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That Hideous State
C. S. Lewis’s social critiques are more relevant than ever in the Age of Obama.


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As the media wax eloquent over Camelot and the Kennedy legacy, we do well to remember that John F. Kennedy was not the only influential public figure with the nickname “Jack” to leave these Shadowlands 50 years ago. On November 22, 1963, Clive Staples Lewis — professor at Oxford and Cambridge, literary critic, Christian apologist, and author of science fiction and children’s literature — shuffled off this mortal coil and joined President Kennedy (and Aldous Huxley) before the throne of the One who gives life and takes it away.

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While the media celebrate the life and legacy of the 35th president, we conservatives would do well to consider how a British professor of medieval and Renaissance literature can aid us as we seek to recover from our recent losses in the never-ending culture war. Surprisingly enough, the best place to look for guidance is Lewis’s acclaimed children’s books, The Chronicles of Narnia. It is in these stories that Lewis seeks to train children of all ages to resist the allurement of modern myths, particularly the Myth of Progress. Before exploring how the Narnian Chronicles can inoculate us against this modern fable, however, we ought to consider Lewis’s own understanding of the Myth of Progress as he sets it forth in his nonfiction prose.

Central to this myth is developmentalism, the application of evolution to all spheres of life — physical, social, political, and religious — so that everything is seen as not merely changing, but perpetually improving. The Myth of Progress dismisses “traditional morality,” “practical reason,” and “natural law” (what Lewis in his 1943 book The Abolition of Man refers to as the Tao) because it is old and outdated. In its place, progress erects science (or, more accurately, scientism), statism, and the humanitarian theory of punishment.

THE TYRANNY OF THE HUMANITARIAN THEORY
The humanitarian theory of punishment does away with traditional notions of “desert” and “retributive justice” in favor of punishment as deterrent and cure. Crime is viewed in pathological terms, as a disease in need of treatment rather than as an evil act in need of just punishment. This view of punishment has the appearance of mercy, but it can’t be truly merciful because it is wholly false. As Lewis wrote in 1953, in the essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” (included in the collection God in the Dock),

The Humanitarian theory wants simply to abolish Justice and substitute Mercy for it. This means that you start being “kind” to people before you have considered their rights, and then force upon them supposed kindnesses which no one but you will recognize as kindnesses and which the recipient will feel as abominable cruelties. You have overshot the mark. Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful.

The dangers of this theory are manifold. It seeks to remove considerations of punishment and sentencing from ordinary juries and society as a whole and place them in the hands of technical experts and doctors — those who are qualified to determine how to “cure” the “disease” of crime. By removing justice from the equation, it creates the possibility (and indeed likelihood) that innocent people will be falsely convicted for exemplary purposes, so that others may be deterred by their punishment. It deprives the criminal of the rights of a human being and instead proposes to “treat” his neurosis for as long as it takes to cure him.

The tyranny of the humanitarian theory does not depend on the evil intentions of its practitioners. Indeed, Lewis argues that the humanitarian theory enables otherwise good men to do unspeakably evil things:

My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.


C.S. Lewis Remembered
C. S. Lewis — one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century — was born in Belfast on November 29, 1898, but spent most of his life in Oxford — first as a student, and then, for 29 years, as a fellow and tutor in the English faculty, until he was hired away by Cambridge.
Besides keeping up a full teaching load and speaking to a wide variety of audiences (most notably in his wartime talks on the BBC), he wrote more than 30 books and enough articles, sermons, letters, and other occasional pieces to fill another 30 books.
But life wasn’t all work for Jack Lewis. There was plenty of time for long walks in the countryside and for high-spirited gatherings with friends, including J. R. R. Tolkien (inset upper right), Charles Williams, Neville Coghill, and Lewis’s brother, Warren (shown here with CSL), at their favorite pub, the Eagle and Child, a.k.a. the Bird and Baby.
Lewis’s last two years were plagued by illness, and on November 22, 1963, he died quietly at his home, known as The Kilns, on the outskirts of Oxford, about an hour before the world was stunned by the news from Dallas.
The following quotations are a sampling of Lewis’s wide-ranging writings on faith, God, the human experience, and literature.
ON CHRISTIAN FAITH: “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference: that it really happened.”
“That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
“If we are not Christians, we shall dismiss this [the frequent vindictiveness in the Psalms] with the old gibe ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews.’ That is impossible for us who believe that God chose that race for the vehicle of His own Incarnation, and who are indebted to Israel beyond all possible repayment.”
“Even the New Testament bids me love my neighbor ‘as myself,’ which would be a horrible command if the self were simply to be hated.”
“As a Christian I take it for granted that human history will some day end; and I am offering Omniscience no advice as to the best date for that consummation.”
THE DIVINE: “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock.”
“If you think you are a poached egg, when you are looking for a piece of toast to suit you, you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you.”
“Need-love cries to God from our poverty; Gift-love longs to serve, or even to suffer for, God; Appreciative love says: ‘We give thanks to thee for thy great glory.’ Need-love says of a woman ‘I cannot live without her’; Gift-love longs to give her happiness, comfort, protection -- if possible, wealth; Appreciative love gazes and holds its breath and is silent.”
In reply to those who argue that intercessory prayer is ineffective and presumptuous: “Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they’ll come clean without your washing them. If He doesn’t, they’ll remain dirty (as Lady Macbeth found) however much soap you use.”
In The Great Divorce, a man newly arrived on the fringes of Heaven reports that everything is “so much solider than things in our country”: “The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock, and I suffered pains like those of the mermaid in Hans Andersen.”
KNOWLEDGE & WISDOM: “You cannot study Pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, nor analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter. But when else can you really know these things?”
“It is hard to have patience with those Jeremiahs, in Press or pulpit, who warn us that we are ‘relapsing into Paganism.’ It might be rather fun if we were. It would be pleasant to see some future Prime Minister trying to kill a large and lively milk-white bull in Westminster Hall.”
“You don’t want to be lectured on Neanderthal Man by a Neanderthaler, still less on dinosaurs by a dinosaur. And yet, is that the whole story? If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? . . . Use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”
THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
“The sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him.”
“War creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”
“I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace.”
THE LITERARY LIFE: “All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.”
“Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.”
“If one were looking for a man who could not read Virgil though his father could, he might be found more easily in the twentieth century than in the fifth.”
“The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism.”
Updated: Nov. 22, 2013

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