C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law
by justin buckley dyer and micah j. watson
cambridge, 170 pages, $44.99
Of the making of books about C. S. Lewis there is no end. Although interest in his thought receded somewhat in the decade or so after his death in 1963, it gradually recovered, has grown enormously, and shows no signs of diminishing. What, then, if anything, might this book by Dyer and Watson provide that is not already well known?
While it is true that they cover much well-trodden ground along the way, they provide a clear, concise, and informative treatment of an aspect of Lewis’s thought that has been less studied. Lewis is not generally thought of as a political thinker. Indeed, apart from a few casual essays available in collections of his shorter writings, he wrote very little about the sort of questions that make up our day-to-day political debates. Still more, Lewis showed relatively little interest in politics and on occasion expressed actual dislike of it.
All true, Dyer and Watson grant. Although, near the end of the book, they discuss a few political positions that Lewis actively espoused, they acknowledge that he “took little interest in transitory policy questions.” What does that leave for them to write a book about? “Lewis did have much to say about the underlying foundations of a just political order.”
Their analysis begins, however, pretty far from politics with a discussion of Lewis’s defense of reason and rational argument. The basis for this defense they find in a view of human reason as created by God and, though now darkened by sin, by no means powerless or utterly depraved. Neither classical philosophy’s depiction of nature as “a causally closed system” nor an evolutionary account of human nature produced by nonrational forces could, Lewis thought, explain our reliance on reason in both theoretical and practical argument. What is “higher” and rational could not, in his view, be produced by “lower,” nonrational causes. Lewis developed this argument most fully in Miracles—fully enough, in fact, that he rewrote a chapter of the book in order to respond to criticisms Elizabeth Anscombe had offered.
As to how far this argument can take us, I am a little less confident than Dyer and Watson. By my lights, even Lewis’s refined statement of his case may have blurred the distinction between reasons and causes. For example, diagnosed with psychological illness and hospitalized for ongoing care, I may suppose myself to be president of the United States and spend my time proposing foreign policy initiatives for the country. My reasoning on these matters may be impeccable—solidly grounded and persuasive. Whatever nonrational causes may account for my policy proposals, the presence of such causes does not make my reasoning any less valid.
The bigger problem, however, is that the rational powers we exercise are not only created but also fallen. Our knowledge of right and wrong, and our ability to reason about such matters, must surely be distorted by sin. While not denying that, Lewis did not think it made sense to suppose that fallen reason is completely unreliable. After all, unless we assume at least some capacity to reason reliably, how could we make any judgment about the extent to which our rational powers have been darkened by sin? Nevertheless, what reason is able to perceive depends to a large extent upon the will, not just the mind. Anyone who remembers the dwarfs (who are obstinately unable to see the feast Aslan spreads before them) in The Last Battle will realize how a will disordered by sin can undermine our ability to understand the truth.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis may not have taken this distorting effect of a sinful will as seriously as he should have. For example, he says the law of nature was called that “because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it.” This tends to obscure the distinction between thinking that the basic moral truths are self-evident and thinking that they are obvious. To say that they are self-evident is to say that their truth is not grounded in or proven by any other, more fundamental truths. They shine by their own light, as Lewis says. But this does not necessarily mean that they are obvious or that no one needs to be taught them. For they may not be at all obvious to those who, like the dwarfs, will not see.
Lewis was more careful in his 1943 Riddell Memorial Lectures at Durham, which were published in the deceptively small book The Abolition of Man. This is a more penetrating book than it might appear to the casual reader, and Dyer and Watson’s discussion of it in their fourth chapter is, in my view, the best part of their book. They clarify the structure of Lewis’s argument, connecting it nicely to the concept of natural law. Although the moral law is the law of our human nature, only the virtuous can know it, because only they love “what is true and good and beautiful.” That is why Lewis’s Durham lectures were about moral education. We will see the self-evident (but not obvious) truths of morality only if we have been “educated in virtue from an early age.” If, on the other hand, we think of the moral law not as truth to be discerned but as subjective preference, the conquest of nature so characteristic of modernity will end in the conquest of human nature.
