CS Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law, by Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J Watson, Cambridge University Press, 2016
At the end of September, well over a hundred American conservative thinkers, styling themselves Scholars and Writers for America, signed a statement of support for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. This was a significant intervention, as many conservatives and even Republican leaders are openly opposed to Trump, on the grounds of his political unreliability as well as his character. While no doubt sincere, the signatories were also effectively thumbing their noses at those who insist only the uneducated or bigoted could support Trump. These are intellectuals who have reasoned their way to supporting Trump – ‘Given our choices in the presidential election’ – presumably because they believe it is Hillary Clinton who must be stopped at all costs.
Especially significant was the fact that some of the signatories are serious Christians, like Rusty Reno and Mark Bauerlein of the conservative Christian journal First Things. Donald Trump identifies as a Christian, but can hardly be seen as a credible ‘religious right’ candidate. Many conservatives who oppose him cite religious reasons for doing so, including objections to his philandering, (not unrelated) doubts about his seriousness as a Christian, and questions about the ethics of his stated policies. Many American Christians are now asking themselves afresh what their faith should mean for their politics.
The recent publication of CS Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law is perhaps timely, then. While Lewis is best remembered in his own country as the author of the Narnia books for children, he is a hugely influential figure among American Christian thinkers. And as the authors show, everything he wrote was ultimately meant to serve a religious purpose. Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J Watson are professors of political science at the University of Missouri and Calvin College, Michigan respectively. Their interest in CS Lewis as a political thinker may seem eccentric, but they begin by challenging the conventional wisdom that Lewis was not interested in politics. And despite the fact that Lewis said himself he was not political, they make a convincing case in a well-crafted book that should appeal to all admirers of Lewis’ work.
Lewis was not involved in party politics, and tended to despair when he considered it, a sentiment that will resonate all too well with American voters today. But he was certainly interested in broader questions about the good life, about values and about the relationship between citizens and the state, all of which have important political consequences. And as Dyer and Watson show, his thinking about these things was inseparable from his theology. Nonetheless, for Lewis, religious belief was not to be counterposed to reason. On the contrary, it was the foundation of reason.
Christianity and reason
This traditional Christian understanding is of course directly at odds with contemporary secular thought. The authors use the political philosopher Thomas Pangle as a foil for Lewis. For Pangle, human reason since Socrates has been about ‘the deeply gratifying, progressive discovery of the unfaltering and unalterable attributes and causal relations that define the beings that make up our perceived world,’ while in contrast, Christianity suggests everything is the result of ‘an unfathomable and totally autonomous will’ that is inscrutable to human reason. In this view, religion can only be a malign influence on our thinking, and any political ideals or convictions derived from it cannot be reliable, because they are not subject to reason.
For Lewis, however, it is a fully materialistic view that unwittingly renders human reason unreliable. Only belief in a creator God, who meant us to make sense of the world, can give us confidence that we are competent to reason about it. If we evolved from nothing for no reason, this confidence dissolves. Dyer and Watson quote Charles Darwin himself, who once wrote to a friend, ‘With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy’.
Lewis built on this doubt, noting that scientists have to assume the validity and reliability of human reason, but have no solid grounds for doing so. As Lewis put it, in strictly naturalistic terms, reason is no more than an ‘epiphenomenon which accompanies chemical or electric events in a cortex which is itself the by-product of a blind evolutionary process’. We form beliefs in such a way that aids our survival, but cannot ultimately have any confidence that they are true.
The alternative to believing in a creator God, without abandoning belief in reason, is simply to assert that reason exists in nature – in us and in the orderliness we observe around us – without claiming to understand why or how. Dyer and Watson cite the philosopher Thomas Nagel as a representative of this position. But for Lewis, the fact that nature is rationally intelligible implied a mind outside nature – which must have existed before human minds – and which cannot be accounted for even by non-materialistic ‘philosophic naturalism’. He described rationality as ‘the little tell-tale rift in Nature which shows that there is something beyond or behind her’. This is ‘the argument from reason’
The same goes for morality. For Lewis and other Christian apologists, the so-called Problem of Evil – the question of how a good God can allow bad things to happen – makes no sense unless we assume some ultimate standard of good. Without one, we cannot even say that anything is wrong with the world. And yet we clearly can and do. So the argument is that, taken together, the doctrines of Creation and Fall give us the most reasonable explanation for the state of the world: God created a good world, including creatures whose God-given free will and rationality necessarily introduced the possibility of evil, and we chose badly. The result is that we are fallen, corrupted. Not right.
Perhaps the crux of the book is what this means for our rationality. As the authors put it, ‘the doctrine of the fall gives us reason to question the reliability of our reason, ironically putting the Christian in the same boat as the reductive materialist’. Lewis’ answer echoed the argument from reason: ‘if “our depravity were total, we would not know ourselves to be depraved”’. In this, he took aim at a pessimistic theology often associated with Calvinism, but as the authors note, Calvin himself agreed that ‘no man is devoid of the light of reason’. Total depravity (of every part of humanity) does not mean complete depravity.
Indeed: ‘In “matters of policy and economy, all mechanical arts and liberal studies,” Calvin maintained, man’s unregenerate mind can and does labor and make progress; people of different faiths across temporal and spatial boundaries can therefore reason together about earthly matters, including political organization’. Even Calvin, often maligned as a theocrat, was open in principle to the possibility of secular politics. Lewis’ real target was the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, who responded to the horrors spawned by the secular politics of 20th century Germany by rejecting any pretensions to the reliability of human reason unguided by the revealed truth of Christianity. When depraved humanity tried to get along without God, the result was Nazism.
