C.S. LEWIS ON POLITICS AND THE NATURAL LAW
by Justin Dyer and Micah J. Watson
Cambridge UP, Cambridge
Paperback: 172 pages
Reviewed by Brian Coman
“Of the making of books” said the scribe in Ecclesiastes, “there is no end”. This is, no doubt true and no more so than in the case of books about C.S. Lewis. Each year seems to bring one or more new books about Lewis and/or of his writings.
It is hardly surprising. In general Christian theology and philosophy, not to mention his ever-popular children’s books, perhaps no other 20th-century author in the English speaking world has enjoyed as much popularity as Lewis. Most of his books have been in print continuously for almost three-quarters of a century. Add to this the continuing popularity of his science fiction trilogy, and you begin to understand why new books about Lewis and his ideas keep on appearing year after year.
The title of the book under review here indicates that it will deal, in large part, with Lewis’ politics. Given that Lewis had little interest in politics and is on record as saying so, the authors have set themselves a seemingly impossible task. Indeed, they admit that Lewis had very little to say, at least publicly, about politics. Nonetheless, they wish to argue that, implicit in much of Lewis’ writings is a political philosophy which (they claim) has affinities to the political writings of John Locke (1632–1704) and, to a lesser extent, of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). This would have Lewis as being liberal in political outlook. This, to me, seems a very doubtful proposition but, of course, much depends on one’s particular interpretation of the word “liberal”.
In any case, the great value of this book – and it is a very valuable book for anyone interested in Lewis – lies not in its commentary on Lewis’ “hidden” politics, but in its excellent summary of Lewis’ general philosophy and especially his ideas on natural law. In fact, only one chapter in the book deals specifically with politics and the rest are largely concerned with the subject matter of Lewis’ better-known books, especially The Abolition of Man. This makes the book extremely valuable as a sort of primer for those not familiar with Lewis’ writings on Christianity and its relation to philosophy, especially moral philosophy.
At the same time, devotees of Lewis who are already familiar with most of his better-known works in this area will find many new insights – clear connections between Lewis’ “serious” works and his children’s books and science fiction books. Especially important here is the commentary on That Hideous Strength, the third of his science fiction books.
No one put it better than that crusty old journalist, H.L. Mencken: “Off goes the head of the king, and tyranny gives way to freedom. The change seems abysmal. Then, bit by bit, the face of freedom hardens, and by and by it is the old face of tyranny. Then another cycle, and another. But under the play of all these opposites there is something fundamental and permanent – the basic delusion that men may be governed and yet be free.”
Secular liberalism, as envisaged by J.S. Mill and others, suffers from what one might regard as a sort of auto-immune disease. Many years ago Leszek Kolakowski wrote an important essay entitled “The Self-Poisoning of the Open Society” and, at about the same time, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote of “The Great Liberal Death Wish”. More recently, Ryszard Legutko published The Demon in Democracy (see the story, “Rights bereft of obligation”, in News Weekly in the April 22, 2017, issue). In all of these works, the inherent problems of a laisse faire liberal democratic system are exposed and the great “liberalisers” are shown to become tyrants themselves.
Lewis himself was very aware of the problem too. Even the authors of this book admit this. “Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death,” said Lewis. He also supposed that “democracy always in the end destroys education”. (both these quotes come from the book).
One can understand why Dyer and Watson wish to establish Lewis as a liberal. America (they are both Americans) was largely founded upon that tradition. But we too easily forget that the liberalism of the past did not jettison its Christian heritage and it was precisely for this reason that it worked so well – the old Christian moral framework served to curb its tendency towards excesses. With that framework now in tatters, the whole edifice is decidedly shaky. Lewis could see the looming problem.
In summary, C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law is a worthwhile acquisition for anyone interested in Lewis and his ideas. However, the contention that Lewis was a sort of closet liberal, holding ideas associated with the political philosophies of John Locke and J.S. Mill, is a dubious one to say the least.