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


Lewis regarded it as “essential to oppose the Humanitarian theory of punishment, root and branch, wherever we encounter it.” He thought that such theories were bound together with notions of government in which the state “exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good.” The state’s role in providing goods and services requires an increasingly large bureaucratic government, one that inevitably enslaves its citizens. As Lewis wrote in 1958, in the essay “Is Progress Possible?” (reprinted in God in the Dock),

Two wars necessitated vast curtailments of liberty, and we have grown, though grumblingly, accustomed to our chains. The increasing complexity and precariousness of our economic life have forced Government to take over many spheres of activity once left to choice or chance. . . . There is nothing left of which we can say to [our new leaders], “Mind your own business.” Our whole lives are their business.

It is these progressive, humanitarian, and statist notions that lie beneath the surface of some of Lewis’s descriptions and characterizations in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair (two of the seven Chronicles of Narnia, published in the early Fifties). Lewis did not expect children to be able to understand the dangers of progressivism, humanitarianism, or statism, or even to understand what these various modern idolatries were. But he did hope to inculcate in them a healthy suspicion of their proponents by including snapshots of them in his books.

The first snapshot is of the Scrubb family: Harold, Alberta, and their son, Eustace. Lewis describes Harold and Alberta as “very up-to-date and advanced people,” so much so that Eustace (before he is transformed by breathing Narnian air) calls them by their first names rather than Mother and Father. They were “vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers” (one immediately thinks of present-day food-fussers and nanny-state health-mongers), and they were austere when it came to furniture and clothing. From his parents, Eustace seems to have imbibed pacifism (he refuses to have a duel with Reepicheep the mouse), egalitarianism (he’s a “republican” who has some anti-monarchical sentiment), and feminism (when Lucy is given King Caspian’s quarters because she is a girl, Eustace quotes his mother to the effect that “all that sort of thing is really lowering girls”). (Dawn Treader, chs. 1 and 2.)

The second snapshot is of the school the Scrubbs send Eustace to. It’s called “Experiment House,” and it adopts modern experimental methods of education, “curious methods” that don’t teach French or math or Latin very well and leave Eustace severely impoverished when it comes to knowledge of dragons. The school rejects corporal punishment, discourages Bible reading, and is “co-educational” — again, all elements that in Lewis’s day testified to the progressive ideology that lay beneath the surface. The distinguishing mark as far as the children were concerned is that the people who ran the school “had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked” (Silver Chair, ch. 1). In other words, rather than setting boundaries and training children in the ways of traditional morality and classical education, the teachers and administration allowed the children to follow their natural inclinations, which essentially meant that the biggest children bullied the rest. Lewis no doubt intended this as a microcosm and foretaste of the future of society if the progressive innovators he identified in The Abolition of Man were allowed to run the show.

The headmistress of Experiment House views the bullies as “interesting psychological cases,” thus betraying her allegiance to the humanitarian theory of crime and punishment. She most likely treats harsh and harmful bullying as an example of “stupid pranks,” to borrow a phrase from the judge — referred to only as “the Elderly Lady” — in one of Lewis’s essays  (“Delinquents in the Snow,” 1957, God in the Dock), and she ends up using the rules to protect the bullies rather than their victims. Her eventual failure as headmistress results in her promotion to inspector and then her elevation to Parliament, “where she lived happily ever after” (Silver Chair, ch. 16).

The move from school to government yields Lewis’s third snapshot of progressivism. Governor Gumpas of the Lone Islands is a “chickenhearted man” who is always “muddling and messing about with accounts and forms and rules and regulations.” He is the consummate bureaucrat, objecting to King Caspian’s arrival with talk of appointments, applications, and commissions of inquiry. He justifies the thriving slave trade in his territory as an unavoidable necessity, “essential to the economic development of the islands,” his position duly supported by graphs and statistics. When Caspian unilaterally ends the trade and frees the slaves, Gumpas objects in the name of “progress” and “development” (Dawn Treader, ch. 4).

Gumpas is the Narnian demonstration of Lewis’s words in the preface to The Screwtape Letters (1942), in which he explains why he depicted the devils as paper-pushing administrators:

I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.

Lewis greatly feared that the danger of hunger, the dread of war, and the increasing complexity of the global economy would lead citizens to make a “terrible bargain,” to trade liberty for the promise of security and stability. Ancient man sold himself as a slave in order to eat, embraced the witch-doctor in order to save himself from the sorcerer, and relied on the warlord to stave off the barbarians. Now the modern technocrats offer us the hope of economic stability and permanent employment, if only we will become “willing slaves of the welfare state” (the subtitle of “Is Progress Possible?”).

By portraying, however obliquely, the ugliness of the modern -isms, Lewis hoped to create in young people an immunity to their seductive power. More than that, the Narnian Chronicles are designed to instill a different vision of human life and society — a fuller, richer, and happier one built on what Lewis called “the freeborn mind.”

To live his life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death — these are the wishes deeply ingrained in white and civilized man. Their realization is almost as necessary to our virtues as to our happiness. From their total frustration disastrous results both moral and psychological might follow [“Is Progress Possible?”].

This passage finds an echo in the description of the four Great Kings and Queens of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The reign of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy was a long and happy one, and one of the key features that Lewis highlights is that they “made good laws and kept the peace . . . and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live” (ch. 17).

For those who share Lewis’s love of the freeborn mind and the society it births, we do our children (and ourselves) a great service when we feed their imaginations a robust diet of Narnian truth, goodness, and beauty. In the long struggle between the debauched statism foreshadowed by Kennedy’s Camelot and the high nobility of Cair Paravel, we must all choose sides. As for me and my house, count us among the free Narnians.

— Joe Rigney is assistant professor of theology and Christian worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis. This article is adapted from chapter 8 of his new book, Live like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in Lewis’s Chronicles, just out from Eyes & Pen Press.



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