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c.s. lewis natural lawDuring England’s darkest days of World War II, hope emerged from an unlikely source. An Oxford don–a professor of English literature, who would later be best known for a seven-part children’s fantasy series–gave frequent public addresses to the English people. Their purpose was to bolster English spirits. In late February, 1943, he devoted three of his addresses to a philosophical rather than a theological question. These relatively heady lectures were entitled: “Men without Chests,” “The Way,” and “The Abolition of Man.” In each, C.S. Lewis addressed the nature and the future of character in England. Rather than spending his address on buoying the optimism of the English during the war against the German National Socialists, Lewis decided to ask for what the English were really fighting. Freedom from Nazi brutality was good, of course, but not, he argued, if it merely led to the victory of the “conditioners,” the democratic bureaucrats on the loose in England who served as an internal threat. The conditioners claimed to be liberating individuals from arbitrary restraints imposed by “religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ and ‘basic’ values may emerge.” In other words, the conditioners needed to destroy history and faith, which they claimed as artificial shackles on the true, unadulterated self.

Such debasement of tradition, C.S. Lewis argued, can only lead to the creation of man-made (and consequently, man-centered) philosophies, ignoring the Creator and ignoring the creation, thus ignoring the Natural Law. But, the Natural Law, Lewis cautioned, “is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. Anything created outside of the Natural Law will simply be mere “ideologies,” that is, finite systems created by finite minds, shadows of shadows of a complex and nuanced world. “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in,” C.S. Lewis concluded.

Two years later, Mr. Lewis published his ideas on character, virtue, and the Natural Law in novel form, That Hideous Strength, part three of his renowned space trilogy. Published two years before George Orwell’s similar anti-totalitarian masterpiece, C.S. Lewis’ novel is a theistic 1984. The story revolves around a group of academic and bureaucratic conditioners–known as the N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments) who take over a small but elite English college as a prelude to a takeover of Britain. To stop “That Hideous Strength,” a new King Arthur emerges in the form of a philology professor, Dr. Ransom. With the aid of small group of friends, he awakens Merlin from a fifteen-century sleep. Modernity perplexes Merlin. In a telling conversation, Merlin states:

This is a cold age in which I have awaked. If all this West part of the world is apostate, might it not be lawful, in our great need, to look farther . . . beyond Christendom? Should we not find some even among the heathen who are not wholly corrupt? There were tales in my day of some such: men who knew not the articles of our most holy Faith, but who worshipped God as they could and acknowledged the Law of Nature. Sir, I believe it would be lawful to seek help even there. Beyond Byzantium.

Dr. Ransom responds:

You do not understand. The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren books: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshiping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all.

C.S. Lewis was virulently anti-Nazi and anti-communist, but he knew that capitalism has its own risks. The West has bred all three political/economic systems. As an ideology, man-made, and man-centered, industrial capitalism may appear as a brightly colored package, more pleasing to the eye than the grittiness of socialism, but it too desires to make man a means to an end, to make him a mere cog in a machine. The surest way to do that, is to destroy a people’s confidence by crushing the belief that character and virtue emerge from history and religion, as well as being rooted in the Natural Law.

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2 replies to this post
  1. Thanks, Brad. Good article. “As an ideology, man-made, and man-centered, industrial capitalism may appear as a brightly colored package, more pleasing to the eye than the grittiness of socialism, but it too desires to make man a means to an end, to make him a mere cog in a machine. The surest way to do that, is to destroy a people’s confidence by crushing the belief that character and virtue emerge from history and religion, as well as being rooted in the Natural Law.” In our C.S. Lewis round table I was trying to hint at this by speaking about the victory of Utilitarianism.

  2. “As an ideology, man-made, and man-centered, industrial capitalism may appear as a brightly colored package, more pleasing to the eye than the grittiness of socialism, but it too desires to make man a means to an end, to make him a mere cog in a machine.”

    This is a Left Kantian social critique. C. S. Lewis wasn’t immune from it either. But we should call it what it is. Capitalism isn’t an ideology, that people should be allowed to freely trade with one another is an ideology. Capitalism is a popularized term for societies where that happens, and it isn’t at all clear its a valid term. Is it a coherent and integrated set of beliefs such as socialism and communism? I’d say no. I’d say the entire meaning of the term was inspired by the fact that the latter two are coherent and integrated set of beliefs. But it doesn’t make it so.

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