C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Freedom

Lewis on Christians in Politics

In practical terms, Lewis’ understanding of freedom and humanity’s fallen nature precluded not only the collectivist forms of democracy inspired by Rousseau and Green but also those governments that conflate church and state. Echoing Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration (1693), Lewis argued that divine noninterference is manifested in natural law and compels humans to imitate God by not imposing his will on others. Consequently, he was extremely reticent about politicizing Christianity by forming Christian political parties. In “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” Lewis reckoned that any such party “will have no more power than the political skill of its members gives it to control the behaviour of its unbelieving allies.”53 Similarly, in “Is Progress Possible,” Lewis warned of the dangers of a religious party’s gaining absolute power, “I believe in God, but I detest theocracy. For every Government consists of mere men and is, strictly viewed, a makeshift; if it adds to its commands ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ it lies and lies dangerously.”54

That is not to say that C. S. Lewis saw no place for Christianity in politics. Indeed, Lewis fervently encouraged Christians to participate actively in democracy but to pattern their participation after the “personalist democracy” advocated by the French neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882–1973).55 At the very least, according to Lewis, this requires voting and “pestering M.P.’s with letters” so that politicians “have to take care not to alienate Christians, instead of a world where Christians have to be ‘loyal’ to infidel parties.”56  Furthermore, while he maintained that Christianity should be promoted through private evangelization, he believed that such evangelization could reinforce liberal self-government by resolving Constant’s dilemma in two ways. First, while Christianity subordinates collective life to private life, its emphasis on charitable works counteracts the natural tendency of individuals in liberal democracy to neglect the needs of their communities. Second, the Christian tradition of natural law holds citizens and statesmen alike to common standards of morality and thus promotes limited government. As Lewis explained in “The Poison of Subjectivism” (1943), “The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy. We and our rulers are of one kind so long as we are subject to one law. But if there is no Law of Nature, the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.”57  For Lewis, equality of this kind was indispensable “medicine” for the fall of man.58

Conclusion: Lewis’ View of Freedom as “Merely Christian”

Had the fall of man not happened, C. S. Lewis would likely see no dichotomy between spiritual freedom and natural freedom. Had he taken up the debate regarding positive and negative freedom, he probably would have said that natural liberty corresponds to negative freedom and is the necessary condition for autonomy understood as spiritual freedom. He would likely say that in a perfect world positive freedom would mean the power of individuals to surrender their self-love for the love of God and other human beings and that in this sense it would be the manifestation of spiritual freedom in the material world. However, from a Christian perspective, the fall of man did happen, and the fully Christian society Lewis described cannot exist outside Perelandra.59 Therefore, he would likely favor that definition of freedom, positive or negative, which would be practicable in the City of Man, not the City of God. Given his ideas regarding human nature and the proper role for government, we may conclude that he would reject positive freedom in the material world as a dangerous imitation of Christian charity because efforts by the state to grant such freedom usually involve acts of coercion. For Lewis, freedom and happiness beyond the mere absence of coercion are things that only God and not government can guarantee.

In conclusion, C. S. Lewis’ concept of freedom is most accurately described in purely political-philosophical terms as classical liberal or libertarian. Yet, such terms do not entirely reflect what he believed were the religious origins of liberty. Accordingly, one could rightly call him a “Christian libertarian.” However, as we learn from the Screwtape Letters (1942), Lewis was deeply wary of substituting for the faith itself “some Fashion with a Christian colouring.”60 Therefore, C. S. Lewis would likely insist that his concept of freedom is merely Christian.

 

 

 

 

End Notes


1 C. S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1988), 414. Churchill offered Lewis the investiture following the Conservative Party’s return to power in 1951.

2 C. S. Lewis, “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” The Guardian (10 January 1941), 18.

3 John Locke, The Second Treatise on Civil Government (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986), 17, 33.

4 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1993), 336.

5 F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), 12.

6 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 10, 34.

7 T. H. Green, “Liberal Legislation and Freedom of Contract,” in Works of T. H. Green (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1888), 371.

8 Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, 17.

9 G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994),

10 C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 43.

11 J. S. Mill, On Liberty (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986), 107.

12 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 81. Lewis originally published Christian Behavior in 1943 but republished it as book 3 of Mere Christianity.

13 See G. K. Chesterton, Utopia of Usurers (Norfolk, Va.: IHS Press, 2002), 45–46. In “The Mask of Socialism,” Chesterton wrote, “I think it is not at all improbable that this Plutocracy, pretending to be a Bureaucracy, will be attempted or achieved … its religion will be just charitable enough to pardon usurers; its penal system will be just cruel enough to crush all the critics of usurers: the truth of it will be Slavery: and the title of it may quite possibly be Socialism.”

