C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law

Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson.

Cambridge University Press, 2016. 174 pp.

 

In the 2016 Erasmus Lecture held by First Things, Russell D. Moore lamented how the interaction between Christianity and American politics in the latter half of the twentieth century was colored by the political Right’s use and abuse of Christians primarily as a means to political ends. “My faith,” Moore recalls, “was being used as a way to shore up Southern honor culture, mobilize voters for political allies, and market products to a gullible audience.” Evangelical Protestantism especially, though providing much of the “entrepreneurial energy” of religious conservatism, has become deeply connected to the political Right. Moore was not, however, recommending the abandonment of religious conservatism but instead was seeking a way to “save it.”

Like many other evangelicals, Moore found himself “orphaned” by the politically charged Christianity of which he had grown suspicious. Long before the rise of Trump and his overwhelming popularity with Christian conservatives, Moore recognized a lurking incongruity between what religious conservatives claimed to endorse and what they supported through their political behavior.

Instead of writing off Christianity as little more than a civic religion, Moore found his spiritual home in the works of C. S. Lewis. Like many others, Moore discovered in Lewis the kind of faith that was biblical, less political, and more accessible to a layperson. Curiously, though, Lewis does not seem to have been a resource for Moore in his search for a more biblically-grounded political thought. Indeed, for Moore and others, it is Lewis’ seeming indifference to politics that makes his work attractive.

This oversight by Moore and others may reflect the conventional belief that Lewis cared little for political questions. He did not write anything in the way of a treatise on politics, nor was he politically active in any traditional sense. Lewis was an Oxford don and literary scholar. A convert from atheism to Christianity in 1931, Lewis went on to become one of the most influential (if not the most influential) Christian apologists. Seldom, though, have political theorists turned to him for scholarly inspiration and analysis. This omission might actually be to Lewis’s liking, given his remarks in a letter to Don Giovanni Calabria (Aug. 10, 1953), where he writes, “For, above all other spheres of human life, the Devil claims politics for his own, as almost the citadel of his power.”

The previous quote provides the epigram for a recent book revisiting C. S. Lewis as a political thinker: Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson’s C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law (Cambridge University Press, 2016). As seasoned political theorists, Dyer and Watson draw from Lewis’s work extensive reflections on natural law, the legislation of morals, citizenship, freedom, and more. Far from apathetic, Lewis is shown to be deeply concerned with the fundamental questions of political theory and with the great questions of his day.

Lewis was a veteran of the British light infantry in WWI and was wounded before returning to study at Oxford University. He had lost friends in the trenches, and his home life before the war had been steeped in politics. Yet he commented little on the back-and-forth of the partisan politics, parliamentary debates, and policy issues of his time. His silence on these topics, however, by no means justifies the conventional perception of an apolitical Lewis. If politics is merely the construction of public policy and the functions of a government, then Lewis was far from ignorant of his political times, rather, he was less interested in them than in other, more pressing, matters. If politics is conceived along Aristotelian lines as those questions pertaining to the business of the polis, then Lewis was deeply political. Dyer and Watson provide an invaluable examination of how Lewis explores politics in this ancient, classical sense.

The book is organized as if to give Lewis’s political thought the kind of systematic construction it never possessed. The authors have mined all of Lewis’s work—from his popular fiction and essays to his letters and lesser-known and unpublished works—to show a remarkably more sophisticated political thinker than even Lewis’s most devoted fans may have recognized.

The philosophical foundations of Lewis’s politics are predictable to a point, namely the core tenets of orthodox Christianity and especially the importance of creation and mankind’s fallen and sinful nature. Lewis was also more optimistic about the value of human reason and grounded much of his more explicitly political reflections on a belief in natural law or the tao as he called it. This put him profoundly at odds with Karl Barth and the influential theologian’s strident criticism of natural theology and natural law.

Lewis also lectured on political theory and incorporated the canon of Western political thought into his literature courses. He had much to say on Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hegel, and Rousseau, for example, offering his own critique of modernity and its origins. He worried especially about the influence of modernity’s suspicion of an objective morality and its rejection of more teleological accounts of the good life and political morality. Rightly identifying Lewis’s Abolition of Man as the “lynchpin” of his thought, Watson and Dyer argue that the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity understood how much was at stake in questions of the moral law, freedom, justice, and the good life.

