Sunday, September 25, 2016

"The political magic of C.S. Lewis" went just so far

In a NYT op-ed, Christian conservative Peter Wehner, whose principled opposition to Trump is worthy of respect, holds up C. S. Lewis as a repository of conservative political wisdom:
Professors Dyer and Watson write that Lewis had “a very limited view of government’s role and warrant,” was skeptical of its capacity to inculcate virtue and worried about its paternalistic tendencies. The duty of government was to restrain wrongdoing. Because he believed in the fallen nature of humanity, Lewis was concerned by the concentration of political power. “It is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects — military, political, economic, and what not,” Lewis wrote. “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.”

Lewis was wary of “morals legislation.” For example, during a period when the criminalization of homosexuality was considered by many to be justified, Lewis asked, “What business is it of the State’s?” Nor did he believe it was the duty of government to promote the Christian ideal of marriage. “A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone,” he wrote in “Mere Christianity.” “I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.”
Wehner's portrayal of what Andrew Sullivan would call Lewis' "conservatism of doubt" is accurate as far it goes. That doubt was tonic in some ways. Lewis recognized that theocracy is the worst form of government; that God could be dragooned into support almost any political agenda; and that democracy was necessary to check the corrupting influence of power.

These points reflect Lewis' fundamental sanity and humility. They leave out, however, the limitations of his political perspective.

First, Lewis did not believe in human progress. He lambasted his own era's chronological chauvinism, the assumption that currently fashionable ideas represented progress. That can be refreshing to a point, but he failed to recognize that standards for human rights -- and really, therefore, human ethics -- had advanced with time. That's understandable for someone whose adulthood was dominated by two world wars.  But while he lamented his era's loss of faith, exaltation of technological progress and skepticism of objective truth, he was not attuned to developments such as the universal declaration of human rights, women's drive for more autonomy and opportunity (though he did endow his female fictional characters with more of both than most male writers of his time), or the material reduction of poverty and ignorance in his own country in his own era in contrast to prior ones.

Second, well versed though he was in Aristotle, Lewis had no concept of human beings as political animals -- no sense that we fulfill a part of our nature as intelligent and social beings by participating in governance. He said about himself, "I'm not fit to run a henhouse," and that's charming. But even people with no administrative or "leadership" capacity (and he was an intellectual leader of sorts) should be engaged in holding government accountable and helping to move government in directions they think prudent. Lewis acknowledged democracy as a kind of necessary evil -- a check on our fallen nature.  He did not see it as an instrument that could lead to permanent, progressive improvement in human life.

Finally, Lewis was a Christian chauvinist and a western chauvinist. He regarded eastern societies as fundamentally despotic and cruel, and Islam as a heresy that went hand-in-hand with despotism -- as is reflected in his portrayal in the Chronicles of Narnia of Calormene, a desert kingdom reflecting an Orientalist view of the Ottoman and/or earlier Muslim caliphates.

Back to the plus side, Lewis' fiction, in Narnia and elsewhere, expresses a casual, supple sense of how despots think and how they terrorize and manipulate. His tyrants' motives are simple -- pride, will to dominance, greed -- but the way they view others as instruments and pawns, and the way they bluster and manipulate, rings very true. A master stroke is the Ape in The Last Battle, who finds a lion skin in a river, dresses his simple and easily dominated donkey sidekick in it, passes him off as Aslan, Narnia's Christ figure, and proceeds to convince the surrounding (talking) animals that this Aslan commands them to labor like slaves and follow a bunch of arbitrary rules. Then, when his fraud is about to be exposed, he preempts the exposure and announces that a fake Aslan has been trotted about. One group of Narnians, the dwarves, conclude that Aslan was always a fraud and tool of the country's prior rulers, and other Narnians also lose their basis for choosing between legitimate authority and those who would enslave them.  This Ape is really not a bad analogue of Trump.

More on Lewis' great gifts and limitations here.

And still more:
A stealth modernist's divine lamppost
Joy Eludes the Archbishop
These books are for kids? C.S. Lewis says no
C. S. Lewis, democrat by default
Dreams of purity are pernicious
Siblings at the end of days

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