Lewis & the Public Square (Part 2)

Last Saturday, I posted a portion of the paper I’m delivering to the Academic Roundtable at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s summer conference. Today, I’d like to offer another excerpt dealing with how Lewis viewed the Christian’s responsibility to speak to the culture and government in the public square.

C. S. Lewis 8Lewis called on his fellow Christians to engage the culture in every possible way. Education was certainly a key component for furthering the Biblical worldview; he called it “only the most fully conscious of the channels whereby each generation influences the next.”

He expressed concern that the State might “take education more and more firmly under its wing.” By doing so, it could potentially “foster conformity, perhaps even servility, up to a point,” but it still would require people to do the teaching, and “as long as we remain a democracy, it is men who give the State its powers,” he noted optimistically. “And over these men, until all freedom is extinguished, the free winds of opinion blow. Their minds are formed by influences which government cannot control.”

Lewis believed in those “free winds of opinion” that could not be controlled by the government, but he did mention the condition: “as long as we remain a democracy.” While he favored a democratic system, which would allow for the free interchange of ideas in the public square, he also offered cautions that democracy, in itself, provided no absolute guarantee of success.

Screwtape Proposes a ToastThat warning came through the mouth of Screwtape in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in which he has the diabolical fiend say,

We, in Hell, would welcome the disappearance of Democracy in the strict sense of that word; the political arrangement so called. Like all forms of government it often works to our advantage; but on the whole less often than other forms.

And what we must realize is that “democracy” in the diabolical sense (I’m as good as you, Being like Folks, Togetherness) is the finest instrument we could possibly have for extirpating political Democracies from the face of the earth.

For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first hint of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be.

For when such a nation meets in conflict a nation where children have been made to work at school, where talent is placed in high posts, and where the ignorant mass are allowed no say at all in public affairs [emphasis added], only one result is possible.

Democracy, in Lewis’s view, while very important for expressing points of view on policy and the standards by which a society ought to conform, was not a cure-all for society’s ills. Wherever there are people, there are problems.

He believed in democracy, he said, because he believed in the fall of man. “A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government.” That was a false grounds for wanting democracy, he asserted.

Instead, he came at it from the opposite side: “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.”

Part 3 next week.