated vast curtailments of liberty, and we have grown, though grumblingly, accustomed to our chains. The increasing complexity and precariousness of our economic life have forced Government to take over many spheres of activity once left to choice or chance. Our intellectuals have surrendered first to the slave-philosophy of Hegel, then to Marx, finally to the linguistic analysts. As a result, classical political theory, with its Stoic, Christian, and juristic key-conceptions (natural law, the value of the individual, the rights of man), has died. The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name “leaders” for those who were once “rulers.” . . . We are less their subjects 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.
In direct contrast to the moral relativism, utilitarianism, collectivism, and authoritarianism of the “progressives,” the profound lessons from Lewis’s extensive writings pertaining to liberty are absolutely clear and of the upmost importance to every modern man and woman:
It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere “natural object” and his judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. . . . The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners. . . . Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao [natural law], or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own “natural” impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery. . . . The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany.
In Lewis’s book series The Chronicles of Narnia, the land of Narnia is held in place by the sacred Deep Magic (or natural law), and to transgress this moral code is to do evil. Toward the end of the first book in the series, The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe (which was made into the highly successful 2005 film), the children Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy assume their rightful thrones as kings and queens of Narnia. Lewis describes how they govern during the Golden Age of Narnia and their most important accomplishments: “And they made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being cut down and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.”
This is Part II of a III Part series on C.S. Lewis and Statism. The series originally appeared at the Independent Institute. See Part I here and Part II here.
Footnotes for Part III
 Lewis, “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” 78–79.
 Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” 299–300.
 “Is Progress Possible?” 316.
 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001), 108–9.
 Lewis, “Is Progress Possible?” 314–15.
 Ibid., 315–16.
 Lewis, On Stories and Other Essays on Literature, 71–72, 74–75.
 C. S. Lewis, “Equality,” in Present Concerns, 17.
 Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Essays, 168–69.
 C. S. Lewis, “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” in God in the Dock, 61.
 Lewis, Present Concerns, 19.
 Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 197, 203–205.
 Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 205–207.
 Lewis, “Is Progress Possible?” 313–14.
 Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 72–74.
 C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2000), 183, emphasis added