Although it was published more than 70 years ago, C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man reads like a commentary on modern American education, sociology, and politics. With uncanny prophetic powers, Lewis, an Oxford don and Cambridge professor who never read a newspaper or set foot in America, accurately diagnosed our twenty-first-century social-political-educational ills.
At the core of Lewis’s critique lies modernity’s abandonment of all objective aesthetic, moral-ethical, and philosophical-theological standards. There is nothing essentially sublime about a waterfall; that is just a subjective preference that we project on to it. In the same way, virtues like courage and loyalty and values like patriotism and the inherent dignity of every individual are not universal absolutes written into our conscience but mere feelings and opinions.
Statements like “this is good” (as opposed to wrong) or “this is true” (as opposed to false) or “this is beautiful” (as opposed to ugly) have no factual, scientific basis and thus have no binding power outside the individual or group that makes them. The realm of objective science may be governed by unchanging laws of nature, but no such natural law exists to govern the subjective realms of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
The Tao of Lew
What this has led to in the halls of public education, the central focus of The Abolition of Man, is the debunking and dismantling of the teacher’s traditional task of training students to know, heed, and embody the universal, cross-cultural moral-ethical code—what Lewis calls the Tao. No longer a virtuous guide and mentor, the teacher morphs into a controller who manages students the way a commercial farmer manages chickens. In the absence of fixed, objective standards, students become malleable commodities that can and will be shaped in accordance with the prevailing orthodoxies of those in power.
Such is the inevitable outcome of a Tao-less education, an outcome that itself carries ominous sociopolitical implications. For once our social and political leaders have thrown out any Tao-based understanding of what it means to be human, they can begin to reshape all of humanity—and, because they now have at their disposal scientific methods of eugenics and social engineering, they will most likely succeed in their goal.
No one who reads The Abolition of Man carefully can fail to see the political implications of Lewis’s critique, and yet, anyone who knows Lewis’s life and writings knows that he was not a person who took an active interest—indeed, any interest—in politics. What is the Lewis scholar or aficionado to do with this seeming dilemma? Until now, not much.
Thankfully, however, that situation has been remedied by Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson’s brief but incisive new book, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law. Through a close analysis of Lewis’s extensive works and letters, Dyer, associate professor of political science and director of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy at the University of Missouri, and Watson, 2015-16 William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar Chair and associate professor of political science at Calvin College, demonstrate that Lewis not only had much to say about politics, but that what he said needs to be heeded by those of us who live half a century after his death.
‘All Things Into Common Insignificance’
The Abolition of Man, Dyer and Watson argue, is indeed a political book grounded in the foundational biblical teaching that man was made in the image of God (imago dei) but is fallen. It is because of this dual aspect of our nature that we know the Tao—it is inscribed in our conscience—and are bound to obey it, while also knowing, when we are honest with ourselves, that we do not and cannot keep it. “Everything Lewis wrote about ethics and politics rested on his understanding of these two first acts [Creation and Fall] of the biblical drama,” observe Dyer and Watson.
Because Lewis believed firmly in the imago dei, he believed we all had access, through our reason and conscience, to the Tao: that is, the natural law. Because he believed just as firmly in the Fall, he, despite his love of medieval monarchy, advocated a classical liberal view of government that bears much similarity to Locke’s view of limited government and Mill’s harm principle. It is in ferreting out these two aspects of Lewis’s non-systematic political views that Dyer and Watson make their greatest, and their most original, contribution to Lewis studies.
In a way that no Lewis critic I am aware of has yet done, Dyer and Watson set Lewis’s Broadcast Talks, which were later collected and published as Mere Christianity, in their historical context. Notably, World War II drove Lewis toward an affirmation of natural law—if there is no Tao, then no one can justifiably condemn Nazi ethics as universally and cross-culturally wrong. By contrast, World War II drove German theologian Karl Barth away from natural law, because he concluded that if we allow for a source of divine truth apart from the Bible, then the door is left open for the Nazis to baptize their own culture and fuse it with the revealed gospel.
