C.S. Lews on democracy and authority

I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.

That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen, Filmer would be right, and partiarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government. But since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality. The authority of father and husband has been rightly abolished on the legal plane, not because this authority is in itself bad (on the contrary, it is, I hold, divine in origin), but because fathers and husbands are bad. Theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us. Even the authority of man over beast has had to be interfered with because it is constantly abused. (C.S. Lewis, “Membership,” from The Weight of Glory, pp. 168-7)

I agree with Lewis that democracy (by which I think he would have agreed that he meant limited, constitutional democracy) is grounded in the sinfulness of human beings. Because we are not only frail, ignorant, and limited, but because we are sinful, our power over each other has to be circumscribed. However, I disagree that the kinds of authority he mentions are part of God’s original plan for things, at least as we would likely be tempted to understand it. If anything, I’m inclined to say that men’s “authority” over women is the consequence of sin, not God’s intention. Even a “benign,” paternalistic rule, while perhaps preferable to outright tyranny, falls short of the ideal as a description of a relationship between equals.

Children and animals are different cases for obvious reasons. Though even here there are qualifications. The “rule” of parent over child is generally agreed to be for the sake of the child’s good. The same, I would argue, is the case for animals. What I think a genuinely Christian notion of “lordship” requires is a subversion of any “vulgar Aristotelian” notion that the “lower” exists for the sake of the “higher” (I don’t think Aristotle himself would have given unqualified endorsement to it, but it’s a sentiment that has sometimes creeped into Christian theology under the authority of Aristotle). Andrew Linzey comes closer to the mark when he describes human beings as the “servant species,” with a lordship patterned after the one who came to serve, not to be served. I think this calls into question the idea that animals can simply be used for our good (however “humanely” we do so). If anything, an unfallen world would be more like an anarchy than a monarchy, at least as far as relations among creatures go. It would be characterized by mutual love and service without the need for coercive restraint.

10 thoughts on “C.S. Lews on democracy and authority

  1. “Even a ‘benign,’ paternalistic rule, while perhaps preferable to outright tyranny, falls short of the ideal as a description of a relationship between equals.”

    Are those all the possibilities? Can you get rid of “rule” without talking of equals? I think bringing the term “equals” into the discussion almost guarantees a wrong answer, whether you affirm it or deny it. It’s one of those cases where asking the question almost guarantees a wrong answer.

  2. Well, I guess I think some notion of equality is indispensable when you’re talking about democracy or a free society. Though, of course, equality is one of those concepts for which there are about as many definitions as there are people offering them. Maybe you could say more about why you find it so problematic?

  3. Now, my guess would have been that by “democracy” Lewis meant democracy.

    That is something different from, though arguably related to, limited and constitutional government.

    People urge limits and constitutionalism because they (rightly) don’t trust governments with power.

    He is urging democracy because he (rightly) doesn’t trust people with power.

    As for me, I have no idea what an unfallen humanity would be like, and none what need or form of government such an inhuman race might have.

    The inescapable and nasty truth is that the power to rule without limit or check over X for X’s own good is also the power to exploit and harm X for the ruler’s own good, or supposed good, or even just for the fun of it.

    Limited and constitutional government is an effort so far as possible to empower the state and the officials who run it only for the good, and not for the ruin, of the ruled, even sacrificing some power for good to avoid much power for evil.

    Democracy is a different effort to prevent the exploitation of the ruled by the rulers, by handing power to the ruled, themselves.

    Your allusions to Aristotle conveniently introduce the complication of inequality.

    That humans are in many obvious ways unequal is undeniable.

    The question at once arises whether inequalities of talent, ability, or even virtue can justify political, social, and economic inequalities.

    The maxim that the lower exists for the sake of the higher effectively unmasks the dark side of the claim that inequalities of ability or moral virtue justify social and political inequalities of rights, even down to the extreme inequality between master and slave.

    Under the platonic idea of guardianship, the higher rule the lower for the good of the latter.

    On that account, social and political and economic inequalities are justified by inequalities of ability or talent or virtue because, it is claimed, they function for the good of the lower and lowest orders, even down to and including the very slaves, themselves.

    To this it may be objected that the social and political and economic inequalities we see in the world rarely if ever actually coincide with the alleged justifying inequalities of talent, ability, or virtue.

    Nor, if they did, is it at all credible that these inequalities – that between master and slave, for example – can be justified as designed to further the good of the slave rather than, or in addition to, that of the master.

    But under that other maxim that the lower exists for the sake of the higher it is alleged to be right and just that the higher rule the lower for the advantage of the higher.

    Men keep domestic animals, not for the animals’ good, but for their own, though of course in fact the animals may be better off for it.

    Such, too, on this idea, is the authority of men over their slaves, their children, and their women, be they wives or concubines.

    While on the platonic idea of guardianship inequalities of rights and power as between the lower and the higher are, albeit fictitiously, ultimately justified as for the good of the lower or of all, on this other notion the difference in natural rights between the higher and lower justifies the undisguised and unabashed exploitation of the latter by the former.

    This anti-platonic view is thus a protest against Socrates and a correction of Thrasymachus’ cynicism, to the effect that justice really is the advantage of the stronger.

    It was to a mix of these platonic and anti-platonic anti-egalitarian ideas that the South appealed in justification of its slavocracy – that slavery was good for the slave; or in default of that that the slaves, being good for nothing else and deserving of nothing else, were born to be exploited – and, ultimately, of its secession from the Union in order to form a secure and lasting empire of slavery below the Mason-Dixon Line.

    Those ideas of the just use of power, of the natural inequality of rights, and of the licit purposes of the state have been left in modern times to no one but the political gangsters of our age.

    They are, nowadays, the sole property of the diminishing tribe of racists who willingly still appeal to alleged inequalities of talent, ability, and even moral virtue to justify exactly such inequalities of political, economic, and social rights.

    The rest of us deny that natural rights are unequal, at all; that exploitation of the weak by the strong is just; and that the use of political power to enable such exploitation is just.

    And we deny as well that the inequalities of wealth, power, and rights under regimes of inequality ever coincide very far with real inequalities of talent, ability, or virtue; and we deny as well that they would work for the good of the lower if they did.

  4. Pingback: Mark Horne » C. S. Lewis v. Patrick Henry on why we are too good or too bad for tryranny

  5. “If anything, an unfallen world would be more like an anarchy than a monarchy, at least as far as relations among creatures go. It would be characterized by mutual love and service without the need for coercive restraint.”

    I really like this idea.

  6. Re: “If anything, I’m inclined to say that men’s “authority” over women is the consequence of sin, not God’s intention.”

    Adam was created as the leader of his home before the Fall. (Also, he was created to work before the Fall…which is another issue.) How, then, can this be a consequence of sin? “Rod” comments above that he is uncomfortable with the church’s teaching. He is then uncomfortable with Biblical teaching. It is a dangerous thing to turn Scripture into our opinion. That makes us trying to be God.

  7. Where does it say that man was created to be leader before the Fall? It’s pretty clear in Gen. 3 that the husband “ruling over” the wife is part of the curse resulting from their disobedience. Prior to that, the most we get is Eve as the “helper” (or “helpmeet” in the more traditional language), which isn’t much to hang a full-blown theory of male dominion on.

  8. We’ll have to agree to disagree. When someone has a ‘helper,’ the other someone is clearly in charge. I don’t find this theology degrading in the slightest, I find it perfect, in fact.

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