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Book Review: C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law (Dyer & Watson)

“C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law” collects in one short book the thoughts of Lewis on human collective action, i.e., politics. The thesis of the authors, Justin Dyer and Micah Watson, is that Lewis believed Christianity implied certain broad conclusions about how politics should be ordered. Moreover, these conclusions are essential to understand Lewis’s overall thought, which is often viewed as divorced from politics, but is in fact very much engaged with politics.

“Politics” here means not what the tariff rate should be or whether John Jones should be elected, but rather takes on its Aristotelian sense—what role must members, Christian members, of the polis play in bringing about the good life of the citizens? This is essentially a book about how Lewis viewed natural law, and what that implied for his views on politics, along with some hypotheses by the authors about how that might have affected Lewis’s views of “retail” politics, which, as a rule, Lewis did not concern himself with. The result is a concise and very interesting work that succeeds in its goal of rescuing Lewis from being perceived as wholly disinterested in politics.

(My only major complaint about this book, which does not relate to its substance, is its price. At $45, it’s priced in such a way as to severely limit its readership. Yes, it’s a technical/academic work, but as with most Lewisania, it aspires to a broader audience. The price ensures that this book will never become widely known or have a wide impact, and that’s too bad.)

It is well known, and the authors do not dispute, that “Lewis held many politicians in disdain and was pessimistic about the potential for political solutions to live up to their advertising.” Doubtless, with today’s politicians and the hugely increased demand, or pseudo-demand, for political solutions to every matter, that disdain and pessimism would be multiplied many-fold. Nonetheless, Lewis “was both very interested in and knowledgeable about politics and political thought.” The authors trace this interest and knowledge from Lewis’s basic premises, about human nature and the Fall, through his views on natural law, and his acerbic dialogue with 20th Century Christians who rejected natural law, such as Karl Barth. They end with his conclusions about politics in modern society and Lewis’s own political position, more modern than might be suggested by his endorsement of natural law as the foundation of all rightly ordered human action.

One bedrock understanding of Christianity is that fallen men live in a fallen world. That we have free will made this fact possible, even though God is good (Lewis rejected both Monism, in part the idea that something is good only because God says it’s good, being Himself above good and evil; and Dualism, that God is an agent of both good and evil equally). And that we have free will and reason also makes it possible for us to saved, by our ability to ourselves determine the natural law, as well as through the saving efficacy of Jesus Christ.

In opposition to this creed of human choice driven by human reason potentially leading to the good are the doctrines of philosophic naturalism (exemplified by Lucretius) and the more modern Darwinian materialism, which (roughly) hold that things are the way they are, because they are the way they are, and there is nothing behind them, so there are no transcendent values and no natural law. Naturalism and materialism have been attacked for a very long time on the grounds that they cannot explain, and they undermine our confidence in, reason itself (a philosophical problem Darwin himself explicitly struggled with). In modern times, Alvin Plantinga is the foremost exponent of this angle of attack, but Lewis also made it the underpinning of much of his philosophy.

As the authors summarize Lewis, “Reason, in other words, is a fundamental and irreducible agency in the world that ruptures any strictly deterministic model of reality (as the materialists hold) and cannot be adequately explained as something that developed from within nature itself (as atheistic rationalists hold).” And, therefore, this (along with the concept of creation ex nihilo) implies that “the reason of God is the self-existent principle by which the natural world was created.” (Lewis also rejected the quasi-Calvinist view that reason is unreliable because of the utterly depraved nature of fallen man; reason may be damaged, but it is not destroyed.) All these arguments, of course, tend in the direction of theism, but not necessarily of Christianity, so they are the starting point, not the ending point, of Lewis’s views. And the starting point of those views is, in brief, that our reason leads us to understand the basic moral principles we must follow—the natural law.

