Politics According to C.S. Lewis

It’s no secret that Clive Staples Lewis remains, over a half-century after his death, a superstar among American evangelicals. Nor is it much of a secret that American evangelicals have more than a passing interest in politics. It may therefore come as some surprise that Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson’s new Cambridge University Press book, C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law, is one of the first book-length treatments of Lewis’ political thought.

In their opening chapter Dyer and Watson provide some biographical background and attribute this dearth of scholarship to a widespread assumption that Lewis was apolitical, and their book operates in part as an extended rebuttal of this view. Lewis was certainly no policy wonk, but we need not be familiar with the entirety of his considerable corpus to know that he had strong thoughts on moral philosophy and human nature—thoughts which inevitably have political ramifications. The overarching aim of the book, however, is to unearth Lewis’ views on matters political and show why they are compelling and worthy of modern readers’ consideration.

Chapters two through six each introduces and defends a different strand of Lewis’ thought. They generally proceed in a roughly dialectical manner: an issue is introduced via the views of one or two thinkers, Lewis’ contrary position is drawn out in response (with focus usually kept on one or two of Lewis’ works), and the competing perspectives are evaluated, with Lewis’ view emerging victorious.

Before a direct discussion of Lewis on politics commences, we are treated to his ontological and epistemological thinking as preparation for his thoughts on law and politics. The authors begin by asking whether the universe was supernaturally created. Materialism (represented by Darwin and Dawkins) answers no, there is nothing but matter, and “philosophic rationalism” (personified by Pangle and Nagel) agrees that the the universe is uncaused but holds that reason eternally exists apart from the material world. Looking to Lewis’ Miracles and “The Poison of Subjectivism,” Dyer and Watson explain why Lewis disagreed: he saw the first view as self-defeating and the second as unjustified. Lewis thought a supernaturally created order was necessary for humanity to have a good justification for trusting its powers of reason. This discussion is the least interesting portion of the book; Lewis’ views on creation are well-known, and the arguments rehearsed will be familiar to most readers.

But the book’s discussion of Lewis’ “argument from reason” leads directly to a far more interesting question: does the Christian doctrine of the Fall render reason unreliable, and, if so, is divine revelation necessary for theological and moral knowledge? Karl Barth is Lewis’ interlocutor on this question, and he answers it with a passionate “Yes!” Barth held that the Fall so corrupted human reason that no knowledge of God or morality was possible apart from divine revelation, specifically in the person of Jesus Christ. Lewis, in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, characterized this view as something “not unlike devil worship.” He emphasized the corrupting effects of the Fall on man’s will more than its effect on his reason and, while he admitted that even reason is flawed, contended that “there is a difference between imperfect sight and blindness.”

Dyer and Watson contend that on this Lewis stood with “the centuries-old theological tradition of natural law, which had long been embraced by Catholics and Protestants alike, including such theological giants as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.” There are a couple quibbles to be taken with the authors’ claim here, and their description of this debate more generally. The first is their inattention to the long tradition of fideism (a term they omit entirely) within Christianity, beginning with (at least on some readings) Tertullian and extending through to Pascal, Bayle, and Kierkegaard. Barth was not alone in his position; indeed, Bonhoeffer espoused a similarly Christocentric (and self-consciously anti-natural law) view in his Ethics.

The second is their failure to specify precisely which kinds of truths are discernible with unaided reason. Take, for example, their claim that Calvin endorsed Lewis’ position. The French reformer maintained that “the intellect is very seldom mistaken in the general definition or essence of the matter [i.e., the proper regulation of conduct]; but that deception begins as it advances farther, namely, when it descends to particulars.” Aquinas (and his modern students) are generally willing to take reason a bit further into particulars. Dyer and Watson are able to claim such disparate thinkers as Calvin and Aquinas for Lewis’ side by leaving his stance on just how far reason goes largely undefined. This is, perhaps, no fault of the authors. As they note, Lewis was “a reluctant natural-law theorist.”

