C.S. Lewis was the most important Christian apologist of the twentieth century. Mere Christianity, now more than six decades in print, continues to be an important gateway to Christian thinking for tens of thousands each year. His many other works, such as The Problem of Pain and Miracles,serve as a means of “reconversion” for many Christians. Lewis also remains among the most consequential authors for children, with his Chronicles of Narnia continuing to be big sellers, several of which have been made into major motion pictures in recent years. For those fans and serious readers who venture further into his works, Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and various compilations of essays continue to be published and are engaged more seriously now than they were at the time of his death more than five decades ago.
Lewis the apologist, the popularizer of Christian thinking and traditions, and the author of the Narnia series is well remembered. The life of C. S. Lewis—his conversion from atheism to Christianity, his life as an Oxford academic, and his wartime speeches on the BBC radio—is well known. Books about nearly every facet of his life abound. Two recent books have emerged, however, that help us explore some underappreciated aspects of Lewis’s life and legacy. The acclaimed Lewis biographer, Alister E. McGrath (C. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet), has written an exploration of The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis. McGrath’s book is not a comprehensive exposition of C. S. Lewis’s ideas or the intellectual world in which he worked. It is, however, a useful and well-documented series of loosely connected academic essays on discrete topics from Lewis’s intellectual world. Starting with a useful short biography, McGrath proceeds with articles on Lewis as an autobiographer, his understanding of reason and imagination, his concept of myth, his method of argument, and his identity as a theologian and churchgoer.
Most useful and interesting might be McGrath’s treatment of Lewis’s intellectual development through the 1920s. Even though the story of Lewis the arrogant and committed atheist who emerges as the great Christian apologist is well known, few of us realize the intellectual journey Lewis took while he was a student and then a young faculty member at Oxford University. Though most of his readers have not engaged much with this pre-Christian Lewis, doing so allows us to better understand the thinker the man became. He emerged from the great intellectual trends of the twentieth century as one of their most powerful and dedicated critics. Lewis himself gave us a glimpse of his intellectual development in his autobiography Surprised by Joy and tried to tell us of it allegorically in his autobiographical myth, The Pilgrim’s Regress. The latter is a difficult and veiled story of his own intellectual journey told as the pilgrimage of a man named John and those he encounters on his way to the Christian church. Even Lewis came to understand that this book was difficult, at best, for most readers and ended up writing his own guide to understanding it.
McGrath, however, cuts through the allegory to introduce us to the great intellectual forces young Lewis tangled with on his way to a mature and traditional Christian worldview. Though he would almost never discuss them as part of his “treaty with reality,” Lewis’s experiences in and around World War I were certainly formative and, as with so many of his generation, ultimately served as a chastisement to overly positive views of human nature and “progress.” It is in his poetry written during the war that we see Lewis at his most bitterly atheistic, protesting against an uncaring heaven. Later, he would seem to settle into an intellectualized atheism, devoid of passion or need for proselytizing.
We find Sigmund Freud, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and Karl Barth as figures to be considered and dealt with in the churning intellectual environment of the age. We find Lewis thriving intellectually while studying and teaching philosophy, which few know was his chosen discipline before he turned to literature. Knowledge of Lewis’s deep engagement with the history of philosophy, political philosophy in particular, opens up much of the content for both books here under consideration. McGrath makes it clear how important it is to understand this early Lewis, as “most of the positions Lewis criticized so effectively, especially in the 1940s, were positions he once held himself.”
This brings us straight to the heart of Justin Buckley Dyer’s and Micah J. Watson’s C. S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law. Lewis’s political views are considered broadly as those elements of life concerning us as communal beings, such as philosophy, culture, education, economics, and public policy. His political views can be understood, at least to some extent, as reactions to his own former allegiances. Despite assertions to the contrary, Lewis knew of what he spoke, and he spoke much of politics. Dyer and Watson’s starting point is the common assumption that Lewis was not a political thinker and was largely unconcerned with politics. Several family members and friends have made this assertion and most biographers treat him as relatively apolitical.
This has been a puzzle to me over the years, as even a cursory look at Lewis’s essays—though seldom as read today as his other books—shows his engagement with demonstrably political concepts and concerns. We find him seriously concerned with equality and egalitarianism, for instance, and the dangers he sees in those commitments becoming ideological fixations. We find him writing on vivisection (against), the welfare state (against), pacifism (against), historicism (against), democracy (concerned), nuclear war (eh, we’re gonna die anyway), education (what we need is not what we want), and criminal punishment (yes, please). More than that, when we read his fiction, we find the same political themes emerge clearly: whether it be in the form of the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) aligning political power and propaganda with scientific experimentation or it be the ambitious man dedicated to colonizing other planets and destroying “lesser” beings in the name of the future of the human race. As Lewis might say with a wink, he snuck a lot of politics “past those watchful dragons.”
Dyer and Watson do an admirable job of beginning to correct the record to show how deeply political Lewis was. Though they cast a wide net and capture many aspects of Lewis’s political thought, their aim is most directly at Lewis’s concept of Natural Law and the political implications thereof. Lewis himself gives us the political stakes in his masterpiece The Abolition of Man: “A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.” Dyer and Watson walk us through Lewis’s corpus, allowing him to speak to such challenges as those brought by Freud, Darwin, and the anti-natural law theologian Karl Barth.
Perhaps most unique in their book is their discovery of a “Lockean Lewis” who subscribes to something akin to John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle.” Though Lewis seems a thoroughgoing traditionalist anchored in Natural Law, Aristotelian reason, and Christian literature, he shows considerable modern tendencies in his resistance to theocracy, his argument against outlawing sin, and his treatment of topics like the law’s relationship with homosexuality and marriage. There is much in this fine book to wrestle with, and one suspects this is only the beginning of our engagement with the political Lewis.
Readers of Lewis who are attracted by his ability to write in the vernacular and to convey big ideas in accessible and imaginative ways may find the academic nature of these two books less appealing. However, those ready to move deeper in their connection to Lewis’s mind will find that both books are well written, scholarly, and break new insights that are instructive and sometimes even inspiring. Both books, in the end, open Lewis’s intellectual world to us and invite us to enter the conversation. Indeed, as McGrath writes, “Half a century after his death, the process of receiving and interpreting Lewis has still only begun.” In the same spirit, Dyer and Watson write that they hope their book “will contribute in some way to the conversation, still in its beginning stages, about Lewis’s surprising legacy in the world of politics and political thought.”
The more we read and consider the towering figure that was the little don from Oxford, the more we come to realize how much we in the twenty-first century have to learn from him. Our world is still shaped by forces he tangled with from the 1920s until his passing—materialism, secularization, progressive evolutionary politics, corroded imaginations, unbridled scientific potential, and centralized political power. In many ways, he was, as McGrath calls him, a “reluctant prophet” who saw in embryo what we have come to witness fully born. In his lifetime, not enough leaders and keepers of culture listened to him to stem the rising tide. Even at this hour, however, Lewis would be the first to warn us against despair. Though he would be too humble to say it himself, his work still contains the leavening that can contribute to the conversation that may redeem our time.
Gary L. Gregg II, holds the Mitch McConnell Chair in Leadership at the University of Louisville where he directs the McConnell Center and the U.S. Army’s Strategic Broadening Seminar.