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During World War II, C.S. Lewis realized that both the Allies and the Axis were abandoning the traditional morality of the Christian West, the great principle of which is that certain acts are intrinsically right or wrong…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Joseph Sobran as he considers the prophetic nature of C.S. Lewis with respect to sovereignty and the ever increasing role of the state. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

Deep political wisdom can be found in a writer who took very little interest in politics: C.S. Lewis, a scholar who achieved his greatest fame as a popular Christian writer.

Lewis was sometimes laughably ignorant of current events. His friends were once amused to discover that he was under the impression that Tito, the Communist dictator of Yugoslavia, was the king of Greece. But the very distance he kept from politics enabled him to see large outlines invisible to those preoccupied with the daily news.

During World War II, Lewis realized that both the Allies and the Axis were abandoning the traditional morality of the Christian West and indeed of all sane civilizations. The great principle of this morality is that certain acts are intrinsically right or wrong. In a gigantic war among gigantic states, Lewis saw that modern science was being used amorally on all sides to dehumanize and annihilate enemies. When peace came, the victorious states would feel released from moral restraints.

Lewis cited an old theological question:

It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them. With Hooker [Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian], and against Dr. [Samuel] Johnson, I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion…that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it—that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right.

It was dangerous to believe that sheer will, even God’s will, can be the ultimate source of right and wrong.

Lewis saw a parallel danger in “the modern theory of sovereignty,” which holds that the state can make right and wrong by sheer act of will:

On this view, total freedom to make what laws it pleases, superiority to law because it is the source of law, is the characteristic of every state; of democratic states no less than of monarchical. That doctrine has proved so popular that it now seems to many a mere tautology. We conceive with difficulty that it was ever new because we imagine with difficulty how political life can ever have gone on without it. We take it for granted that the highest power in the State, whether that power is a despot or a democratically elected assembly, will be wholly free to legislate and incessantly engaged in legislation.

As a result of the theory of sovereignty, Lewis observed, “Rulers have become owners.” He added: “We are less their subject 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.” As the state offers us less and less protection, “at the same time it demands from us more and more. We seldom had fewer rights and liberties nor more burdens: and we get less security in return. While our obligations increase their moral ground is taken away.”

Lewis was alarmed by another development we now take for granted: state control of education. He wrote:

I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the free-born mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?

The “new society” was creating “membership in a debased modern sense—a massing together of persons as if they were pennies or counters.” It was “trying to drag the featureless repetition of the collective into the fuller and more concrete world of the family.”

More clearly than even Huxley and Orwell, Lewis saw that politics without morality could only end in tyranny.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in March 2012. Copyright © 2011 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This essay was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate on June 13, 2000, and is republished with permission.

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5 replies to this post
  1. The photograph, too, is interesting: Lewis and a group of chaplains during wartime. None of them is overweight, and the clothing of all of them is a bit shabby, their pockets bulging with what they need for the day instead of being packed away in luggage for someone else to carry. One infers that none of them will be leaving the conference in a luxurious government aircraft – they are sharing the hunger and rigors of hard times.

  2. The problem in both alternatives are that it looks like good or evil are in the actions it self, and it is not. I can’t agree with Lewis because God is the source of goodness. This means he can arbitrarily choose things because they will always be good as he is. Arbitrarily here, means that he is the only one with free will (after all, he is the God, the supreme lord of every thing) but on the other side, he isn’t able to do evil. All the other article’s parts are great.

  3. God created everything and everyone, and in the process also created a law, Natural Law. Having done so, he couldn’t then violate his own law.

  4. Both Gigio and Tom are espousing is exactly what C.S. Lewis was arguing against. It is known as Theological Voluntarism.

    In this view God is not bound by any conception of good or evil. Rather whatever God wills is good simply because God wills it.

    By extension this means logically that God’s will is not guided by any over-arching principle. He does not do things because they are good, or not do things because they are evil. He simply does or does not do completely arbitrarily. If he does it defined as good.

    There are a number of problems with this view as CS Lewis points out. Chief among them is that in this view “goodness” is essentially a sham. Goodness doesn’t actually mean anything other than simply “fact”. This view makes it largely pointless to describe anything as “good” much less debate whether something is good or not.

    It also becomes a meaningless tautology to say that “God is the source of goodness”. All you are saying at this point is “God is the source of God’s will” or “God is the source of God”.

