Throughout his whole career, C.S. Lewis fought against one significant error which he believed would lead in the end to political catastrophe: the error of materialism. In this second part of a series on the politics of C.S. Lewis, I argue that Lewis saw to the heart of a philosophical mistake that would gradually unmake our civilization: in speeches, books, and essays, he argued that if you debunk the idea of God, then the government will one day become your God.
In an essay on the nature of existence, Thomas Aquinas — the great Medieval philosopher of the Catholic Church — recalled a point made by his favorite pagan, the Athenian philosopher Aristotle: “A small mistake in the beginning grows enormous in the end.”
Aquinas noted this at the opening of his On Being and Essence, because he knew what we too often forget: that the most catastrophic social and political errors are always rooted, somewhere deep down, in a seemingly minor misunderstanding of the most basic things.
In the introduction to this discussion of the politics of C.S. Lewis, I talked about Lewis’s distinction between justice and social engineering. Justice, in Lewis’s view, is a calculus of rewards and retribution: it is “giving to each what he deserves.”
As Lewis was well aware, this is an ancient idea that dates back at least to Plato’s Republic (especially Book 4). The notion of giving each his due, suum cuique, is foundational to the way we in the West think about ourselves and the societies we build.
Social engineering, on the other hand, is a different way of thinking about people altogether. In his essay on “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” (1954), Lewis argued that though it may seem humane to “rehabilitate” or “deter” criminals rather than punish them, it actually strips them of their humanity. To deny the moral character and consequences of a crime is to make both the criminal and his victims into something less than human: “instead of a person, a subject of rights,” wrote Lewis, “we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case.’”
The natural endpoint of social engineering is the worst kind of tyranny, the “tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims.” “Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end,” wrote Lewis, “for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
And so a small error at the level of first principles, so appealing on its face, leads to a massive error at the level of politics and social life. Only accept that human evil is not a spiritual defect of the will but a neurological disorder to be corrected, and you have traded the entire Western tradition of justice for a sinister new vision of limitless oppression and control.
In this second part of the series, I’m going to describe in more detail the nature of this “small mistake” and the cataclysmic errors to which it leads. It is my view that the foundational error in first principles against which Lewis fought for his entire career is the same one that continues to plague us today.
That tiny error is materialism, the belief that there is only the material world — no spirit, no soul and thus no inherent morality or universal truth. The great disaster to which materialism leads is bureaucratic tyranny. Insist that there is nothing beyond flesh and you will be led, bit by inexorable bit, to the oppressive conclusion that the government must rule over men as God.
Freud, Darwin, and Materialism
Though Lewis rarely made it explicit, in his political and sociological writing he was often shadowboxing with one of his great intellectual nemeses, Sigmund Freud. In 1938 — shortly before Lewis’s own career took off — Freud fled his native Austria to escape Nazi persecution in the United Kingdom. At that point he was already world-famous as one of the 20th century’s greatest minds, the inventor of an entirely new way to view mankind and his place in the universe.
Freud’s voluminous literary output rivals Lewis’s own. Over the course of decades, he developed his view that the human mind is something like a biological machine for producing fantasies. In Totem and Taboo (1913) Freud argued that our higher impulses — our desire to engage in practices like religion and art — have their origins in primal physical experiences like sex and violence.
Out of those material sensations — those animal forms of life — the mind constructs elaborate narratives about God and truth. “Consciousness is the surface of the mental apparatus,” Freud wrote in The Ego and the Id (1923), but beneath our conscious ideas about goodness and beauty lie half-forgotten encounters with our brute appetites.
As the Freudian outlook became fashionable in Europe, the intelligentsia came to assume that the “true” or “authentic” human person can be found by scraping away the ideas about truth and justice that our minds construct to cope with our neuroses. This is where we get our modern set of assumptions — so ubiquitous that we have ceased to notice them — that “society” is an artificial “construct” and can be altered or dismantled at will.
The evolutionary theories of Darwin, also hugely influential at this time, gave the psychoanalytic outlook something like a scientific veneer: if our origins are to be found in the animal kingdom, then maybe all our noble ideas can be boiled down to our flesh and blood. “You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals”: that is materialism exactly. It is the idea that only physical atoms, bouncing off one another in predictable patterns, are real. All else is illusion. Anyone who buys this view is a (probably unwitting) disciple of Darwin and Freud.
Lewis knew these arguments well, and he rejected them utterly. Freud had helped drive him away from religion in his youth, after his return from war in the 1920s: “the new Psychology was at that time sweeping through us all,” he wrote in his 1955 autobiography, Surprised by Joy. “We did not swallow it whole…but we were all influenced.”
