I often stop and ask myself the curious question: “What Would C. S. Lewis say?”
He was, after all, one of the greatest normative thinkers of the 20th century. Lewis, “Jack” to his friends and associates, was a respected scholar and don at Oxford University for three decades and then a professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge University, until the end of his career.
Lewis once said, “I am a (small d) democrat because I believe in the fall of Man . . . Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.“
An atheist throughout his early life, he adopted theism and converted to Christianity in 1931. A talented debater and writer, Lewis wrote many fictional, didactic, and devotional works in addition to his sizable academic production. He is not generally known as a political or economic pundit, although he gave some heartening and upbeat radio speeches during the darkest hours of World War II, later published as Mere Christianity. He usually avoided overly partisan commitments; indeed, he turned down a title offered him by Winston Churchill, thinking his critics would use it to accuse him of being a government propagandist.
In spite of his indifference to politics as such, he did often give prescient analyses of a variety of social and political topics. One example is Lewis’ sharp criticism of what he termed “the omnicompetent state,” that is, the modern welfare state that promises a universal curative for all of society’s ills.
He saw it as antithetical to human freedom and the institutions that preserve it, and instead favored a regime of limited government. He was suspicious of technological advancement, but only because he thought technology in the hands of the omnicompetent state would result in widespread, pervasive tyranny. He noted that the lure of the welfare state is understandable in the face of seemingly limitless human suffering, yet he exhorted his readers to be wary of the purveyors of “utopian dreams.” He instead promoted the good actions of responsible individual citizens engaging the challenge of living in a fallen and dark world, stating, “the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.”
Lewis expressed concern that the modern state could undermine human freedom and dignity should policymakers adopt a modern social science approach to governance. He also doubted the ability of any government to permanently reshape and subordinate a nation’s citizenry. Lewis viewed government overreach parading as scientific governance as the major threat to human freedom in modern society in our times.
Lewis lived at a time when science was emerging as the dominant system of thought in the Western world, when the technological spin-offs of that intellectual activity were fundamentally transforming every aspect of life. Reflecting on this in his 1954 inaugural lecture at Cambridge University, he declared:
The sciences long remained like a lion-cub whose gambols delighted its master in private; it had not yet tasted man’s blood. All through the eighteenth century . . . science was not the business of Man because Man had not yet become the business of science. It dealt chiefly with the inanimate; and it threw off few technological byproducts. When Watt makes his engine, Darwin starts monkeying with the ancestry of Man, and Freud with his soul, then indeed the lion will have got out of its cage.
As we know from Lewis’ beloved Narnia tales, a free lion does not pose a threat so long as it is true—like Aslan. But Lewis did not view science as a source of neutral truths about nature. For example, in The Discarded Image, Lewis wrote about the differences between the medieval and modern models of nature.
Viewing modern science as a reflection of its age, rather than a method for finding truth, does not necessarily transform it into a threat to freedom. But Lewis’ dark foreboding about the direction of modern culture and civilization inevitably cast a shadow over the sciences, which represent our civilization’s defining achievement. At least three bases for this concern run through most of Lewis’ writings.
Lewis feared that the reductionist tendency of modern science undermined moral reasoning, human dignity, and religious faith. In a sweeping statement from his academic masterwork, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis declared that modern science “substituted a mechanical for a genial or animistic conception of the universe. The world was emptied, first of her indwelling spirits, then of her occult sympathies and antipathies, finally of her colors, smells and tastes.”
Reason is thus viewed as a product of non-rational nature. This undermines moral reasoning because our moral judgments depend on our reasoning, and if our reasoning is not grounded in the rational, then neither are our moral judgments. Moral reasoning is then stripped of any claims to truth, in the rational sense. Accordingly, the scientific naturalist must say, as Lewis put it in Miracles, “there is no such thing as wrong and right, I admit that no moral judgment can be ‘true’ or ‘correct’ and, consequently, that no one system of morality can be better or worse than another.”
This line of thinking inevitably results in moral relativism, which diminishes human distinctiveness by asserting that human values, theories, and even religious beliefs are subjective rather than objective.
