Most of us are familiar with C. S. Lewis’s theological and philosophical writings, but you’ve made a point of drawing us to a neglected aspect of his thought, a deep-seated antipathy to “statism.” First of all, what is statism?
Theroux: Statism is the view that all social and economic power in society should be concentrated in a highly centralized government that controls decision-making and all aspects of life. Statism holds that government is the only source of morality and law, individuals have no sovereign rights, and the rule of law is replaced by arbitrary rule of an elite, unchecked by natural law, religion, common law, or tradition. As such, statism creates a society of masters and slaves and is another term for totalitarianism.
Statism takes various forms and there are a variety of collectivist ideologies that have been used to justify statism, including fascism, corporatism, socialism, communism, theocracy, etc. However, all forms of statism consist of an elite that imposes rules on the rest of society and enforces them through lethal force. To gain and maintain power, such systems control all information through propaganda by a state-controlled media, rule by a single party and repression of opponents, personality cults and nationalism, control over the family and economy, restriction of speech, mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror.
In this regard, a popular slogan of Mussolini and the Italian Fascists was “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” C.S. Lewis drew a clear distinction between the reality and importance of individual liberty, and the tendencies to fall prey to the absurdities and dangers of statism:
The first of these tendencies is the growing exaltation of the collective and the growing indifference to persons. . . . if one were inventing a language for “sinless beings who loved their neighbours as themselves” it would be appropriate to have no words for “my,” “I,” and “other personal pronouns and inflexions.” In other words . . . no difference between two opposite solutions of the problem of selfishness: between love (which is a relation between persons) and the abolition of persons. Nothing but a Thou can love and a Thou can exist only for an I. A society in which no one was conscious of himself as a person over against other persons, where none could say “I love you,” would, indeed, be free from selfishness, but not through love. It would be “unselfish” as a bucket of water is unselfish. . . . [In such a case] the individual does not matter. And therefore when we really get going . . . it will not matter what you do to an individual.
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tts: Why was Lewis so fundamentally opposed to statism, especially what we might call the welfare state, a kind of “benevolent statism”?
Theroux: Lewis believed that each man and woman was individually created in the image of God and as such had a soul with a mind and free will. Individuals were not fodder to be owned by others but were free agents subject to divine natural law and answerable to their Creator for their choices. Being the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty, God wishes all people to seek Him, but to do so, they must be free to choose good or evil, as God had created them. Lewis noted that:
I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows. That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. . . . [S]ince we have sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality. . . . Theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us. [The Weight of Glory]
Lewis was unquestionably and profoundly interested in the ideas and institutions that were the basis for free and virtuous individuals and communities. But unlike “progressive” crusaders for predatory government power over the peaceful pursuits of innocent people, Lewis was never interested in politics and was deeply skeptical of government power and politicians, as expressed in the first two lines of his poem “Lines during a General Election”: “Their threats are terrible enough, but we could bear / All that; it is their promises that bring despair.” [Poems] He further noted that:
I do not like the pretensions of Government—the grounds on which it demands my obedience—to be pitched too high. I don’t like the medicine-man’s magical pretensions nor the Bourbon’s Divine Right. This is not solely because I disbelieve in magic and in Bossuet’s Politique. 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. [God in the Dock]
In his essay, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” Lewis discusses how without the necessary natural-law framing of social, legal, and political culture, mankind would no longer be recognized as worthy of rights or common decency, but instead would be left defenseless to oppression. And, of course, what this means is the elimination of what makes mankind human in the first place. As Lewis explained the problem:
Is there any possibility of getting the super Welfare State’s honey and avoiding the sting? Let us make no mistake about the sting. . . . 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 civilized man. [God in the Dock]
For Lewis the connection of the welfare state to tyranny and depravity was clear:
In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. . . . 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. We have on the one hand a desperate need: hunger, sickness, and dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnipotent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement? . . . The question about progress has become the question whether we can discover any way of submitting to the world-wide paternalism of a technocracy without losing all personal privacy and independence. . . . All that can really happen is that some men will take charge of the destiny of the others. They will be simply men; none perfect, some greedy, cruel and dishonest. The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it had done before? [God in the Dock]
tts: You note that Lewis was especially prescient in his warnings about the union of political and technical power in the state. What do we have to learn from Lewis here?
Theroux: For Lewis, science should be a quest for knowledge, and his concern was that in the modern era science is too often used instead as a quest by some for power over others. Lewis did not dispute that science is an immensely important tool to understand the natural world, but his larger point is that science cannot tell us anything that is ultimately important regarding what choices we should make. In other words, Lewis shows that “what is” does not indicate “what ought” to be. Scientists on their own are not able to address moral ethics, and all social and political questions are exclusively questions of morality:
[T]he new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge. . . . If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. . . . Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend. Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about science. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value. [God in the Dock]
When Marxist biologist J.B.S. Haldane attacked Lewis for being “anti-science” and against a “planned world,” Lewis wrote the following:
It certainly is an attack, if not on scientists, yet on something which might be called “scientism”—a certain outlook on the world which is casually connected with the popularization of the sciences, though it is much less common among real scientists than among their readers. It is, in a word, the belief that the supreme moral end is the perpetuation of our own species, and that this is to be pursued even if, in the process of being fitted for survival, our species has to be stripped of all those things for which we value it—of pity, of happiness, and of freedom. . . . Under modern conditions any effective invitation to Hell will certainly appear in the guise of scientific planning—as Hitler’s regime in fact did. Every tyrant must begin by claiming to have what his victims respect and to give what they want. The majority in most countries respect science and want to be planned. And, therefore, almost by definition, if any man or group wishes to enslave us it will of course describe itself as “scientific planned democracy.” All the more reason to look very carefully at anything which bears that label . . . .