Fifty-six years ago today, November 22, 1963, was the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was also the day C.S. Lewis died. Lewis was a giant figure in his day and his legacy lives on, mostly in his intellectual defenses of Christianity, but also in politics, and in children’s literature.
Lewis was so influential that most people today fall largely into one of two worldviews, either the one laid out by Sigmund Freud or the one laid out by Lewis, who spent his professional life responding to Freud’s. Freud was an atheist, Lewis started out as an atheist, but after becoming the “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” became Christianity’s most influential 20th century defender. Freud’s view of psychology and sexuality have shaped our perceptions of those fields, while Lewis’s The Four Loves is a much-needed push back against the Freudian urge to sexualize every aspect of interpersonal relations.
His most famous argument, Lewis’ trilemma, assumed that the New Testement Gospels are historically reliable and therefore provide a simple way to argue for the divinity of Jesus Christ by saying if he wasn’t a lunatic and wasn’t a liar, then there is only one remaining option: Lord. It dismissed the idea the intellectually comfortable and seemingly non-provactive position that Jesus is simply a good moral teacher as untenable, “He has not left that open to us.” A version of the argument would make it way into what would become his most famous book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as Professor Kirk’s way of trying to get Peter and Susan to see that Lucy, a known truth-teller, was not delusional about her trip to Narnia.
Lewis was not, what we would today call a political commentator, but as someone who is known for articulating a now widely-held worldview, it was inevitable that he would have things to say about politics. If he were around today, he would have critical thoughts to share with everyone, regardless of their party or what they think about Trump.
First, in the age of relativism, Lewis was a man devoted to the truth. Atheists sometimes say people believe in religion, because it makes them feel good or gives them comfort, but as we have seen, Lewis reluctantly became a Christian, doing so because he believed it to be true. The joy came later, but that joy would be accompanied by its share of grief.
To predictors of Doomsday scenarios, which in his day where those who lived in fear of nuclear war, today its climate change, Lewis wrote that civilization has always felt it has been threatened by some great natural threat and we are still here. He would say being concerned about death is an unpleasant way to live, especially when one is not in control:
If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.
Lewis was a committed small-d democrat, but his belief in democracy was justified in a way that should make anyone who invokes the wisdom of “the people” think about just how much power that can give governments:
I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that every one deserved a share in the government ... Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.
In an epilogue to the Screwtape Letters Lewis would continue his attacks on Rousseau’s version of democracy, arguing that his concept of the General Will paved the way for Nazism and communism.
For Trump supporters, and by Trump supporters we mean the people who wear MAGA hats and who have supported him from the beginning, not Republicans who support him simply because he’s not a Democrat, Lewis, despite probably best being described as a traditionalist, warned against excess nostalgia (a robust manufacturing-based economy, for example) and thinking that the good old days can come back and repeat themselves. In Prince Caspian, Aslan tells Lucy that, “Things never happen the same way twice.”
Finally, to all of us, Lewis would say that shaping our identities around our political beliefs has led us to hate each other. He would not mind the moral aspect of politics that say some policies are moral and others not, but warn against attributing that to the belief holder.
If we are honest, we have all likely had a moment where our suspicions that are opponents are the worst kind of people turned out to be initially proven true, only to have that moment later be contradicted by objective facts. What do we do then? In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote the true test of one’s character is how we respond:
Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible.
Lewis believed that what matters most is whether or not a person knows and loves God, not to what political party or faction they belong. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis, writing from the perspective of a demon mentor to an apprentice trying to tempt a recently converted Christian in wartime Britain wrote, “Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part.” Replace “patriotism” and “pacifism” with any contemporary political dichotomy and it applies just as well today.
Beyond the seriousness of topics of things such as politics and religion, two things we are told not to talk about at dinner, C.S. Lewis had one more piece of practical advice: have fun. In the dedication of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis wrote to his godchild Lucy Barfield, “I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales... But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”