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.
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and “natural law” (what Lewis in his 1943 book The Abolition of Man refers to as the Tao) because it is old and outdated.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.