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C.S. Lewis on the Specter of Totalitarianism

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The great Christian apologist’s “scientocracy” is upon us. What should be our response?

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It is safe to say C.S. Lewis is not known first of all for his treatment of totalitarianism. We are familiar with Lewis the Christian apologist, Lewis the writer of children’s stories and science fiction fantasy, Lewis the literary critic and Oxford don, and then chair of medieval and renaissance literature at Cambridge. We’re less familiar with Lewis the political thinker. But in the almost 60 years since he passed away, on November 22, 1963, we’ve come to learn more and more about Lewis’ significant interests in, and concerns about, politics.

This contradicts the conventional wisdom about Lewis, which was that he disdained and avoided politics. And yet we know that in every chapter of his biography, and in several of his writings and throughout his personal correspondence, politics is at the very least near the surface and at times front and center for Lewis.

Lewis was also steeped in the classical thinkers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, and so he was interested in justice, and injustice. One classical definition of justice is to give each his due, and injustice the denial of the same. Those themes run throughout his works. The classical definition of tyranny is to rule for one’s private interest rather than the good of the whole. We can think then of tyranny as injustice plus political power.

And then there’s totalitarianism. One definition of totalitarianism is a system of government in which the state aspires to control all aspects of life such that the personal/public divide is obliterated. We can think of totalitarianism then as injustice plus political power plus the technical means to apply that power universally and effectively.

Lewis delivered the lectures that later became The Abolition of Man and wrote the fictional version of Abolition, That Hideous Strength, primarily worried about a particular kind of totalitarianism: what he called “scientocracy.” In a letter to a Chicago journalist written in 1959, Lewis acknowledged that tyranny comes in different forms at different times:

Ought we to be surprised at the approach of “scientocracy”? In every age those who wish to be our masters, if they have any sense, secure our obedience by offering deliverance from our dominant fear. When we fear wizards, the Medicine Man can rule the whole tribe. When we fear a stronger tribe, our best warrior becomes King. When all the world fears Hell, the Church becomes a theocracy. “Give up your freedom and I will make you safe” is, age after age, the terrible offer. In England the omnipotent Welfare State has triumphed because it promised to free us from the fear of poverty.

It is crucial to note that Lewis believed that the omnipotent Welfare State will tackle real problems—real needs that demand responses. “We have on the one hand a desperate need: hunger, sickness, and the dread of war,” Lewis writes in his essay “Is Progress Possible?” “We have on the other [hand] the conception of something that might meet it: omnicompetent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement?”

Whereas the classical liberal understanding of politics is that we empower the state through our consent because it will protect our rights, Lewis feared the modern state purports to “do us good or make us good. . . . We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.”

What kept Lewis up at night was the combination of the tools of this “omnicompetent global technocracy” with how modernity, beginning primarily with Rousseau, has undermined the very conditions by which people can believe in a genuine and objective moral reality. Lewis wrote about Rousseau and others in his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. For the ancient thinkers—pagan, Jewish, Christian, Stoic—the chief goal of philosophy and politics was to determine what ultimate reality was and what it demanded of human beings, and then educate human beings so as to align with that moral reality as much as possible. With Rousseau we have a rejection not only of natural law but of a fixed human nature entirely, such that the nature of philosophy changes from discovery of and adaptation to reality to the endless possibilities of creation and innovation. Nature no longer provides the guide but is itself the object of power. Rousseau says his miraculous legislator in his Social Contract “must feel capable of, so to speak, changing human nature.”

“Certain it is in the long run,” Rousseau writes in his Political Economy, “peoples are what governments make them be.”

What happens, Lewis worried, when those governments move first from protecting our rights to being charged with improving our lives and then seeing their mandate as improving us, to “improving” on human nature itself? What happens when the government is no longer a creature of “we the people” but “we the people” are subject to be crafted/shaped/molded by our governments?

Lewis wrote Abolition not to persuade readers of the truths of Christianity, nor even theism, nor the superiority of Western civilization. He would hardly have chosen the word Tao to refer to morality if that was what he was up to.

His question is this: Is there a moral reality woven into the fabric of the universe such that we can discover what is true about right and wrong and act accordingly? Or is morality something malleable, a tool for the powerful or for unguided evolution or for the flow of History with a capital H, something that we need not discover but now that we have come of age can create and shape for ourselves? From Antigone’s challenge to Creon to the serpent in Genesis asking “Did God really say?”; from Plato’s battle with the sophists to Pilate’s “What is truth?”; from Rousseau’s reimagined natureless state of nature to the truths we hold to be self-evident; from Nietzsche’s creative supermen to today’s transhumanists—this is arguably the question that lies beneath all of our disputes and controversies. And one does not have to be a Christian or even a theist, nor dismiss Lewis as a “mystic,” in order to find his argument sound. The prominent British philosopher and atheist John Gray finds Abolition to be a trenchant and persuasive book. It is striking that Lewis appeals to neither divine revelation nor religious scripture to ground his arguments.