As Lewis expressed it in The Discarded Image, “Always century by century, item after item is transferred from the object’s side of the account to the subject’s. And now, in some extreme forms of behaviorism, the subject himself is discounted as merely subjective; we can only think that we think. Having eaten up everything else, he eats himself up too. And where we ‘go from that’ is a dark question.”
Brooding on this dark question in Present Concerns, Lewis wrote of scientific reductionism. While we were reducing the world to almost nothing we deceived ourselves with the fancy that all its lost qualities were being kept safe (if in a somewhat humbled condition) as ‘things in our own mind.’” But he added, “Just as we have been broken of our bad habit of personifying trees, so [modern sciences say] we must now be broken of our bad habit of personifying men . . . The subject is as empty as the object.”
Religious faith is the ultimate victim of this way of thinking, as expressed in the words of Lewis’ scientific protagonist in God in the Dock:
‘Miracles,’ said my friend, ‘Oh, come. Sciences have knocked the bottom out of all that. We know that fixed laws govern Nature . . .I mean, the ‘Laws of Nature’ tell us not merely how things do happen but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them . . . The whole picture of the universe which science has given us makes it such rot to believe that the Power at the back of it all could be interested in us tiny little creatures crawling on an unimportant planet!
Science leads to technologies, which Lewis believed would be utilized regardless of their detrimental impact on humans. In general, Lewis was neutral toward the so-called advance of modern technology which logically followed from his view, expressed in The World’s Last Night, that, “In my opinion, the modern concept of Progress . . . is simply a myth, supported by no evidence whatsoever.”
In answer to the question, “Is Progress Possible?” he wrote about technology:
We shall grow able to cure, and to produce, more diseases—bacterial war, not bombs, might bring down the curtain—to alleviate, and to inflict, more pains, to husband, or to waste, the resources of the planet more extensively. We can become neither more beneficent nor more mischievous. My guess is we shall do both; mending one thing and marring another, removing old miseries and producing new ones, safeguarding ourselves here and endangering ourselves there.
Lewis does acknowledge that, for good or for ill, technology gives humans more power over nature. In That Hideous Strength, he portrayed a brave new high-tech world where something ought to be done simply because it can be done. Thus, at one point, the science professor explains that a particular activity “is justified by the fact that it is occurring, and ought to be increased because an increase is taking place.” When Lewis’ hero questions the moral implications of the activity, the professor replies, “The judgment you are trying to make turns out on inspection to be simply an expression of emotion.” So viewed, technology is not answerable to any higher standard. Its sole parameter is—the possible.
Lewis was also convinced that scientific authority would be used to justify and facilitate political oppression. In That Hideous Strength, Lewis observed, “The physical sciences, good and innocent in themselves, had already . . . begun to be warped, and been subtly maneuvered in a certain direction. Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration upon mere power, had been the result.”
For Lewis, the threat here is quite real. Commenting on this book, which is so damning of modern science, Lewis later wrote, “‘Scientists as such are not the target . . . What we are obviously up against throughout the story is not scientists but officials.” This is an important distinction for Lewis. Scientific planning is not necessarily always evil, “but under modern conditions any effective invitation to Hell will certainly appear in the guise of scientific planning—as Hitler’s regime in fact did.” Elaborating on this theme in God in the Dock, Lewis concluded, “Again, the new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim of knowledge.”
In this sense, Lewis perceived science as the ultimate threat to freedom in modern society. He saw threats to freedom on every side and in that regard he was a prophet of the consequences of postmodernism.
It is timely in light of the events of recent times to reassess the contribution of Lewis to the cause of liberty. When you look at samples across all his diverse writings, in a period when his work, The Chronicles of Narnia, have been made into film epochs you see the breadth of his thinking and its huge contribution to maintaining a responsible and free society.
Indeed, it would behoove us to rediscover the wealth and depth of Lewisian thinking. C.S. Lewis’s huge corpus covers a vast range of works, many of which are relevant to freedom and the leftist attack on it. Those themes revolve around the threats to freedom, the omnipotent state, reductionism and human nature, reason and relativism, the temptations of technology, and the politics of oppression.
Put simply, for Lewis, life had become too politicized. Political correctness and political ideology have become the final word. In the process, reason and prudence have been lost. And the state is more and more an organ for the oppression of mankind and the diminution of liberty.