For two thousand years, natural law was generally accepted by both Christian thinkers and the mass of Christians. Of course, Christianity does not claim that all Christian doctrines can be derived from natural law, but rather that natural law illumines and makes plausible all Christian doctrines. As Lewis, a former atheist, said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” However, driven by seeing the claims of modern ideologies, Christian thinkers began to revolt against the natural law. In particular, the German theologian Karl Barth, in the early years of Nazi power, claimed that the German Protestants, who had become nearly wholly corrupted by the new ideology, had become so in part as a result of their reliance on natural law, into which they had imported Nazi doctrines. (A second reason was the German Protestant “modern” rejection of the historicity of the Gospel and their willingness to believe in ongoing revelation, all tending toward the latest trendy political belief.) Barth’s basic objection was that if we can know Jesus Christ not only through Scripture but also through “nature, reason, and history,” there is no limiting principle, and any ideology may lay claim to nature, reason, and history, and therefore to a slice of Christianity. Barth wrote that such “Janus-headed” arguments lead “to the misty twilight in which all cats become grey.” Better to have a narrow bright line rule than the Nazi Church.

Lewis directly attacked Barth and his conclusion, defending both natural law and its role in Christian thought. Lewis believed man must have an objective “measuring rod” to determine the morality of his actions—but, unlike Barth, who held that Jesus, as known through his actions related in Scripture, was the only reliable measuring rod, Lewis held that Scripture was supplemented by the natural law, “revealed in nature and known through reason.” (At least in this book, the possible mediating role of tradition is not discussed.) Dyer and Watson analyze this debate in some detail, including by referring to the debate between Barth and Emil Brunner, in which Brunner pointed out that Scripture itself clearly endorses reason and the natural law, which did not change Barth’s mind.

Barth accused proponents of natural law of in practice aiding anti-Christian movements and, what is more, favoring “the church of the antichrist” (i.e., Roman Catholicism, in those days when many Christians felt they could spare energy to fight with each other, not seeing the looming triumph of Christianity’s enemies in the West). Lewis in essence accused Barth of Monism, positing “a God of inscrutable will,” and concluded that Barth’s theology therefore meant functionally a worship of power, which was “not unlike devil worship” and not dissimilar to nihilism in its degree of error, though at the opposite pole. This is not to say that goodness is outside God and therefore something above God to which God submits. Instead, the “good is uncreated; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. [The revealed doctrine of the Trinity, with the love, begetting and begotten, in the divine Nature, shows that] God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.” While Barth presumably agreed with this analysis, from it he drew the opposite conclusion, or at least was not persuaded it was relevant to the argument at hand, and rejected natural law. And, for purposes of this book, the critical element is that belief in natural law has political implications.

Lewis then turned, in various writings, to the application of natural law. He concluded that fictional writing was a more powerful vehicle than overt philosophical argument (and, as the authors note and Lewis himself would have been the first to admit, he was not a first-rank philosopher himself). Much of his political thought based on natural law can be found in his fiction, especially the “Space Trilogy.”

Lewis was an expert on medieval and Renaissance times, as well as being fully conversant with all classical literature in the original Greek and Latin (while his education may be have been more extensive than normal for the time, one of the many decays of the modern world is the loss of this level of education. For his book on 16th Century literature, Lewis read every single 16th Century book in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. They don’t say how many that is, but given that today the Bodleian Library is England’s second-largest library, with 11 million books, it must have been a large number.) Anyway, Lewis identified a “turn” in the early modern era, in the Sixteenth Century, when political thinkers began to abandon the classical and medieval principles of reason discerning the right, concluding, after another turn, instead with the modern principles of will determining what is right, as Hobbes and his descendants would have it.

Lewis distinguished between magicians, who sought power over nature (presumably such men as John Dee of Mortlake) and astrologers, who “proclaimed nature’s power over man,” and who merely sought to discern the fates ordained for men. Both are represented today—the former by the materialist scientist; the latter by the philosophical materialist. Both deny the nature of man and therefore natural law. Lewis attacked various modern rejections of natural law, including Rousseau’s forced conformity to the so-called general will. His essential target was moral subjectivism and relativism, which he (correctly) found to be inevitable if one rejects the natural law (although, presumably, Lewis would have accepted the alternate non-subjective Barthian measuring stick of Scripture in preference to modern pure subjectivism based on the will of whoever holds power). Instead, as most fully developed in “The Abolition Of Man,” Lewis called for right ordering of the human soul, as apprehended by reason, in the light of conscience. For some, this right ordering is very difficult to discern, due to their contumacy or depravity, but for every person, it is achievable, and without acceptance of Christianity, because of the natural law. (In fact, Lewis believed that the world would not re-discover objective morality through Christianity; rather, it only be able to return to Christianity when it had re-discovered objective morality, for “Christianity . . . is addressed only to penitents, only to those who admit their disobedience to the known moral law.”)

