C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Freedom

Steven Gillen

Diplomat, United States Department of State, U.S. Mission in Iraq

**The following paper is reprinted with permission of Acton Institute and was originally published in the Journal of Markets & Morality.**

When Winston Churchill offered Clive Staples (C. S.) Lewis (1898–1963), the great Christian apologist and author of the Chronicles of Narnia, the honorary title of Commander of the British Empire, Lewis declined on the grounds that accepting would strengthen the hands of “knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda.”1 Those somewhat familiar with C. S. Lewis’ writings might infer that his reluctance to involve himself in politics simply reflected his personal preference for evangelization in the private sphere. It would be a mistake, however, to infer that his religious writings were apolitical. Indeed, in his essay “Meditation on the Third Commandment” (1941), Lewis acknowledged the political dimension of evangelization: “He who converts his neighbour has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.”2

Although Lewis was not a political scientist, a thorough study of his writings—religious and nonreligious, as well as fiction and nonfiction—reveal a well-considered political and economic philosophy—a kind of Christian libertarianism that combined Aristotelian, medieval Catholic, and classical liberal traditions regarding democracy, natural law, and human nature. Central to his political philosophy was the sanctity of personal liberty. Therefore, it is logical to begin any systematic analysis of Lewis’ political ideas by organizing and analyzing them according to a theoretical framework that employs the semantics of one of the most profound debates within political science—specifically, the definition of freedom. (Note that most political scientists generally assume that the modern English words liberty and freedom, though derived from Latin and Old English, respectively, are synonymous—an assumption that might trouble an English professor such as Lewis.) Accordingly, this article will survey and analyze several writings of C. S. Lewis that correspond to the most common political-philosophical distinctions regarding the meaning of freedom and will demonstrate significant similarities between his concept of liberty and those of major classical liberal and libertarian theorists.

Christianity and the Nature of Negative Freedom

The first distinction regarding freedom is that of so-called positive freedom and negative freedom. Notions of freedom held by most classical liberals are generally regarded by modern political scientists as negative in that freedom was defined as the absence of coercion by individuals against one another. For example, John Locke (1632–1704) in his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690) maintained that liberty is to be “free from restraint and violence from others” and “not subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man.”3  Moreover, Adam Smith (1723–1790) in The Wealth of Nations (1776) wrote, “All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus taken way, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord.”4 For contractualists such as Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and John Locke, the arguments for freedom as a natural right were deontological and deistic, and freedom’s value was intrinsic. For naturalists such as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) and Adam Smith, the arguments for freedom were teleological and usually agnostic, and freedom’s value was merely instrumental. Nevertheless, both strands of classical liberalism defined liberty without reference to the power of persons to benefit from their freedom.

By the twentieth century, the classical tradition of liberalism had faded, but its concept of freedom survived among libertarians. For example, the British-Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899–1992) defined freedom as “independence of the arbitrary will of another.”5 Similarly, the American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938–present) delimited freedom in terms of a “non-aggression principle” and began his seminal treatise Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) by returning to Locke’s state of nature in which individuals enjoy “perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or dependency upon the will of any other man.”6  Not surprisingly, these negative concepts of liberty naturally connected libertarianism, like classical liberalism, with capitalist, free-market economics.

By contrast, the concept of freedom associated with what most people in Britain and America today call liberalism is often attributed by political scientists to the Hegelian philosopher T. H. Green (1836–1882). Appalled by abject poverty, unsanitary living conditions, and growing alcoholism among Britain’s industrial working class, Green challenged the classical-liberal concept of freedom in his speech “Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract” (1881), wherein he coined the terms negative freedom and positive freedom and defined the latter as “a power which each man exercises through the help or security given him by his fellow-men, and which he in turn helps to secure for them.”7  By redefining freedom in this manner, Green transformed liberty into a collective condition and thus created a semantic nexus between modern liberalism and socialism. As Hayek observed in Constitution of Liberty (1960), “This confusion of liberty as power with liberty in its original meaning inevitably leads to the identification of liberty with wealth; and this makes it possible to exploit all the appeal which the word ‘liberty’ carries in the support for a demand for the redistribution of wealth.”8

Typical of many Christian apologists in Britain during the years following Green was G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936), a convert from atheism to Anglican and later Roman Catholic Christianity. In What’s Wrong with the World (1910), Chesterton excoriated the so-called robber barons of the industrial revolution, “I am well aware that the word ‘property’ has been defined in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk, that the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land; but other people’s.”9  Chesterton’s theories of mythology and epistemology expressed in The Everlasting Man (1925) played a profound role in causing and shaping Lewis’ conversion from atheistic naturalism to Anglican Christianity between 1927 and 1931. Not surprisingly, during the first decade of his apologetics, Lewis communicated  much of the same contempt for laissez-faire economics that pervaded Chesterton’s writings. For example, in Lewis’ first book following his conversion, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism (1933), the protagonist John is found hungry and destitute on the roadside by “Mr. Mammon,” a caricature of the nineteenth-century industrialist who refuses to give John a piece of bread on the grounds that “it would be contrary to all economic laws” and would “pauperize” him.10

Mammon, commonly translated as “money,” is of course an allusion to Matthew 6:24: “No man can serve two masters. He will either hate the one and love the other or be attentive to one and despise the other. You cannot give yourself to God and money.” However, Mr. Mammon is something more complex than a general disdain for wealth or power. He is Lewis’ satirical abjuration of the utilitarian strand of classical liberalism and its materialistic ethos of enlightened individual self-interest typified by Mill, who, in On Liberty (1859), argued that self-interested competition among individuals served the “general interest of mankind” and that society is compelled to ameliorate suffering of individuals who lose in that competition “only when means of success have been employed which it is to the general interest to permit—namely, fraud or treachery, and force.”11 In “Man or Rabbit?” (c. 1946), Lewis described Mill as “good” but he could not accept the atheistic teleological morality underlying Mill’s notion of freedom.

Beyond his criticisms of Mill, one might think that the Christianized Lewis had embraced the collectivistic direction liberalism had taken since T. H. Green. In Christian Behavior (1943), later published as book 3 of Mere Christianity (1952), Lewis acknowledged that in a fully Christian society “we should feel that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense, ‘advanced,’” and that it would be “what we now call Leftist.”12 As did Chesterton, Lewis regarded earthly socialism not as a remedy for the sins of capitalism but as a far more dangerous alternative that vitiates individual responsibility by creating the illusion of Christian charity.13  Lewis warned, “Some people nowadays say that charity ought to be unnecessary and that instead of giving to the poor we ought to be producing a society in which there were no poor to give to. They may be quite right in saying that we ought to produce that kind of society. But if anyone thinks that, as a consequence, you can stop giving in the meantime, then he has parted company with all Christian morality.”14

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