The consequence was what Lewis called “almost a panic-stricken flight” from anything that looked like sentimentalism or superstition. Religion, fantasy, idealism: Freud was thought to have debunked them all. “I had (this was very precisely the opposite of the truth) ‘seen through’ them,” Lewis recalled. “With the confidence of a boy I decided I had done with all that.”
But of course Lewis would eventually discover that by tossing away everything except the physical world, he had lost everything that had any meaning to him, or to anyone.
Only if there are things we can’t see under a microscope that are nevertheless real — things like love, and courage, and imagination — do our lives make any sense. By contrast, if we are only animals, then there is nothing to stop us from behaving much less like men than we presently do.
The Small Error
Lewis came to realize that materialism is the small error in first principles that leads to untold horrors in the end. Hence his argument in “On the Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”: it seems alluringly generous at first blush to think of criminals as mere patients, suffering from a mental imbalance in need more of cure than of retribution.
But to do so, Lewis argued, is to think of all human action as a consequence of chemical reactions in the brain rather than moral calculations in the heart and the mind. This leads not to kindness but to coercion, and to a tyranny of good intentions:
The things done to the criminal, even if they are called cures, will be just as compulsory as they were in the old days when we called them punishments. If a tendency to steal can be cured by psychotherapy, the thief will no doubt be forced to undergo the treatment. Otherwise, society cannot continue. My contention is that this doctrine, merciful though it appears, really means that each one of us, from the moment he breaks the law, is deprived of the rights of a human being.
Once Lewis describes this philosophy, you can see it everywhere in modern life:
The endless classification of everything as mental illness, implying that the best way to fix emotional problems is simply with the right cocktail of medication.
The insistence that gender and sexuality are mere social constructs, whose injustices can be rectified with surgery and hormone injections.
The idea that religion is just a holdover from primitive tribal fantasy.
All of these cultural trends are premised on the feeling — it is not even developed enough anymore to be called a philosophy — that our higher principles are just fanciful stories we tell ourselves about the way our bodies behave.
The Death of God and the Tyranny of Man
But of course, the very notion that it would be “good” to correct our fantasies or “liberating” to be rid of them is in itself an ideal: it is an abstract principle about what “should” happen. It comes from our principles and beliefs, not our physical urges.
Ideas such as “trans women are women” or “depression should be cured with drugs” are nowhere to be found in the physical universe or in our animal natures. They are ideals, every bit as abstract as “the Lord is God” or “thou shalt not kill.”
So the attempt to treat everything and everyone as mere physical matter turns out, in the end, to be an effort on the part of some people to treat other people as mere physical matter on the basis of their own abstract beliefs.
As Lewis saw, social engineers are not offering to rid the world of ideals. They are offering to clear the world of one set of ideals — those of piety, truth, and beauty — and install another set, chosen by themselves, in its place. And so materialism leads, by the implications of its own premises, to tyranny.
The Abolition of Man
Nowhere did Lewis articulate this argument more clearly than in a masterful three-part lecture series given at the University of Durham in 1943 and subsequently published as The Abolition of Man.
In those speeches, Lewis demonstrated that the scientific impulse to gain power over nature — to subdue the earth by gaining technological control of the material world — ends up making those with the best technology into masters of others who do not.
As a result, “what we call Man’s power over nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with nature as its instrument…. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself.”
And yet, if we have already “debunked” or “seen through” all the old ideals — if there is no God or morality to tell us which developments we should prefer over others — then we have only the basic impulses of our flesh to guide us.
Those who wield technological power and psychiatric authority must make some decisions about how they will breed mankind, what outcomes they will select for and against. But “those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.”
In other words: materialism begins by promising a perfect state of nature in which all are equal. But by the very necessity of its logic, it ends by creating a boundless tyranny in which a very few rule arbitrarily over the rest of mankind — as if they were mere animals. Could there be a more consequential error?
Lewis saw directly into the heart of this false materialist premise and predicted all the evils it would produce. That is why his writing only becomes more powerfully affecting over time: he is more relevant, not less, now that materialism has entrenched itself securely as the going assumption of our sophisticates and ruling classes.
“The kings of the earth take their stand,” says Psalm 2, “and the rulers gather together, against the LORD and His Anointed One. ‘Let us break Their chains and cast away Their cords,’” they say. The central political fight of Lewis’s life was the same as our own: the fight against a materialism which looks like freedom but produces slavery.
From COVID lockdowns to the hideous practice of transgender hormone injections for minors, we are surrounded by the nightmarish consequences of this one seemingly small error, the error against which Lewis never stopped warning us: get rid of God, and you will be ruled by men.
Read more from this series: The Politics of C.S. Lewis
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