Although Dyer and Watson treat Barth sympathetically, they argue, convincingly, that, in allowing the horrors of Nazism to push him away from the ability of human reason to perceive general revelation, Barth not only broke from the traditional theology of Luther and Calvin but set reformed Protestantism on a trajectory away from natural law. Even after the war, Barth “remained antagonistic to any claimed source of theological knowledge outside of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus Christ, including any claim that God had revealed truths ‘in reason, in conscience, in the emotions, in history, in nature, and in culture and its achievements and developments,’” they note.
In a knowing rebuttal of the anti-natural law stance of Barth, Lewis begins the Broadcast Talks (and later Mere Christianity) with a what the authors describe as “defense of objective moral principles.” In offering the twentieth century’s finest apologetic for Christianity, Lewis was also consciously “preaching fidelity to the old moral law, revealed in nature and known by reason, at a time when the idea of natural law was under serious attack by prominent Protestant theologians [like Barth] as well as secular philosophers, scientists, and social planners.” Indeed, when it came time for Lewis to write his seminal work of literary history and theory, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (1954), Dyer and Watson note Lewis “coined the term ‘Barthianism’ to describe the modern Calvinist penchant for flattening ‘all things into common insignificance before the inscrutable Creator.’”
A Partisan of Classical Liberal Democracy
What has all this to do with politics? A great deal. Barth’s abandonment of natural law has by no means protected us from the encroachment of totalitarianism into our public schools and social programs. To the contrary, in the absence of Lewis’s Tao, it has become all the easier for educators and politicians alike to carve out new “goals” and “rights” for man that have nothing to do with our true ontological status as creatures made in the image of God but fallen.
What then is to be done? Though Lewis was clearly drawn toward monarchy, a system he incarnates and celebrates so memorably in his Chronicles of Narnia, he nevertheless upheld democracy as the best form of government. “Lewis was a partisan of classical liberal democracy, not because it allowed for maximum political participation for all of a nation’s citizens, but because it curtailed the likelihood of political tyranny. He was a democrat because he believed human nature had been corrupted,” the authors note. Given our fallen state, it was unwise to entrust too much power to a single individual or group, a sentiment that was expressed even more strongly by one of Lewis’s mentors, G. K. Chesterton.
But does this put Lewis in the same camp as Locke? Though I was initially skeptical on this point—I view Locke as a deist whose rejection of innate knowledge leaves little room for a God-given conscience—Dyer and Watson won me over through careful argumentation and balanced proof texting. “Both Locke and Lewis believed that the end of government was the protection of individuals and their property, broadly understood. Both claimed that God is the ultimate source of property, and as such, God is the ontological source of genuine morality, though people could still access that morality without acknowledging God as its source or agreeing on how to best relate to God,” they write.
Grist for John Stuart Mill?
If Dyer and Watson’s equating of Lewis and Locke made me do a double take, then their equating of Lewis with John Stuart Mill made me do a triple take. Could there possibly be any meeting ground between the great Christian apologist and the Victorian utilitarian who, to my mind at least, was a functional atheist? Though more circumspect in making this link, Dyer and Watson demonstrate that Lewis, like Mill, saw government’s role, not to make men moral, but to do as little harm as possible. And that includes, as disturbing as it may appear to conservative Christians like myself, Lewis’s suggestion that secular states need not criminalize divorce, homosexuality, or other “victimless” crimes.
Still, Dyer and Watson make it clear that Lewis’s liberalism does not put him in league with utilitarianism as a theory of politics or of the nature of man. Accordingly, Lewis’s “liberalism stems from a commitment not to neutrality among competing conceptions of the good nor to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. . . . Lewis invokes the harm principle to protect society from the dangers of theocracy and to protect the Church from the dangers of blasphemy. Lewis prudentially adopted a utilitarian strategy in order to foster a regime most likely to promote and facilitate human flourishing. As such, his commitment to teleology is not necessarily undermined by his use of Mill’s harm principle.”
It is through discerning passages like this one, in which careful distinctions are drawn between theory and practice, foundational principles and pragmatic realities, that Dyer and Watson prove themselves to be reliable guides through Lewis’s scattered writings on politics and the too often scatter-brained attempts of modern and postmodern educators, sociologists, and political theorists to establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility in a world that has lost its moorings in the Tao.