Lewis responded by reasserting a version of the Christian Natural Law tradition. In a 1941 BBC radio address (the first of a series later published as Mere Christianity), he asked his war-weary listeners, ‘What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practised?’.
And for Lewis, the challenge to the idea of an objective right and wrong, apparent to everyone, did not come only from ‘a dreadful man called Karl Barth’, but also from the other direction, from secular thought, and not only of the Nazi variety: ‘Many a ‘popular planner’ on a democratic platform, many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means. He believes that “good” means whatever men are conditioned to approve.’
For Lewis, politics in the everyday sense was a secondary matter. What really mattered was whether a particular policy or goal could be justified with reference to certain moral precepts that had been passed down and developed over the centuries, not only in Christianity but in every human civilisation. Indeed, he referred to this tradition as ‘the Tao’, a Chinese term meaning the way or path. These are first principles, platitudes even, that cannot sensibly be argued with except from ‘inside’.
‘Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticising either the Tao or anything else,’ Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, a pamphlet whose title describes what will happen if we seriously question the fundamental values common to all humanity. It sounds like a deeply conservative sentiment, reactionary even, but then who does not want to conserve our humanity? And crucially, while Lewis provides a selection of quotations from a variety of traditions to illustrate the natural law, he nowhere attempts to codify it definitively, and he allows that there is room for moral and social progress within the Tao.
Indeed, it is impossible to think of a political movement historically that has not made its claims with reference to recognisably traditional moral precepts, even when challenging others. Lewis explained, ‘The legitimate reformer endeavours to show that the precept in question conflicts with some other precept which its defenders allow to be more fundamental, or that it does not really embody the judgement of value it professes to embody’. Of course, that’s just a description of ordinary moral reasoning. It is not nearly as mystical as ‘the Tao’ makes it sound. But in fact, ordinary moral reasoning is all Lewis wanted to defend in The Abolition of Man. He did not ask people to accept a specifically Christian ethics or any kind of religiously inspired morality.
Lewis did, however, object to the modern tendency to turn the tables on the author of the Tao. Historically, from primitive man onwards, people had thought of God as a judge, and themselves as under his judgement. But modern man was too pleased with himself, too sure of his moral superiority to his ancestors and their often outdated beliefs. Even if man was a sympathetic judge as he surveyed the world’s religions, it was God who was in the dock – while moral precepts were to be put under the microscope.
Just as Lewis challenged the modern view that reason is a human invention, he insisted that morality is not something we make up ourselves. And he believed that, because of the fallenness of man, anyone facing up to the objectivity of the natural law would be forced to accept that they were in breach of it. As he wrote in Mere Christianity, ‘It is after you have realised that there is a Moral Law and a Power behind that law, and that you have broken the law and put yourself wrong with that Power – it is after this and not a moment sooner, that Christianity begins to talk’.
As long as people doubted the reality of the Tao, and consequently failed to appreciate their own situation as sinners, Christianity had little to say to them. This had profound consequences for Lewis’ own calling as a Christian author. As Dyer and Watson note, ‘How to proclaim the good news changes when the target audience does not believe in the bad news’. For Lewis, fiction was a means for moral education. The authors quote the Lewis scholar Gilbert Meilaender, who wrote that his fiction, ‘can be understood as an attempt to provide compelling Christian images which might shape and mold men’s thinking about the kind of life they live and the kind they ought to live’.
CS Lewis’ politics
The closest Lewis came to overtly political fiction was the final novel in his sadly neglected ‘space trilogy’, That Hideous Strength. This is a kind of satire of post-war technocracy, in which the sinister National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (NICE, but not that NICE) goes to ever more diabolical extremes. As Dyer and Watson explain, ‘What Lewis dubbed “scientocracy” – a form of government in which the claimed power to rule is premised on technological or scientific prowess divorced from traditional moral norms – was, he insisted, the gravest threat to freedom in the modern world’.
Lewis was suspicious of the grand claims of politicians to be able to banish sickness and hunger. He feared that an ever more powerful state would, ‘increasingly concentrate and deploy technological power to trample private rights under the paternalistic theory that government ought to “do us good or make us good”’. The authors describe Lewis as a kind of Lockean liberal, then, for whom the state acts only by the consent of the people, and the people are wise to limit its power.
As someone above all concerned with the sinful nature of mankind, Lewis favoured democracy not because he was enthusiastic about popular rule, but because he was even less enthusiastic about the idea of elites accumulating power for themselves. And he was as much opposed to theocracy as to technocracy, since the former threatened to corrupt religious thought as well as tyrannising the people.
While Lewis toyed with the idea that the churches might draw up a list of minimal positions on moral questions that should be binding for all Christian voters, he did not endorse anything like a US-style religious right. Indeed, Dyer and Watson note that some conservative admirers might be surprised at his rejection of the idea that the state should impose Christian ideas about divorce, religious education or homosexuality on non-Christians (‘I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine’). Lewis’ politics were conservative with an emphatically small ‘c’ – restrained, unambitious, cautious.
So to answer the admittedly facetious title of this essay, no. If he were alive and an American citizen, CS Lewis would almost certainly not vote for Donald Trump next month. The bombastic hubris of ‘making America great again’, the almost blasphemous claim that ‘I alone can fix it’, the clearly defective moral reasoning – we need not even get on to that video. But it is just as unimaginable that Lewis would have voted for Hillary Clinton, who embodies much more than Trump does the haughtily ‘progressive’ technocratic arrogance he feared, and who is all too easy to imagine as a character from That Hideous Strength.
Instead, I suspect Lewis would have taken comfort from his belief that this world is not the only one, and not the one that ultimately matters. Sorry if that’s not much help on election day.
I will be speaking on two panels related to the above at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 22-23 October.