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Joseph Sobran

Deep political wisdom can be found in a writer who took very little interest in politics: C.S. Lewis, a scholar who achieved his greatest fame as a popular Christian writer.

Lewis was sometimes laughably ignorant of current events. His friends were once amused to discover that he was under the impression that Tito, the Communist dictator of Yugoslavia, was the king of Greece. But the very distance he kept from politics enabled him to see large outlines invisible to those preoccupied with the daily news.

During World War II, Lewis realized that both the Allies and the Axis were abandoning the traditional morality of the Christian West and indeed of all sane civilizations. The great principle of this morality is that certain acts are intrinsically right or wrong. In a gigantic war among gigantic states, Lewis saw that modern science was being used amorally on all sides to dehumanize and annihilate enemies. When peace came, the victorious states would feel released from moral restraints.

Lewis cited an old theological question: “It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them. With Hooker [Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian], and against Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion … that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it — that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right.” It was dangerous to believe that sheer will, even God’s will, can be the ultimate source of right and wrong.

Lewis saw a parallel danger in “the modern theory of sovereignty,” which holds that the state can make right and wrong by sheer act of will: “On this view, total freedom to make what laws it pleases, superiority to law because it is the source of law, is the characteristic of every state; of democratic states no less than of monarchical. That doctrine has proved so popular that it now seems to many a mere tautology. We conceive with difficulty that it was ever new because we imagine with difficulty how political life can ever have gone on without it. We take it for granted that the highest power in the State, whether that power is a despot or a democratically elected assembly, will be wholly free to legislate and incessantly engaged in legislation.”

As a result of the theory of sovereignty, Lewis observed, “Rulers have become owners.” He added: “We are less their subject than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.” As the state offers us less and less protection, “at the same time it demands from us more and more. We seldom had fewer rights and liberties nor more burdens: and we get less security in return. While our obligations increase their moral ground is taken away.”

Lewis was alarmed by another development we now take for granted: state control of education. He wrote: “I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the free-born mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?”

The “new society” was creating “membership in a debased modern sense — a massing together of persons as if they were pennies or counters.” It was “trying to drag the featureless repetition of the collective into the fuller and more concrete world of the family.”

More clearly than even Huxley and Orwell, Lewis saw that politics without morality could only end in tyranny.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreCopyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This essay was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate on June 13, 2000 and appears here by permission. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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9 replies to this post
  1. Thanks for this exceptionally good piece from Joe, who was our modern Dr Johnson, an Imaginative Conservative extraordinaire.

  2. In the USA the "State" does not control education though the "state's" influence is great. We still have a lot of freedom in local autonomous school districts, choice in private schools and choice in homeschooling (unlike other Western countries). Sobran was certainly right that Lewis was a very wise individual. I can't remember the last time I read an article that alluded to Montagine

    • The freedom in education that has existed is currently under attack by the federal government through the Common Core Standards. Many states have accepted these standards because they came with the promise of federal grant money. One of the most disturbing things about Common Core is that is gives the power over curriculum exclusively to the government at the federal level. The ultimate goal of these standards is to require private schools and home schools to also conform. Concerned citizens are trying to fight back, but since 45 out of 50 states have already agreed to them (by accepting that grant money), it’s going to be a long fight for them.

  3. Awesome article. C.S. Lewis was indeed prophetic.

    I am going to have to disagree with Commenter Munro who has what I believe is an overly optimistic view of the current state of education in the U.S. Perhaps he is not aware that nearly every state in the country dictates curriculum, and materials, that many textbooks are approved at the state-level. Since No Child Left Behind, the Fed and State control of education is close, if not tight.

    I agree that we at least have recourse to private schools and homeschooling which many Western countries disallow.

    Fight moral relativism.

  4. "But the very distance he kept from politics enabled him to see large outlines invisible to those preoccupied with the daily news." I'm stealing that line for myself.

    Dictating curriculum has left professors in some colleges unable to assess their own students' knowledge of the subject matter. The homework is submitted online and testing is done online. Even if the student attends class 2-3 a week, the professor has no authority in the final grade. Cogs in a wheel being collectively churned out—–for what?

  5. "But the very distance he kept from politics enabled him to see large outlines invisible to those preoccupied with the daily news." I was once accosted on the midnight streets of Galway by a pair of monks from a remote island monastery, and while short on news per se, they seemed to know more about what was really going on in the world than anyone else.

    Similarly i rather doubt that Dr Kirk did himself much good by his small involvement in electoral politics, although i hope to be corrected (perhaps by Brad's forthcoming book).

  6. I find it interesting, and disappointing, that conservatives gravitate to the pedagogical side of this and away from the economic. Freedom in the former is only available to those with the requisite economic independence. There is terribly little thought is given to the material basis of our liberty–the servile arts serve our independence in order to free us to enjoy the liberal arts. Lewis enjoyed a measure of economic independence through his writing that allowed him to thumb his nose at a modern orthodoxy in the academe that squelched dissent even in his time. And Montaigne was a land owner and a farmer. Most people today either are in the employ of the state or a large corporation. This sort of independence calls for resourcefulness and courage.

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