C.S. Lewis on Politics

lewis-coverI have on several occasions in the past mentioned that C.S. Lewis’s short and elegant book on moral philosophy, The Abolition of Man, could be read as a preface to Leo Strauss’s much more dense Natural Right and History, and further wondered whether these roughly contemporary thinkers were ever aware of one another, despite being in different academic disciplines and in different countries.

Clifford Angel Bates, a pal of mine at the University of Warsaw, passed along this interesting paragraph, taken from page 143 of the transcript of Leo Strauss’s 1962 class on Rousseau at the University of Chicago:

May I mention one point? We don’t have time to read it here: there is a book, or rather a series of lectures by C.S. Lewis, the English author, The Abolition of Man, which is worth reading from every point of view. It is his criticism of social science positivism or [right]. And he calls these men here, in the first lecture, “men without chests,” meaning they admit bodily desires, and they admit reasoning, in a way: namely, how to get the objects of bodily desires. The other things, the values, as they are called, are merely subjective. In other words, there is a lower part of the body, stomach and below, and there is a brain; but there is nothing in between. There is no heart. This is not a bad description of this view of man. I recommend it to your reading. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, New York, 1959.

I’m not aware that Lewis ever took note of Strauss’s congenial work, and Lewis, while obviously a philosophical and theological conservative, has generally been regarded as apolitical. On the surface this is true, but if you look beneath the surface, you find that Lewis understood that most political questions cannot escape metaphysical questions.

This is the subject of a splendid new book I’ve been meaning to mention for weeks: Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson’s C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law. In one sentence, it could be said that Lewis, although formally a professor of literature, was a “natural lawyer.” Here’s how Dyer and Watson set it up:

It is undeniable and unsurprising that Lewis held many politicians in disdain and was pessimistic about the potential for political solutions to live up to their advertising. Nevertheless, the conventional claims about the apolitical Lewis are overstated. We know from Lewis’ personal letters, his education and teaching, and his published works that he was both very interested in and knowledgeable about politics and political thought. Of course, for our purposes, much depends on how one defines “politics.” It is true that Lewis was not actively involved in partisan politics and took little interest in transitory policy questions. But politics in the fullest sense means more than parliamentary intrigue and debates about taxes and tariffs. In reality, Lewis did have much to say about the underlying foundations of a just political order. Though he may not have been interested in contemporaneous political maneuvering, he was, as John West notes, always interested in identifying the “permanent in the political.”

There’s much more in this splendid book than just Lewis’s natural law teachings. There’s also a lot about how Lewis’s thought matched up to Karl Barth, arguably the most important Protestant theologian of the 20th century. Worth a look for readers interested in this domain.

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