C.S. Lewis believed that immutable and timeless universal principles governed all persons throughout time and space. Though these principles would find manifestations particular to era, culture, and individual, the rules remained eternal. Additionally, these natural laws would always and everywhere be “self-evident.” Men might choose to ignore, distort, or mock them, but they could not attenuate the laws themselves…
In the second chapter, “The Way,” of C.S. Lewis’s extraordinary 1943 book, The Abolition of Man, the author begins by lamenting the use of the words “progressive” and “efficient” as mere distractions and distortions. One would be hard pressed to find a word Lewis hated more than “progress.” His close friend and fellow intellect, Owen Barfield, noted that Lewis would visibly cringe when he heard the use of the word progress or progressive, believing these terms not only false but truly dangerous to the very health of humanity. Progressives, whether they recognize it openly or not, are more than willing to tear “the child almost from the breast to the crèche and kindergarten in the interests of progress and the coming race.”
Though somewhat less strident about the word “progress” in The Abolition of Man than in private conversations, Lewis notes that one must still always ask: “Progressing towards what?” Often, Lewis continues, those who believe in “progress” mean that believe progress necessary for the human race not only to advance, but merely to survive. Such desires, Lewis believed, are rooted in instinct, not reason. Reason might aid instinct, but the desire of the longevity of the human reason is simply an animalistic instinct. Yet, precariously, those who defend the survival of human reason on instinct are, in fact, undermining not only the natural law but reason as well. One current (then and now) expression of this false use of reason is the radical change in sexual mores and norms.
That, again, is why the modern situation permits and demands a new sexual morality: The old taboos served some real purpose in helping to preserve the species, but contraceptives have modified this and we can now abandon many of the taboos.
Those who have read Lewis’ best novel, That Hideous Strength (1945), know exactly what the author thinks about such changes in morality. The protagonist of the novel, Jane Studdock, employs birth control in the first several months of her marriage, not only nearly destroying the marriage, but also derailing centuries upon centuries of the continued lineage of King Arthur. Because of the mechanization of her own body, God’s plan for the reign of goodness derails. The entire plot of the novel depends on Jane’s choice. When our heroes revive a sleeping Merlin, absent for fourteen centuries, he finds Jane’s choice shocking: “Know well she has done in Logres a thing of which no less sorrow shall come than came of the stroke that Balinus struck. For, Sir, it was the purpose of God that she and her lord [Mark] should between them have begotten a child by whom the enemies should have been out of Logres for a thousand years.” Merlin cries,
Be assured that the child will never be born, for the hour of its begetting is passed. Of their own will they are barren: I did not know till now that the usages of Sulva were so common among you. For a hundred generations in two lines of begetting of this child was prepared; and unless God should rip up the work of time, such see, and such an hour, in such a land, shall never be again.
Clearly, privately and publicly, Lewis despised birth control.
As Lewis himself recognizes in The Abolition of Man, one should not mistake his hatred of “progress” for hopelessness. “I am man rather prone to think of remote futurity.” This, of course, was a gross understatement. In America, Ray Bradbury legitimized science fiction, but, in Britain, it was Lewis who had done so. Lewis desperately wanted a future based on “choice and reflection,” not one slavish to progressive ideologies, whether supposedly free or openly despotic.
As Lewis understood humanity and history, immutable and timeless universal principles governed all persons throughout time and space. Though these principles would find manifestations particular to era, culture, and individual, the rules remained eternal. Additionally, he argued, these natural laws—as Cicero would call them—or Tao would always and everywhere be “self-evident.” Men might choose to ignore, distort, or mock them, but they could not attenuate the laws themselves. These remained true no matter how perverted men might make them. It is worth quoting Lewis at length on this matter, so crucial is it to his argument—and, frankly, the argument of every right thinking, imaginative conservative.
To some it will appear that I have merely restored under another name what they always meant by basic or fundamental instinct. But much more than a choice of words is involved. The Innovator attacks traditional values (the Tao) in defense of what he at first supposes to be (in some special sense) ‘rational’ or ‘biological’ values. But as we have seen, all the values which he uses in attacking the Tao, and even claims to be substituting for it, are themselves derived from the Tao. If he had really started from scratch, from right outside the human tradition of value, no jugglery could have advanced him an inch towards the conception that a man should die for the community or work for posterity. If the Tao falls, all his own conceptions of value fall with it. Not one of them can claim any authority other than that of the Tao. Only by such shreds of the Tao as he has inherited is he enabled even to attack it. The question therefore arises what title he has to select bits of it for acceptance and to reject others. For if the bits he rejects have no authority, neither have those he retains: If what he retains is valid, what he rejects is equally valid too.
Critically, though we might well argue about how to make the natural laws real in our time and in our place, we have no right to argue about the existence of the laws themselves. They exist, and they always will. Again, to quote the master himself on this:
This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, 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. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world.
All ideologies, therefore—whether socialism, communism, fascism, democracy, democratic socialism, national socialism, etc.—are all inventions and, thus, false.
What purport to be new systems, or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies,’ all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. 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.
Every ideology, therefore, is a partial truth, but a truth exploded to insanity and devoid of context, proportionality, and balance. Fascism, for example, tells us to love our people. But if our love of our people becomes destructive to all other peoples, it has failed. Communism, as another example, tells us to love our community. But if our love of our community becomes destructive to all other communities, it has failed. Truth—that is, everlasting and permanent truth—demands immense humility on our part, a recognition that all we know is miniscule compared to what we never will or can know, as an individual and as a species. As such, we should never believe ourselves capable of remaking the world or even of making our own. The ideologue though hates anything gothic, anything that does not fit his own petty understanding of the world. In the Western tradition—from Heraclitus and Socrates forward—the greatest of thinkers have recognized the complexity not only of the human person, but also of the human race. In response, the truly humane person looks at the disparate things he knows, understanding that the things in between and beyond, he will never know. “So far from being able to harmonize discrepancies in its letter by penetration to its spirit,” Lewis laments, the ideologue “merely snatches at someone precept, on which the accidents of time and place happen to have riveted his attention, and then rides it to death.”
As such, the ideologue might very well be righteous, but he is almost never right.
This is the second essay in this series. The first essay can be found here.
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