Politics & Policy

That Hideous State

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

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and “natural law” (what Lewis in his 1943 book The Abolition of Man refers to as the Tao) because it is old and outdated.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

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.




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