On C. S. Lewis

The greatest joy of this blog for me are the emails. And this one, written for no one's eyes but my own, conveys what I mean:

Andrew, one of your "young conservative" influences jumped out at me because I share it -- CS Lewis.  As with you in more recent years, I read him compulsively even though his thinking in 450pxeagle_and_child many ways drove me up the wall.  In fact I've had an endless running dialogue with him in my head -- though since he died when I was a toddler, I never had a chance to write to him (if I had, he would have written back -- he made himself answer all letters, though he "dreaded the postman's knock"). I suspect that some of the doggedly antimodern elements of his conservatism inform your own. Give me time, I'll get there...

I think Lewis was so compelling because, first, he was incomparable at evoking "joy" as he defined it. Whatever idea and yearning for "heaven" I ever had came from Narnia. Second, I think he had an intuitive -- not theoretical -- grasp of psychology -- he was one of those people who reads his own mind so well, he knows a good deal about how all human minds (and wills and emotions) work.The bickering of the children in The Magician's Nephew, Eustace's redemption in Dawn Treader, the seeds of human hatred elucidated by Screwtape -- and above all, the parental love turned to jealous gall in Till We Have Faces -- his greatest imaginative leap and rendition of the romance of the soul --have a kind of easy, intimate verity that give his spiritual dramas life.

At the same time, when it came to doctrine and apologetics, I think he was an unwitting sophist -- an honest sophist, if that makes any sense, because he fooled himself first.

He had a ridiculously thin dodge against the then au courant Freudian claims that God was the expression of various unconscious wishes: that we have equally strong unconscious wishes for there to be no God. Not true, where he was concerned. His need is palpable -- and poignant, given the brutalities and deprivations of his childhood and early manhood -- his mother's death at eight, a school he called "Belsen" and others almost equally brutal, and then a stint in the trenches beginning on his nineteenth birthdy and ending months later with a serious wound (he found school more trying).  If anyone ever needed an omniscient, omnibenevolent parent, it was CSL.

His motives can't be proved. Fair enough.  What's palpably ridiculous are his warmed-over medieval arguments for the objective truth of Christian doctrine. One was that Christ had to be "either a God or a devil" - or self-delusive megalomaniac, as we'd now say. While sniping at the imperfections of scientific Biblical scholarship, Lewis shut his eyes to the painstaking work of two centuries that convincingly discerned different voices, sources, periods, influences on Biblical text. There's also no recognition in his work that people from different eras might perceive and express truth differently -- i.e., that someone in an earlier era who claimed to deliver God's words directly might be neither a fraud nor God's stenographer.

Then there's the cultural chauvinism in his claims that other religious traditions foreshadowed or provided latter-day distortions of Christianity -- the one truth, which worked like something "gradually coming into focus."  And the absurd argument that God would create the physical laws of the universe in part to get our attention by His deliberate breaking of them through miracles.  And his over-correction of what he called (this may be a paraphrase) our era's chronological snobbery -- an assumption that new ideas are inherently superior to old ones. Lewis, making the opposite error, refused to acknowledge any lasting advances in political ethics or developments in our understanding of human rights.

What's all this got to do with your conservatism?  Lewis's politics in the broadest sense, I suspect, inform yours. He's one of your conservatives of doubt -- dubious about the efficacy of human attempts to permanently improve human life.  He's a democrat (small d, believer in democracy) by default, of the Churchillian school that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the alternatives. His own formulation was that democracy is necessary because human corruption means that no individual or small group can be trusted with power. That's true, and salutary. 

What Lewis lacked was any sense that participating in political life is part of what makes us fully human -- and the corollary, that a people's meaningful participation in politics could permanently advance human welfare. Strange, for a man steeped in Greek literature -- no sense that man is a political animal.  He charmingly wrote, "I myself am not fit to run a henhouse." Well, neither am I. But that doesn't mean I have no role or responsibility in governance, and that if all were well I'd live like one of Lewis's Narnian badgers, in peaceful quietism. And while you, Andrew, are a very political animal, you share Lewis' unduly limited sense of what government and politics can accomplish.  I recognize, with Obama, that Reagan had a lasting insight, and that the lasting pressure he put on liberalism not to bloat government, not to intrude it into every aspect of our lives, not to let it suck any more resources out of the private sector than it needs to perform its functions at maximum efficiency, is salutary.  But to go from there to an assumption that government can't improve on its furtherance of commonwealth, that it can't fairly counteract rising income inequality or spread the most fundamental risks, like illness or destitution in old age, more effectively than it does now, is defeatist.

Phillip Pullman, author of the fantasy series His Dark Materials, has attacked Lewis with Oedipal fervor as being politically repressive, indoctrinating children to be obedient uber alle -- obedient to manifestly present gods and kings. There's an element of truth in this. Lewis sees human beings essentially as subjects, not citizens.  In Lewis' fantasy, kings rule for the benefit of the governed, subject spontaneously offer up their loyalty, chivalry works as advertised, and the good guys' wars are always purely defensive. But Pullman misses Lewis' core anti-authoritarianism. When Lewis said that the desire to be left alone is as strong as the desire for a heavenly father, he was speaking to the heart to the extent that he did heartily want to be left alone, and he wanted everyone else to be, too. His benevolent rulers don't intrude in their subjects' lives.  He had a great imaginative grasp of tyrants whose core assumption is that their subjects exist to serve them. And he provides for children the great pleasure of well-dramatized rebellions against bullies and tyrants. In fact Pullman respects raw power more than Lewis does, and he's more dogmatic in his anti-monotheism than Lewis ever was in his 'mere Christianity.'

This is a pretty brilliant description of Lewis's strengths and flaws, and as acute a critique of my own conservatism. My reader is correct that my deepest conservatism lies exactly where he identifies it: my deep pessimism that politics can advance humanity, and my general my distaste for political action at all. Oddly, the book that most persuaded me of this was More's Utopia. (Only later did I appreciate Plato's influence.) And I feel no more estranged from Obama than when he speaks of our political need to be our borther's keeper.

And yet, now and again, there's no question that my Tory gloom dissipates. I could not have endorsed Obama if I did not think he had a cold, clear grasp of the necessities of running this fallen world. But I'd be lying if he didn't occasionally give me hope that politics can actually make our lives a little better. So that's my contradiction, isn't it? And I live with it best I can.