According to Dyer and Watson, somewhat surprisingly, Lewis’s core applied political philosophy that resulted from his deep thinking was not monarchy or some form of centralized moral guidance by the optimates. Instead, he strongly endorsed Lockean liberalism. Lewis saw that in “every age those who wish to be our masters . . . secure our obedience by offering deliverance from our dominant fear.” Those who wish to be our masters, that is, cannot be trusted, whether they are kings, priests, or, in the modern day, scientists. Democracy was desirable because everyone was bad and nobody could be trusted with significant lasting power, not because people were good or everyone should share in government. Democracy was most likely to meet the limited end of government, promoting “the ordinary happiness of humans in this life.” Whether Lewis was fully right that democracy was most likely to meet this end is perhaps a topic for another day. Even in 1942, in “The Screwtape Letters,” Lewis complained of the over-reach and intrusion of government, that would not let a man build a shed on his own property. What would he make of today’s overweening and tyrannical administrative state in America, much less the post-Christian and pre-Islamic monstrosity that occupies the place where Britain used to be?

It is not that Christianity dictates any particular political system or political action. Christianity dictates ends, both those that are required of Christians (such as to feed the poor) and those that may not be dictated but are either morally permissible or impermissible. A monarchy can feed the poor, as can a democracy. Finding the best method, and such questions as state action as opposed to private action, is up to us, not dictated by Christianity. Nor, contrary to Thomistic thought, are common goods the most important thing; instead, individual flourishing is just as important, if not more important, and the state must be ordered to maximize such flourishing.

Beyond this, though, too much mixing Christianity with the state is bad for both. “Theocracy is the worst of all governments . . . the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.”

All this seems pretty clear from Dyer and Watson’s exposition. As they note, what is less clear is how Lewis would apply this to retail politics, or if it could really be applied at all to retail politics in a post-Christian country, as Lewis already recognized Britain in the 1950s. To the extent Christians had political power, in the few examples known, Lewis strongly recommended against imposing Christian morality. Lewis stated that “[n]o sin, simply as such, should be made a crime.” He did not think the state should forbid divorce (even prior to his meeting Joy Gresham) and, topically for today, he did not think homosexual acts were any concern of the State at all. This “hands off” approach (which the authors think looks very much like Mill’s “harm principle,” though not in order to achieve maximum pleasure, as Mills believed, or individual autonomy as such, as the soon-to-be forgotten John Rawls, in effect the apostle of the subjectivism Lewis abhorred, believed) held for Lewis both in what should be criminal, or discouraged by the state, and what should be encouraged by the state through education. “Programmatic” education inculcating Christian morality was worse than nothing; “Lewis concluded that Christians would do better to work on the small and individual scale by creating private, independent, and genuinely Christian schools; raising Christian children in Christian families; and evangelizing to adult neighbors and teens.” Lewis, of course, did not see the modern attempts by the new religion of secular progressivism to eliminate the private space and force celebration of actions held immoral by Christians, on pain of severe punishment. However, perhaps, given his dim view of how people act when given power over others, he would not be surprised that “hands off” tends not to work in practice, because men who seek power almost always seek to control others with that power.

This is not a Lewis hagiography, and it’s at this point that becomes most clear. The authors criticize Lewis, if gently, for various failings and inadequacies in his writings relating to politics, including his famous essay “Why I Am Not A Pacifist.” Mostly this relates to his refusal or inability to translate his principles into any program at all that would allow a Christian to determine his duty in any particular political question. Lewis did offer a framework, in his “Pacifist” essay, but the authors, and others sympathetic to Lewis, seem to generally believe it inadequate at best, self-contradictory at worst. Lewis also half-endorsed Jacques Maritain’s idea of a “Christian veto”—membership in no party, much less leadership, but examining each political offering based on its adherence to Christian morality. However, this seemed impractical then and even more impractical today, with the wide divergence in Christian views, such that no impact at all could be expected from such a plan of action. Ultimately, Dyer and Watson note that Lewis prioritized “the personal over the programmatic,” and for Lewis, “the truly Christian witness in the political world will be found in the sort of people Christians are called to be: fallen, redeemed, loved, and loving God and neighbors as themselves.”

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