In spite of the imprecision of Lewis’ views, the authors effectively demonstrate his belief that a complete rejection of man’s unaided ability to understand morality would lead inescapably to nihilism. Framing his position by reference to Euthyphro, they explain that Lewis saw Barth’ as not only choosing the divine-command end of the dilemma, but also as rendering impossible any attempt to discern whether God’s commands are just (which is why he saw Barth’s position as tantamount to satanic genuflection). But because Lewis refused to adopt the other horn of the dilemma—he rejected the idea that God is bound by the moral law—the authors are able to identify a “deep agreement” between Lewis and Barth: both identified the Triune God as the ontological (if not epistemological) basis for ethics.

Lewis’ commitment to the natural law places him in opposition to modern ethical subjectivism (for which the authors have Bacon and Hobbes stand in). They connect Lewis’ rejection of moral subjectivism with his criticism of linguistic subjectivism in The Abolition of Man, organizing the conclusions of that essay into three: that education’s purpose is to train reason to pursue the good; that “the good” is a perceptible reality; and that linguistic and moral subjectivism will ultimately erode the foundations of civilization.

With the metaethical ground cleared, in chapters five and six Dyer and Watson finally proceed to overtly political issues. And having arrayed Lewis with the medievals and against the moderns on metaethics, they find it “puzzling” that he explicitly rejected ancient and medieval approaches to politics; he always remained an Enlightenment liberal. But they argue that rather than revealing an inconsistency in his thinking, Lewis’ works can provide a “framework for thinking about politics.” A comparison is first drawn between Lewis and Locke, who shared as common ground a belief in God, a belief in (universally accessible) natural reason, and a concomitant opposition to the idea that any society should be run on strictly Christian principles. Perhaps most importantly, the authors point out that Lewis, like Locke, conceived of the State’s purpose in distinctly individualist terms: it ” exists to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life.”

Dyer and Watson concede that Lewis’ individualistic formulation “represents a break from the classical Aristotelian and Thomistic natural-law tradition.” They often attempt to downplay the importance of this break, but its implications should not be discounted. They contend, for example, that Lewis’ belief in the natural law necessarily means that “burying our deep disagreements about the ends of politics is quixotic.” But if Lewis views government’s proper goal as relatively unobjectionable happiness-promotion, it is hard to see why he would think society’s deep disagreements need to be exhumed after all.

This break only becomes starker when the authors proceed to consider Lewis’ views on practical political issues in chapter six. They identify and discuss Lewis’ views on the criminalization of homosexuality, teaching Christianity in public schools, and the limitations on the availability of divorce. Each of these issues raises the same, difficult question: to what degree should Christians attempt to impose their vision of an ideal political community? At least with respect to these three controversies, Lewis thought Christians should not do so. The authors offer two somewhat inconsistent characterizations of Lewis’ position with respect to this broader question.

On the one hand, they describe Lewis’ views as emerging from his application of Mills’ harm principle. In an obvious attempt to reconcile this with Lewis’ ostensible commitment to natural law, they claim that Lewis is merely applying rather than categorically endorsing the harm principle; they argue that Lewis rejects Mills’ consequentialism in favor of a teleological approach that sees law’s purpose as helping human beings become a certain sort of creature. His use of the harm principle, in their view, stemmed not from an unyielding commitment to hedonism or individual autonomy but from a prudential judgment about the danger of overtly religious politics. For this point the authors rely principally on Lewis’ “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” but they could have also included the Oxford Don’s famous argument in “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”: “a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive … those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

But on the other hand they quote Lewis in one of his letters saying that “no sin, simply as such, should be made a crime.” They claim this position “falls well within the classical natural-law tradition,” but it is hard to see how it does, at least if taken at face value. In support, Dyer and Watson cite Aquinas’ famous observation that human law may appropriately limit itself to prohibiting only the most serious vices from which most people can abstain. But this citation elides the crucial distinction between holding that law should avoid counterproductive prohibitions and holding, as Lewis does, that sins merely as sins are outside the scope of the law’s purpose. For Aquinas “the purpose of the law is to lead men to virtue,” (ST Q. 96, A. 2) which includes leading them away from sins, which “being against reason, are also against nature” (ST Q. 94, A. 3.). Because the law leads to virtue “not suddenly, but gradually,” (ST Q. 96, A. 2) it may wisely refrain from punishing certain sins, but that prudential restraint should not be confused with a categorical commitment to limiting the authority of human law. Yet it is precisely this categorical commitment that Lewis seems to be making, at least in the letter Dyer and Watson excerpt.

