Public Square & Theology 101

Are C.S. Lewis’s Words on Poverty and Progress Relevant Today?

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On my recent trip to Oxford, “grab a bite at the Eagle and Child Pub” was on the top of my list, as it would be for any good C.S. Lewis fan visiting his old stomping grounds for the first time.

My friend and I sat in the back room where the Inklings met every Tuesday between 1939 and 1962. Our conversation began light but soon turned to theology, economics, and politics – just as I imagine it would have in a meeting between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

We agreed on some things but disagreed on others, particularly on solutions to poverty. It made me think, what would Lewis say about poverty if he were here right now?

Our conversation inspired me to explore some of Lewis’s works I had left unread, so when I returned home, I picked up his essay Is Progress PossibleWilling Slaves of the Welfare State (published by the Observer in 1958). I imagine if Lewis was with us at the pub that day, he would have had much to contribute. Here are his points that struck me the most.

It’s important to note that Lewis made these points while talking about England in 1958. Might these points bear relevance for us today?

1. Progress towards greater human flourishing is possible, but only if we choose the right path.

Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives…. We can become either more beneficent or more mischievous. My guess is we will do both; mending one thing and marring another, removing old miseries and producing new ones, safeguarding ourselves here and endangering ourselves there.

2. We are choosing the wrong path when we willingly trade our freedom for a welfare state. 

In the ancient world individuals have sold themselves as slaves, in order to eat. So in society. Here is a witch-doctor who can save us from the sorcerers – a war-lord who can save us from the barbarians – a Church that can save us from Hell. Give them what they ask, give ourselves to them bound and blindfold, if only they will! Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again. We cannot blame men for making it. We can hardly wish them not to. Yet we can hardly bear that they should.

3. The state cannot save us from poverty.

A hungry man thinks about food, not freedom. We must give full weight to the claim that nothing but science, and science globally applied, and therefore unprecedented Government controls, can produce full bellies and medical care for the whole human race: nothing, in short, but a world Welfare State. It is a full admission of these truths which impresses upon me the extreme peril of humanity at present.

4. Freedom restores flourishing.

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 criticise 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? Admittedly, when man was untamed, such liberty belonged only to the few. I know. Hence the horrible suspicion that our only choice is between societies with few freemen and societies with none.

5. We are meant for more than a welfare state.

To live his life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death – these are wishes deeply ingrained in civilised man. Their realization is almost as necessary to our virtues as to our happiness. From their total frustration disastrous results both moral and psychological might follow.

To Lewis, the rise of the modern welfare state in the United Kingdom at that time was not true progress at all. He proposed that pushing back on the expanding government and reclaiming freedom would lead to true progress towards greater human flourishing.

Echoing Micah 4:4 which says, “Each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree, with no one to make them afraid”, Lewis envisioned a society where each person is free to sit under their own table and eat their own “mutton and turnips.”

These are the concerns Lewis expressed in 1958, but when considering the role of government, these are questions we must always consider, perhaps even over a pint at a pub with our friends just as C.S. Lewis would prefer.

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