C.S. Lewis’s Warning for Times Like These

March 18, 2020 Updated: March 24, 2020
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Commentary

C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) is best known as the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century and as the beloved children’s author who gave us “The Chronicles of Narnia.” His “Mere Christianity” is still a major seller every year, and the Narnia books continue to inspire young readers and movie-goers as well.

What many don’t realize about Lewis is that he had profound political thoughts and wrote articulately about politics, government, and human liberty.

One reason most of his fans don’t realize his politics is because he didn’t want it to be a distraction from his more important work of apologetics. For instance, he once refused a high honor from the government of Winston Churchill because he didn’t want people to dismiss his work as being driven by political concerns.

Still, once you look for Lewis’s politics, you will see his concerns embedded throughout his work—from his poetry to his novels to his scholarship to his apologetics. Of foremost concern in his political thought was the prevention of political tyranny and encouraging rebellion against it when it does exist.

Readers can see that theme throughout his work. In “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” for instance, one encounters the dictatorial White Witch tyrannizing over a populace just trying to be left alone to live their lives.

Later in the “Chronicles,” the reader encounters a fratricidal king, a demagogic false prophet wielding power, and the dictator of a slave-based foreign land planning an invasion of Narnia and its neighbors.

In his last space novel, “That Hideous Strength,” the reader sees political bureaucrats aligned with scientists and the academy to trample the traditional communities and values of rural England. They do it, of course, under the guise of serving a higher scientific and humanitarian cause and by branding themselves the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments (or “NICE”).

Lewis also wrote overtly political essays, one of which speaks directly to the current crisis brought about by the novel coronavirus. In his essay “Is Progress Possible?”, which is available today in the collection “God in the Dock,” Lewis lays out a formula whereby public servants and scientists can end up wielding tyrannical power following a crisis.

It all begins with a problem, real or perceived, and a promise of being able to fix it. “We have on the one hand a desperate need,” he wrote. “We have, on the other hand, the conception of something that might meet it.” Writing in 1958, he called that something an “omnicompetent global technocracy.” Whatever we call it today, it would be a coalition of science and public power—technocrats, bureaucrats, and political leaders.

“Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement?” he asks. “This is how it has entered before; a desperate need (real or apparent) in the one party; a power (real or apparent) to relieve it, in the other.”

It could be a hungry individual selling him or herself into slavery in order to eat, or a society under siege entrusting power to the warlord who promises salvation from the barbarians. “Give them what they ask, give ourselves to them bound and blindfolded, if only they will!”

Lewis warns us, “Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again.”

Today, the United States and the world seems to be in a time of tremendous need—a pandemic is sweeping across the globe—and political power is aligned with science to combat it. Increasingly aggressive actions are being taken, and those measures are leading to an economic crisis as the economy quickly grinds to a halt with businesses shuttered and social isolation imposed.

Governments are now organizing to replace some of the lost natural economic enterprise of free individuals with new government programs, stimulus packages, and ever higher deficit spending. At the end of this pandemic, what will be the newly accepted size and scope of government and scientific power?

This essay is not in any way meant to lower our vigilance against the scourge of COVID-19. Our need is real, not imagined, and it is incumbent on us all to do our part to blunt this virus before our hospitals are overwhelmed and our older loved ones are put in mortal danger.

It is, on the other hand, meant to encourage us to use C.S. Lewis to help us evaluate our needs, determine who best can provide for them, and consider at what cost they may be ameliorated. As government authority is exercised to degrees we have never seen in peacetime, we must all remain vigilant so that when this crisis is over, the state is rolled back and freedom and free enterprise are restored.

I said Lewis’s essay from which this is drawn was titled “Is Progress Possible?” I didn’t mention that its subtitle was “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.”

When this crisis ends—and it will end—let us not be the new willing slaves, but rather heed Lewis’s warning and remain free and independent citizens of a limited republic.

Gary L. Gregg is director of the McConnell Center and host of the great books podcast Vital Remnants.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.