Abolition addresses this perennial and paramount question about moral reality, and in doing so takes the side of Antigone and Plato and the Bible and Confucius, and opposes Thrasymachus, Rousseau, Nietzsche, B.F. Skinner, and our modern skeptics and transhumanists like Ray Kurtzweil and others. Whereas many of Lewis’ works describe and defend the divine Author of the moral law in both his special and general revelation, Abolition concerns itself only with the reality of the moral law itself, and the stark alternatives to a belief in objective morality.

There’s not space in this essay to rehearse Lewis’ treatment of this question here, but I can highlight three ideas that might provoke some commonality and some contrast between Lewis and Ayn Rand, whose The Fountainhead came out the same year as Abolition (1943).

First, an education proper to human beings depends on the nature of those human beings, and human beings are both reasoning and affective, or feeling, creatures. But while both reason and feelings are necessary, reason is in the driver’s seat. Lewis understood reason to be more than mere calculation insofar as he accepted the Platonic understanding of a human being as composed of reason, emotion, and appetites; the head, the heart, and the stomach; and the corresponding virtues for each part of the human soul: wisdom for the head, courage for the heart, and moderation for the stomach. When these are in their proper order, we have the fourth cardinal virtue—justice. The point of education is to properly align our emotions such that they correspond correctly to this or that value, or reality. Contra Hobbes and Hume, reason is not purely instrumental: Hobbes is wrong to claim that “thoughts are to the desires as scouts and spies, to range abroad, and find the way to the things desired,” and Hume is wrong to say that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Hobbes and Hume turn the human being upside down such that reason can only serve our appetites: Our stomachs are in charge and our hearts and heads follow.

In the first chapter of Abolition, Lewis is critical of the elementary school books he considers because they eviscerate the proper place of emotions and instrumentalize the guiding role of reason, leading to truncated young people who will be ripe for any kind of sentimental propaganda that can feed that genuine need they’ve been denied. Remember that Lewis’ totalitarian regimes will always attempt to provide some genuine good that has been neglected.

Second, what reason reveals to us is a reality that does not depend on us for its truth. This is just to say that Lewis in Abolition is staking a claim for a sort of moral realism, but he’s also doing this in an interesting way. He explicitly avoids speculating as to how it has come about that the universe really is the way it is. While we know from his other works that he has a theistic and indeed Christian explanation, he aims here for something of an “overlapping consensus” about the bedrock reality of moral truths regarding the sort of creatures we are and what our flourishing looks like. Thus Lewis and Rand can both oppose omnicompetent government while strongly disagreeing on two important matters. First, the underlying explanation for why totalitarian government is wrong: Is it wrong because it tramples on the rights of truly remarkable individuals who are guided by rational egoism, or is it wrong because it violates the rights of creatures made in God’s image, creatures the Apostle Paul (and John Locke!) describes as “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

The second important matter is what exactly human flourishing looks like. Lewis and Rand both champion an understanding of freedom such that they robustly criticized overactive governments, but their conceptions of what genuine freedom consisted of could hardly be more different. Lewis, for example, strongly agreed with the Scottish poet and preacher George MacDonald’s quip that “the one principle of Hell is: ‘I am my own.’” Rand, I suspect, would not agree.

But disagreement on these admittedly very important matters doesn’t preclude agreement on opposing totalitarianism, in word and deed. After all, the enemy of my enemy is . . . well, if not my friend in Lewis and Rand’s case, given her bitterly critical marginalia in her copy of Abolition, perhaps my “frenemy.”

Finally, Lewis’ work in Abolition and elsewhere continues to strike a chord, and I suspect this is part of Rand’s continued prominence as well, because technology has advanced far enough to render questions about reengineering human nature practical and no longer merely hypothetical. While the debate about the relationship between morality and human nature stretches back to Antigone and before, the means to accomplish the abolition of man and woman seem closer to reality than they have ever been. Whereas the scientific experiments Lewis describes in Abolition and its fictional counterpart, That Hideous Strength, had a definite science fiction feel to them in the 1940s, the modern attempts to transfer or upload human consciousness, significantly delay or even eradicate death, and bioengineer coming generations no longer feels so far off in the future.

If that’s the case, we do well to continue to revisit these two very different but quite incisive thinkers.

Adapted from remarks delivered on November 30, 2022, at the University of Texas at Austin: “Ayn Rand & C.S. Lewis on the Specter of Totalitarianism: A Conversation with Yaron Brook and Micah Watson,” sponsored by the Salem Center and the Civitas Institute.

Micah Watson

Micah Watson is an affiliate scholar with the Acton Institute and the Paul Henry Chair for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin University.