C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law
An Arc Conversation with Justin Dyer
In this Arc Conversation, I talked to political scientist Justin Dyer, whose book, C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law (co-authored with Micah J. Watson), recently came out.
Berny Belvedere: Hi, Justin. Great to have you here on Arc.
Justin Dyer: Thanks. Great to be here.
Belvedere: Your book is on C. S. Lewis’ political thought. But didn’t Lewis avoid politics at all costs?
Dyer: There is some truth to the notion that Lewis was apolitical.
Lewis’ stepson, Douglas Gresham, said flatly that “Jack was not interested in politics.” In the 1950s Lewis turned down the honorific title of Commander of the British empire because he worried that his writings would be viewed as political propaganda. He claimed he never read a newspaper and once wrote to his brother that he “loathed great issues” and would prefer to see a “Stagnation Party — which at General Elections would boast that during its term of office no event of the least importance had taken place.” He often expressed skepticism and even despair at politics. In one letter he even described himself as “very nearly a political skeptic.”
On the other hand, Lewis thought quite a lot about politics. Although he was not interested in the nitty-gritty details of public policy, he did write about the foundations of a just political order. As Lewis knew, political life implicates some of the most important questions we face as human beings. What is the good life? How should we order our common life together in community? Do human beings have a deeper purpose than survival or pleasure? On these questions, it turns out, Lewis had quite a lot to say.
Belvedere: Where do you turn in Lewis’ sizable catalogue to see examples of his political thought?
Dyer: There are political themes in nearly all of Lewis’ works.
In his academic magnum opus, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis gives sophisticated treatments of political theorists such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Hooker.
Lewis’ Abolition of Man chronicles the consequences of humanity’s attempt to conquer human nature, and he presents those themes in fictional form in the third volume of his Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength — which centers on a nefarious government bureaucracy called the National Institutes for Coordinated Experiments (or N.I.C.E. for short).
In letters and shorter essays, Lewis wrote about equality, criminal justice, capital punishment, pacifism, nuclear war, unalienable rights, social contract theory, Christian political parties, and the welfare state, among other explicitly political topics. But even some of the less overtly political works, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, have political themes running throughout.
Belvedere: Where would you put Lewis on the political spectrum? Was he a liberal or a conservative, or was he something else entirely?
Dyer: I think it is fair to say Lewis was a classical liberal — meaning he believed in limited government, civil liberties, and individual rights.
In our book, Micah and I argue that Lewis was in matters of politics a combination of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. With Locke, he believed in the reality and importance of a natural moral law that constrained government’s mandate and warrant. With Mill, he articulated a version of the “harm principle” that limited government coercion only to those activities which harmed someone else. In one letter, Lewis wrote that “no sin, simply as such, should be made a crime. … Of course many acts which are sins against God are also injuries to our fellow-citizens, and must on that account, and only on that account, be made crimes.”
Lewis was, above all, wary of concentrating government power for benevolent motives. “Of all tyrannies,” Lewis wrote elsewhere, “a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.”
Belvedere: While reading your book, I was struck by how philosophically expansive it is. Part of that was my own fault: I forgot that “politics” is only half the title — you also set out to capture Lewis’ thought on natural law, a topic that is more straightforwardly philosophical. For example, you examine a proto-Plantingian argument against metaphysical materialism that Lewis doesn’t get much credit for today. The book is filled with fascinating explorations of this sort into Lewis’ thought. It made me wonder: What aspect of Lewis’ thought do you wish more readers knew about?
Dyer: Ayn Rand once critically called Lewis a “pickpocket of concepts.” His strength was not in generating new ideas but in communicating classical ideas in original ways. Still, he does put his own mark on some of these ideas.
His case against metaphysical materialism built on a previous argument made by Lord Arthur Balfour in Theism and Humanism (1915), but Lewis developed and revised the argument in a way that provided the inspiration for philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s subsequent work. Lewis’ defense of what he calls the “human tradition of value” in The Abolition of Man (1943) largely anticipates the arguments political philosopher Alasdair McIntyre has made for a tradition-constituted moral inquiry. His relentless criticisms of Karl Barth’s voluntarist theology also presage the evangelical turn away from natural law philosophy in the twentieth century.
Lewis’ writings provide an entry-point into the big philosophical and theological debates of the twentieth century, and these debates have enormous implications for society and politics.
Belvedere: To what extent did Lewis’ particular religious orientation, or even his religious tradition, influence his level of political engagement?
Dyer: A 1947 cover story for Time magazine pegged Lewis as the “one of the most influential spokesman for Christianity in the English-speaking world.” Lewis had a deep sense of religious vocation tied to his public role as a defender of Christianity, and he avoided becoming embroiled in practical politics partly because he did not want cynics to associate his religious writings with a political cause. Yet Lewis also said, “He who converts his neighbor has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.” Judged by the many Lewis-inspired converts, he was in this sense one of the most political men of his time.
Belvedere: What do you think Lewis meant when he said: “Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.”?
Dyer: Sometimes people of faith are accused of not caring about the world because they are looking forward to life in heaven. Why polish the brass on a sinking ship? The paradox is that people looking forward to heaven are often the ones who care for the poor, visit prisoners, take in orphans, and work to build cultures and institutions that contribute to human flourishing in the here and now. Precisely because they love God, they serve their neighbors.
Belvedere: What lessons can we take from Lewis that help us think about politics today?
Dyer: Part of Lewis’ genius is that he writes in a way that transcends a particular historical moment. He was profoundly affected by the Great War, and later in life he certainly thought about politics against the backdrop of World War II and its aftermath. Yet he was always interested in identifying principles and ideas that had enduring value.
One big idea Lewis tried to drive home to his readers is that “the very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike.” This theme pervades his fiction and non-fiction writings, and is as relevant today as it was in the middle of the twentieth century.
Belvedere: Readers, please head over to Amazon or your favorite bookseller and check out C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law.