C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Freedom

Similarly, in “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought” (1946), Lewis criticized proletarianism for its spiritually enervating effects on the poor working class, particularly with respect to individual responsibility: “They are convinced that whatever may be wrong with the world it cannot be themselves. Someone else must be to blame for every evil.… They have no feelings of fear, guilt, or awe. They think, from the very outset, of God’s duties to them, not their duties to Him. And God’s duties to them are conceived not in terms of salvation but in purely secular terms—social security, prevention of war, a higher standard of life.”15  Ultimately, Lewis would likely oppose Green’s collective definition of freedom because, as Lewis tells us in “Membership” (1945), Christians rightly feel that “modern collectivism is an outrage upon human nature” and that just as “personal and private life is lower than participation in the Body of Christ, so the collective life is lower than the personal and private life.”16

Consistent with this subordination of the public sphere to the private sphere, Lewis also subordinated the prerogatives of the state to those of the individual and believed that the state has a moral obligation to respect individuals’ rights by minimizing its intrusions into their private spheres. In Mere Christianity Lewis expatiated,


It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects—military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong those moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc. are simply a waste of time.17


In the last years of Lewis’ life, his writings took on an overtly libertarian tone, emphasizing limited government and individual rights—particularly individual property rights. In “Delinquents in the Snow” (1957), Lewis complained, “At present the very uncomfortable position is this: the State protects us less because it is unwilling to protect us against criminals at home and manifestly grows less and less able to protect us against foreign enemies. 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.”18 For Lewis, like most classical liberals, the state’s moral ground was limited from its start, and he would generally agree with Nozick’s neo-Lockean contention that the “minimal state” is the only justifiable state.19 Paralleling Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), Lewis wrote, “Government at its best is a necessary evil.”20

Furthermore, Lewis regarded welfare guaranteed by the state as a form of control by the state and considered private property to be an indispensable safeguard against that control. In “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State” (1958), he explained, “I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the freeborn 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.”21 Lewis’ views were congruent with those of Hayek, who warned in The Road to Serfdom (1944), “Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends.”22

This instrumental reasoning seems to mimic Mill, who valued private-property rights chiefly for their utility in protecting liberty and liberty for its utility in promoting “well being.”23 However, unlike Mill, Lewis ascribed intrinsic value to liberty and traced that value to natural law, which was given by the Creator and supersedes laws given by the state. Lewis attributed many of his ideas regarding natural law to Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and Thomistic theologians and jurists of the Reformation such as Richard Hooker (c. 1554–1600) and Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), who inspired Locke and Jefferson.24  Despite his skepticism regarding Locke’s “state of nature,” Lewis generally accepted the Lockean view that natural law confers a duty upon every individual to respect every other individual’s natural rights.25 Like Lockean libertarians, he defined natural rights as duties under natural law expressed in terms of their beneficiaries that, taken together, form the private sphere as a kind of zone of negative freedom into which a person can retreat from the state. Lewis lamented that this “classical political theory, with its Stoical, Christian, and juristic key-conceptions (natural law, the value of the individual, the rights of man), has died. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers’. We are less their subjects 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.”26

Lewis also demonstrated himself to be a libertarian in areas beyond economics. In “Sex in Literature” (1962), Lewis wrote, “The older [civil] law … embodied a morality for which masturbation, perversion, fornication and adultery were great evils … My own view— just to get it out of the way—is that they are evils, but that the law should be concerned with none of them except adultery because it offends the Hobbesian principle ‘that men perform their covenants.’”27 This may seem inconsistent with traditional ecclesiastical Christianity. Yet, even Aquinas in Summa Theologica (1-2, q. 96) conceded, “Since then the majority of men to whom human laws apply are not very virtuous, human law forbids only the more serious wrongdoing [such as murder and theft], chiefly what would harm others and must be kept in check if human society is to be preserved.”28 For Lewis and to a lesser extent Aquinas, guaranteeing personal freedom, not virtue, is the first duty of government.

Ultimately, according to Lewis, the natural object of personal freedom is happiness. However, unlike the earthly happiness underlying the hedonistic philosophy of Lucretius (95–54 B.C.) and other Epicureans who inspired Jefferson, Lewis’ ideal of happiness beyond the ordinary happiness of this life is otherworldly, and its pursuit requires charity and humility. Nevertheless, Lewis praised the American Declaration of Independence as “august” and “words cherished by all civilized men.” Both Jefferson and Lewis, articulated that the right to pursue happiness does not mean the right to attain happiness.29  Such a right would be, according to Lewis, “as odd as a right to good luck.”30 Lewis elucidated this point in his last essay before his death, “We Have No Right to Happiness” (1963), “For I believe—whatever one school of moralists may say—that we depend for a very great deal of our happiness or misery on circumstances outside all human control. A right to happiness doesn’t, for me, make much more sense than a right to be six feet tall, or to have a millionaire for your father, or to get good weather whenever you want to have a picnic.”31

Not surprisingly, C. S. Lewis’ sentiments about freedom and happiness also parallel modern libertarians such as Hayek who observed that “we may be free and yet miserable” and that “to be free may mean freedom to starve, to make costly mistakes, or to run mortal risks.”32  Hence, it appears logical to conclude that Lewis generally shared the classical liberal and libertarian concept of what Locke and Smith called natural liberty. Indeed, this conclusion is crucial to understanding Lewis’ convictions with respect to the second distinction regarding freedom—political versus individual freedom.

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