Helpful as this explication is, I have to say that it is framed rather unfortunately by the third chapter’s attempt to set Lewis’s defense of natural law over against Karl Barth’s well-known rejection of it. On the whole, Dyer and Watson (unlike many who write on Lewis) make good use of his long scholarly volume English Literature in the Sixteenth Century excluding Drama. But a passing reference in it to the “Barthianism” of the Puritans is a slender reed on which to interpret Lewis’s commitment to natural law as a “response to Barth” or, at another place, as “contrary to Barth.” To be sure, Barth did reject natural law, but there is little evidence that Lewis read widely in Barth. For the most part, their concerns were different. Barth’s rejection of natural law was grounded in his Christology, and Lewis does not frame the issue that way. He was not responding to Barth; he was coming at the question of natural law from a different angle.
Although Lewis had little to say about most policy issues in the politics of his day, and although he produced no detailed discussion of political theory, Dyer and Watson argue persuasively that one can find in his work “a framework for thinking about politics.” Strikingly, despite Lewis’s scholarly immersion in medieval and Renaissance literature, and despite his undeniable attraction to the (hierarchical) medieval model of the universe, his own approach, they write, “endorsed a version of John Locke’s social contract theory to ground political legitimacy” and “adopted a version of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle in his approach to questions about the legislation of morality.”
Although, as Lewis acknowledged, some human beings may by nature be ordered to govern others, the natural order has been so disturbed by sin that none of us is any longer fit to be the master of others. Thus, Lewis’s commitment to democratic rule was grounded less in a belief in a general capacity of people for wisdom and justice than it was in a sense that none of us could be trusted with too much power over others. Therefore, despite his deep immersion in and commitment to classical thought, Lewis turned away from its vision of political authority as educative and perfecting. “In lowering the aim of government and limiting its perfecting role,” Dyer and Watson write, “Locke’s theory addressed Lewis’s main fear about the trajectory of modern government: that it will 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.’”
This makes the work of government primarily negative, restraining the tendency all sinful human beings have to mistreat others. Nevertheless, Dyer and Watson might have wondered whether on Lewis’s own view—namely, his belief that reason is fallen but not utterly depraved or incapable—there could not be some positive role, even if a limited one, for government. One thinks of Reinhold Niebuhr’s oft-cited aphorism: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Convinced as Lewis was about the inclination to injustice, his entire moral theory makes clear that he could not entirely deny that we also possess at least some capacity for justice. Had he written more than occasional essays on politics, this secondary emphasis might have made its presence felt. What is clear, however, even from those occasional essays, is that Lewis was reluctant to endorse legal coercion aimed at enforcing certain moral views held by Christians but not shared by their fellow citizens. Hence, he did not want to prohibit divorce or criminalize homosexual activity (which is not the same as endorsing same-sex “marriage”). At any rate, these are examples of what Dyer and Watson mean when they suggest that Lewis, like Mill, was reluctant to forbid activity that, while morally wrong, did not (he thought) harm others.
I wish, though, that they had developed what they call “a Lewisian approach to Christian political life in a post-Christian culture” without relying so heavily on Lewis’s essay “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought.” Lewis almost always wrote sparkling prose, but even Homer nods, and this is surely one of the most pedestrian essays ever penned by Lewis. With good reason, it was never published in his lifetime. Most of us have the good fortune to be unimportant enough that we can trash things we have written if we decide they aren’t very good. Lewis did not have such good fortune, and in this case it is a pity.
Nevertheless, Dyer and Watson have provided an excellent point of entry into Lewis’s approach to political questions, making good on their claim that “his writings—fiction and nonfiction alike—are saturated with the enduring themes of Western political philosophy.” Too bad for potential readers, therefore, that Cambridge University Press could not have priced this book more reasonably!
Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University and a fellow of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.