Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Publish Date: May 18, 2017
Pages: 172 pages (Paperback)
With the steady stream of books by and about C.S. Lewis—many of them aimed at North American evangelicals—now entering its ninth decade, one might wonder whether there is much of anything on the subject left to say. The title of Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson’s new volume, C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law, however, boldly promises to at last shed light on a long-neglected dimension of C.S. Lewis’s thought, and represents part of the ongoing renaissance of Protestant interest in natural law theory as a compass for morality and politics.
The authors certainly have their work cut out for them, admitting frankly in the opening chapter that C.S. Lewis has long been seen as a deeply “apolitical” thinker, and for good reason. He rarely wrote on the subject of politics and then only (more often than not) to openly disclaim any interest in it. After canvassing the evidence for an apolitical Lewis, however, Dyer and Watson seek to qualify this picture by pointing out that Lewis’s letters show a frequent familiarity with political events, that his teaching and scholarship often encompassed political theory, and that, most importantly, we need to broaden our definition of politics to include questions such as “What is the good life? How should we live together?” When, they say, we think in these broader terms, we will find that “Lewis’s writings brim with political themes” (11).
Yet, as the book progresses it is difficult to feel that the promissory note given in the title, and in this opening chapter, is entirely paid off. Dyer and Watson certainly delve deep into C.S. Lewis’s corpus, revealing an impressive familiarity with his immense body of letters, lectures, and occasional writings (as well as the more well-known works). But all that this extensive trawl is able to yield in the end is two chapters (totaling around 50 pages)—chapters 5 and 6—that deal squarely with what we might properly consider questions of political theory. Moreover, these are the two least satisfactory chapters in the book, giving the distinct impression of “too little butter scraped over too much bread,” to quote the famous line from one of Lewis’s close friends.
Chapter Five attempts to show from very scattered evidence that Lewis’s understanding of the origin and purpose of government can be shown to be broadly that of a classical Lockean liberal, while Chapter Six argues—based on even more limited evidence—that Lewis adhered to a version of J.S. Mill’s “harm principle” in determining what sort of things government should legislate upon. The result was a profound suspicion of how much good governments could accomplish and a desire to limit their role to preventing only the more serious evils. Dyer and Watson admit that these commitments—particularly the latter, the “harm principle”—seem rather incongruous with the broadly Aristotelian and even Thomistic assumptions that seem to undergird most of the rest of Lewis’s thought. They seek to reconcile this tension by noting that for Lewis, these liberal and even apparently utilitarian principles function only in a “subsidiary” way, rather than as “overriding” principles (119). In other words, these principles are essentially pragmatic limitations drawn from a dim estimation of how well modern governments can pursue the good, rather than doctrinaire principles guiding his political theory.
This may be true enough. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if more light might not have been shed by comparing Lewis to examples of such a pragmatic liberalism as it appeared in early Protestant political thought. It is curious, for instance, that Dyer and Watson note earlier in the book the importance of Richard Hooker as an influence on Lewis’s Protestant natural-law theory, but do not consider the ways in which his political thought—poised midway between Aquinas and Locke, as it were—might also have shaped Lewis’s outlook.
The much stronger first half of the book—which alone is well worth the price of purchase—relates to the second part of the title: “natural law.” Although Lewis could probably not be called a “natural law theorist” in any formal sense, Dyer and Watson do a beautiful job of drawing out Lewis’s pervasive concern for a moral realism grounded in the creation order that undergirds our shared moral intuitions. For Lewis, this concern was not merely an academic one, but an urgent necessity in an era of moral chaos. As a Christian apologist, Dyer and Watson note, Lewis’s first and greatest concern was not with modern society’s rejection of distinctive Christian revelation, but with its rejection of fundamental moral order and a stable human nature that is more than merely material.
Without these foundations, Lewis argued, not only was Western society and political order doomed to the dark fate outlined in Lewis’s Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength, but also there was little chance of getting a hearing for the Gospel. One of the clearest statements of Lewis’s basic thesis appears in Chapter Three:
[Lewis] distanced himself from those who would claim “the world must return to Christian ethics in order to preserve civilization, or even in order to save the human species from destruction.” The truth of the matter, according to Lewis, was the reverse. Instead of returning to Christian ethics, the world must simply return to a belief in real, objective morality; only then would it be able to return to Christianity. For “Christianity is not the promulgation of a moral discovery. It is addressed only to penitents, only to those who admit their disobedience to the known moral law. It offers forgiveness for having broken, and supernatural help towards keeping, that law, and by so doing re-affirms it.” (45)
Accordingly, Dyer and Watson show, Lewis had little patience for the Barthianism just beginning to sweep the Christian world in his day, with its stark rejection of natural revelation and call for Christians to construct not merely their faith, but also their ethics and entire approach to the world, on special revelation alone. Although Barth is not particularly popular among American evangelicals, the same biblicist impulse has taken many other forms, such as the demand for a “biblical worldview” that would generate a distinctive Christian ethics and politics. In his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis identified this temptation as the same Puritan impulse that Richard Hooker fought many centuries ago. Lewis, like Hooker, argued that Protestantism should eschew this aberrant tendency within it and adhere to the older understanding of a Scripture that built upon a pre-existing foundation of creational order and conscience.
Here, I would argue, Lewis remains as relevant as ever, and his powerful arguments in works such as The Abolition of Man demand to be read and studied more deeply by Protestants today. The nihilistic modernism that he diagnosed there has since morphed into a nihilistic postmodernism, but the root cause—the idea that all value judgments are subjective preferences—remains unshaken. Too often, Christians oppose this threat by a fideistic apologetic that seems to present Christian truth as simply another individual value judgment—just one that happens to be true—rather than contending fiercely for a meaningful and rationally accessible cosmos. By offering a thorough exposition of this element of Lewis’s thought, and drawing upon many lesser-known writings to fill it out amply, Dyer and Watson have rendered a timely service to the modern Church.