14 Lewis, Mere Christianity, 82.

15 C. S. Lewis, “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought,” in Present Concerns: Essays by C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1986), 64–65.

16 C. S. Lewis, “Membership,” in The Weight of Glory, ed. Walter Hooper (HarperCollins, 2000), 161.

17 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 171.

18 C. S. Lewis, “Delinquents in the Snow,” Time and Tide 38 (7 December 1957), 1521–22.

19 Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, 53.

20 Lewis, Letters of C.S. Lewis, 473.

21 C. S. Lewis, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” The Observer (20 July 1958), 6.

22 F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944), 92.

23 Mill, On Liberty, 64–84.

24 See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott (Allen, Tex.: Christian Classics, 1989), 391–92 (II-II, q. 66). Unlike Locke, Aquinas does not directly link property rights to natural law, but he argues that private property does not contravene natural law and is consistent with Scripture. In some sense, Aquinas’ view, as well as Lewis’, is closer to that of Jefferson who regarded property not as a natural right but as a derived right.

25 See Lewis, “Delinquents in the Snow,” 1521–22. Lewis argues that the classical concept of the state of nature “was never true as a historical account of the genesis of the State” though it “morally grounds our obligations to civil disobedience.”

26 Lewis, “Is Progress Possible?” 6.

27 C. S. Lewis, “Sex in Literature,” The Sunday Telegraph 87 (30 September 1962), 8. It is ironic that Lewis refers to Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) whose Leviathan (1651) epitomizes antiliberal thinking. However, Hobbes and Locke do agree on the sanctity of covenants.

28 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 291.

29 C. S. Lewis, “We Have No Right to Happiness,” The Saturday Evening Post 236 (21–28 December 1963), 10.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid., 10, 12. Lewis died on 22 November 1963. This essay was published posthumously.

32 Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, 18.

33 “The Liberty of Ancients Compared to That of Moderns (1816).” Retrieved on November 5, 2005, from University of Arkansas, http://www.uark.edu/depts/com- minfo/cambridge/ancients.html.

34 Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, 13.

35 C. S. Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in The Screwtape Letters (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 122.

36 C. S. Lewis, “Equality,” The Spectator 171 (27 August 1943), 192.

37 Ibid., 193.

38 Lewis, Mere Christianity, 81.

39 C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 201.

40 See Lewis, “Membership,” 171. Lewis posits, “As democracy becomes more complete in the outer world and opportunities for reverence are successively removed, the refreshment, the cleansing, and invigorating returns to inequality, which the Church offers us, become more and more necessary.”

41 Lewis, “Equality,” 193.

42 C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 58–59.

43 C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996).

44 C. S. Lewis, “Equality,” 193.

45 Ibid.

46 Lewis, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” 122.

47 C. S. Lewis, “Notes on the Way,” Time and Tide 25 (29 April 1944), 369–70. Lewis’ own title for this essay was “Democratic Education.”

48 C. S. Lewis, “Two Ways with the Self,” The Guardian (3 May 1940), 215.

49 Ibid.

50 Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, 245.

51 Ibid. Regarding Lewis’ opinion of “self-esteem,” see C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 51. Lewis posits, “But unless Christianity is wholly false, the perception of ourselves which we have in moments of shame must be the only true one.…”

52 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 66.

53 Lewis, “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” 18.

54 Lewis, “Is Progress Possible?” 6.

55 See Jacques Maritain, Scholasticism and Politics, trans. Mortimer Jerome Adler (New York: Macmillan, 1940). Inspired by Henri Bergson and Alexis de Tocqueville, Maritain opposed the “bourgeois democracy” practiced in Western Europe and the United States, which he believed would cause the decline of Western culture. However, he argued that “personalist democracy” was inextricably connected with Christianity.

56 Lewis, “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” 18.

57 C. S. Lewis, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” in The Seeing Eye and Other Selected Essays from Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), 111.

58 Lewis, “Equality,” 193. See also C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 148. The Director tells Jane, “Yes, we must all be guarded by equal rights from one another’s greed, because we are fallen.… Equality guards life; it doesn’t make it. It is medicine, not food.”

59 C. S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996). Perelandra is the second book in Lewis’ space trilogy and depicts an alternate Garden of Eden on Venus where Eve overcomes Evil’s temptation.

60 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 91.

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