Lewis was not thoroughly antimodern, however. In what will likely be the most controversial section of the book, Watson and Dyer associate Lewis with the classical liberalism of John Locke and identify him as a proponent of John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.” For Lewis, humans’ sinful nature is central to the development of a political philosophy. But this more negative perspective was not the impetus for something like a Hobbesian absolute sovereign. As Watson and Dyer explain, Lewis was concerned with being practical and realistic:

The modern elements in Lewis’ political thought reflect his attempt to reconcile the hierarchical nature of reality, including the reality of human nature as it was first noted and understood by pagan political philosophers, with the consequences of the fall. When offering provisional answers to perennial political questions, Lewis was also attentive to practical realities, including the reality that a majority of his countrymen were not in any meaningful sense Christian. (88)

Liberalism, in its most basic sense, is the belief that the primary goal of politics and government is the preservation of natural rights and individual liberty. Through its history, liberalism has been subject to many criticisms, especially its seeming indifference to the Good or to achieving any semblance of logical and moral coherence. Why would Lewis not proclaim something similar to Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism or prescribe a more radical return to the medieval ideals and hierarchy he celebrates in other works? The key is Lewis’s belief in the influence of sin. Like James Madison and John Locke, Lewis emphasizes a more limited concept of government and adherence to the natural law. The corruption of human nature requires the imposition of some kind of order and law, but the temptation to overstep these limited ends is always present due to the same corruption. “Lewis was a partisan of classical liberal democracy,” Watson and Dyer write, “not because it allowed for maximum political participation for all of a nation’s citizens, but because it curtailed the likelihood of political tyranny” (97).

As authors like Rod Dreher, Anthony Esolen, and Charles Chaput have recently lamented, Christianity in the Western world has lost much of its public, political authority and influence. Even the kind of “residual Christianity” latent in the West has been eclipsed by competing religions and pseudo religions, like materialism and consumerism. But what all these thinkers have in common is a distaste for liberalism as a peculiarly Western disease anathema to the endurance of Christianity. Lewis thought differently and was already observing in his day the dramatic waning of Christianity in Great Britain. Religious and cultural pluralism was not a problem so much as it was, and is, a reality to live with. Absent some miraculous move of the Holy Spirit, the West is unlikely to return to the Christian civilization it once styled itself—and that narrative itself may be worth questioning. For Lewis, Christians ought to seek the welfare of the place in which they find themselves, live at peace with everyone, and find within the natural law a common ground on which society can achieve some semblance of order and justice—a perspective we might call the “Narnian Option.”

A considerable amount of ink has been spent diagnosing the great ills plaguing Western society and culture in the wake of the 2016 elections in the United States. These polemics have offered something of a response by way of prescriptions, with the most practical account being proposed in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. But Christians still need models for the road ahead—thinkers and leaders who confront the challenges of our times with creativity and faithfulness. What is needed is not so much a set of policy prescriptions and new clichés but a better way of “thinking Christianly” about political questions. To be sure, there are two millennia of Christian political thought and no shortage of critical insights preceding C. S. Lewis. But the majority of Christians are not even aware of this historical tradition of political thought and are unlikely to read the material. How many lay persons or even seasoned clergy will pick up a copy of Aquinas’s Treatise on Law or read through excerpts of the church fathers? Pastors and lay leaders look for resources that are biblically and theologically sound but also accessible and useful for their congregations. C. S. Lewis is invaluable in this regard, and Watson and Dyer’s book provides a much-needed summary and analysis of Lewis’s political thought to strengthen the church in the days ahead.

C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law belongs on the shelf of every Lewis enthusiast, Christian political thinker, and person responsible for the intellectual formation of Christian congregations.

 

Joshua Bowman is the managing editor of ANAMNESIS, the executive director of the Ciceronian Society, and a postdoctoral fellow with the Eric Voegelin Institute at Louisiana State University.