    This also means that God’s will is, as you say, arbitrary. You attempt to qualify this but there is really only one qualifier possible to the arbitrary nature of God’s will in this view and that is stability. In other words, once God has arbitrarily willed something, his will is internally consistent and does not change. In other words, you could argue that God essentially binds himself by his own will. At which point, this voluntarism which is supposed to guarantee divine freedom and sovereignty begins to turn even God into a slave to his own decrees.

    The classic example of this is that early proponents of Voluntarism argued that God could have made love a sin and murder a virtue. It was completely arbitrary that he willed love rather than murder, but once he willed it, it became law forever.

    The correct view, which is espoused by CS Lewis above, is that goodness is not defined arbitrarily by God’s will, rather it is defined by God’s nature. In other words, things are not good simply because God wills them but rather that God wills according to his nature and God’s nature is the source of all goodness. Thus God wills things because they are good.

    God did not arbitrarily will that love would be good and murder evil. Love is good because God’s eternally unchanging nature is love. He wills love, because love is good, because love is his nature.

    This places no restriction upon God other than that he must be true to his own nature. In other words, the only restriction found here is that God must be God and he can’t not be God. Perhaps ironically, voluntarism actually does place restrictions upon God because by every act of will he goes from a state of complete freedom into a state of bounded restriction. In this view, every time God wills something, He becomes less free and less sovereign.

    Another irony of the Voluntaristic view is that is usually leads people around to the conclusion that God,, who’s will is by definition good, wills that people do evil. Which of course is a logical contradiction. It would mean that God wills evil, this in turn could only be defended by arguing that those evil-doers exist for a greater purpose which itself is good. However, this would first mean that the ends really does justify the means and that doing evil to accomplish good is correct morality, and in fact divine morality. Second it would mean that those who do evil are serving a higher purpose and or essentially disobeying a lower command in order to obey a higher command and it would still mean that they are, therefore, unjustly punished for doing evil.

    The nature of Creation is Love, perhaps best described as complete generosity. In Creation God gives each thing to itself. Creation is inherently good because it is born of God’s nature. Which is the same thing as saying that everything in creation is good by nature. Goodness, existence, Truth, Beauty, all come from God because his nature is the source of all of them. But in creation he gives them truly to every created thing. This is not pantheism because in Christianity we recognize that all things exist distinct from God. They are not merely manifestations of God, or “parts” of his being or nature. Rather they are real, distinct entities that are all given their own nature from God’s infinite divine nature. They are not God, but they are all in some way like God. Even if only in that they exist, and are good, and true, and beautiful.

    There is a kind of negative freedom that human beings (and angels) have which God does not have. God does not have it precisely because it is not a real freedom, but rather a negative freedom. This negative freedom is the “ability” to lack, or to suffer privation.

    God is perfectly free to be himself, and his only “limitation” is that he cannot, not be himself. But this is not a real “limitation”. Rather it is a lack of limitation. We, on the other hand, because we can “lack” because we can suffer privation, are capable of NOT being fully ourselves. We are capable of denying our own nature and failing to be who and what we are supposed to be. This is the definition of evil.

    Further, once we, as a race, chose to lack, we are no longer capable of fulfilling our nature of under our own power. For to argue that we can choose to lack, and yet still have fullness is to defy the most basic law of logic, the law of non-contradiction.

    This demonstrates that acts are correctly spoken of as being good or evil in themselves. An act is objectively good in itself if it is in accord with our true, divinely given nature. An act is objectively evil in itself if it is a denial of our true, divinely given nature. Evil acts are those in which we choose lack, or privation. In which we choose to be less than what God made us to be.

    Of course, God remains at the center of all being. All existence points to God, all goodness points to God, all Truth, points to God, all beauty points to God. To say an act is good means that it is in accord with true created human nature, but it also means that it is in accord with God’s nature because created human nature comes from and points to God’s nature.

  5. According to Jeff Benner in his essay titled “The Nature of God (Elohim), “The modern western perspective of God ignores the Hebraic concept of “balance,” which is an integral part of the Ancient Hebrews perspective of who God is.” He continues a little further along: “In the following two verses we can see this balance of positive and negative within the actions of Elohim.

    In the beginning Elohim created the heavens and the earth. (Gen 1:1)

    I (Elohim) will destroy all flesh with the earth. (Gen 6:13)

    And further down he points out the following: “In the next two verses we see contrasting attributes of Yahweh, mercy (positive) and a consuming fire (negative).

    Yahweh your Elohim is a consuming fire. (Deut 4:24)

    Yahweh your Elohim is a merciful El. (Deut 4:31)

    “In Deuteronomy 30:1 Yahweh provides blessings (positive) and curses (negative). In Isaiah 45:7 we are told God makes peace (positive) and evil (negative).”

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