The inconsistency between these two positions is probably best left at the feet of Lewis himself, rather than his intrepid interpreters. As they repeatedly note, Lewis was not a political philosopher and never “offered a sustained vision of a well-functioning political order.” The closest Lewis comes to providing a systematic treatment is in “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” where he offers a method by which the morality of war (and, ostensibly, anything else) may be judged. His approach involves obtaining facts through firsthand observation and consultation with respected authorities, discerning (self-evident and nearly universally held) intuitions about morality, and then using reason (along with the authorities) to combine the facts and intuitions to arrive at a moral conclusion. Dyer and Watson forthrightly note that Lewis’ arguments in this essay have been subject to serious criticism. They are willing to concede this point because they argue that the success of his argument “is tangential to whether the method he used to arrive at his conclusion is helpful.” But the criticisms, particularly those leveled against his insistence on the universal approbation historically given to just war, highlight the problem with any method that relies on appeals to controversial intuitions and contested authorities. Perhaps the reason the authors rush past this difficulty is that, viewed through the lens of the Barth-Lewis debate, it suggests the necessity of revelation for practical moral reasoning.

In any case, chapter seven turns the authors’ focus from Lewis’ political essays to his novels, particularly The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy. Here Dyer and Watson lovingly describe how these works embody Lewis’ commitment to moral education. Lewis had a gift for stoking the imagination, and these books exemplify how moral and political truths can be communicated non-propositionally.

While authors’ appreciation of Lewis’ work particularly shines through in their book’s final chapter, their intimate familiarity with Lewis’ work is evident throughout the whole of the book. Their efforts will leave readers with an urge to read (or re-read) parts of Lewis’ sizable oeuvre. This is a sign of the book’s success. One of its chief aims is to elucidate—and call upon readers to consider—Lewis’ political thought.

But the book’s second objective—to show that Lewis’ views on politics are worthy of serious attention—is largely left unattained. Lewis is certainly an influential figure, particularly among American evangelicals, but this by itself is a poor reason to look to him for assistance with thinking about politics. The authors’ consistent, candid concessions of Lewis’ lack of focused, systematic thinking on this subject—together with their apparent difficulties in imposing structure on his thought—will leave readers wondering why they should not be reading something else. They claim that “the case for studying Lewis’ political thought does not rest on demonstrating its originality,” but leave unstated where that case does rest. Those who like Lewis’ apologetics and are looking for systematic approaches to moral and political philosophy would be better served by considering, for example, the work of Oliver O’Donovan (for a broadly “Reformed” approach) and Robert George (for a more Thomistic one).

This is not to say that Lewis has nothing helpful to say about politics, only that his insights are inevitably piecemeal rather than systematic. Take his profound reflection on patriotism in The Four Loves, which could hardly speak more directly to our political moment. While elections in America and Europe seem to increasingly resemble a dispute between nationalists and globalists, his remarks constitute a powerful inoculation against the dual maladies of supercilious nationalism and shallow cosmopolitanism. He observes that a love of one’s country marked by a belief in its superiority will not just lead to “that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid,” but will also eventually destroy itself: one will come to love one’s country because it is superior, which isn’t love at all. Yet he cautions against the inclination to reject patriotism entirely. Patriotism can be a dangerous rival to a healthy spirit of charity, but it can also be charity’s helpful handmaid and stalwart support. Analogizing it to the love of one’s child or spouse, Lewis’ offers a compelling vision of patriotism: a true patriot loves his country not because it is great, but because it is his.

In this essay Lewis is at his best: eloquently imploring readers to love the right things, in the right order. And in its own way, this is the lesson of C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law. The difficulties the authors have in systematizing Lewis’ political thought illustrates just how (comparatively) little attention he paid to politics. The focus of his intellectual labors was not the question of how man should live with his fellow man, but how—and why—man should relate to his Creator.

Lewis did not think politics was unimportant, but did think it should be kept in its proper place. This is forcefully illustrated by the quotation with which the book concludes: “Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best.” During an election season that has elicited elevations of politics often bordering on the idolatrous, this warning could not be more timely.