Lewis on Democracy

I haven’t read much about C.S. Lewis and his commentary on the political climate of his day (though I imagine there could be volumes on it). However, given the American holiday celebrating their declaration of independence from British rule, I thought I’d turn to his letters and see what I could find about his view of America (a cursory reading of them, at best).

In the third volume of his letters (1950-1963), there are a few references of interest. For example, about President Dwight Eisenhower, Lewis writes to a friend on April 4, 1953, “Let’s hope he will not pursue the line of ‘Godliness for the sake of national strength’. We can’t use God as a means to an end.”

He also writes on July 28, 1952, “Does anyone in America understand American politics?” and suggests that those who have journeyed to America for a lecture tour only pretend to be experts. He mentions receiving a heated letter from a lady in Connecticut. “All I could gather,” he says, “was that the ‘Dumbocrats’ as she called them, are a sort of mixture of Hitler, the Russian secret police, and the inmates of the village lunatic asylum.” In what has to be dry humor, he adds that this opinion is certainly, “a little prejudiced.”
In June 1955, he writes to a friend that he is learning much about the, “tyrannies in the States,” and questions if the purpose of the Statue of Liberty facing toward the sea means she is, “turning her back on America.” “Or,” he asks, “is there a subtle connection between public democracy and domestic despotism.”

And in a letter to Dan Tucker of the Chicago American dated December 8, 1959, he has biting words on democracy, in general.

A hundred years ago we all thought that Democracy was it. Neither you nor I probably think so now. It neither allows the ordinary man to control legislation nor qualifies him to do so. The real questions are imaginary issues. And this is all the easier because democracy always in the end destroys education. It did so for you sometime ago and is now doing so for us (see a speech of Screwtape’s which will soon appear in the Sat. Evening Post). I am, you see, at my wit’s end on such matters. Only a power higher than man’s can really find a way out. Odd to compare humanity’s political inefficiency with its wonderful success in the arts.

I also found the February 21, 1953 letter to the American Mary Van Deusen intriguing. She had asked a question involving Communists in the government and Lewis says that her reference raises the, “whole problem with Democracy.” He suggests that democracy is by its nature of being democratic, must therefore be open to a majority that might not be democratic at all. “If the Communists in this country can persuade the majority to sell in Russia,” he says, “or even to set up devil-worship and human sacrifice, what is the democratic reply? When we said ‘Govt. by the people’ did we only mean ‘as long as we don’t disagree with the people too much’?”

In that same letter Lewis admits he does not have any answer. However, he is clear about the Christian conviction of an “anti-God” government, as he puts it. “We shall have to disobey and be martyred,” he says. “Perhaps pure democracy is really a false ideal.”

As Lewis suggested to Dan Tucker in his letter (see above), here are a few words from Screwtape:

What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement toward the discrediting, and finally elimination, of every kind of human excellence–moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how Democracy is now doing for us the work that once was done by the ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods? … Allow no pre-eminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser, or better, or more famous, or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them down to a level; all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. Thus Tyrants could practise, in a sense, ‘democracy’. But now ‘democracy’ can do the same work without any other tyranny than her own.


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