C. S. Lewis on Equality
Great thinkers and writers often think and write about many great things – and a great many things. The noted Christian apologist and academic C. S. Lewis was one such person. Although he had his area of specialisation – English literature – he was conversant in, and wrote about, a myriad of subjects.
Thus he could write about theology, he could pen children’s stories, he could engage in the debates of the day, and he could deal with many of the great thinkers both past and present. He also wrote on philosophical, historical and political themes. Let me here briefly look at some of the things he said about the notion of equality – a notion much misused and abused.
Leftists of old and ‘social justice warriors’ of today both insist we must have equality – and politically-imposed equality at that. Thus the constant push for collectivism, socialism and uniformity. And the coercive utopians distort the word in the process. Simply think of the recent campaigns for “marriage equality”.
But the biblical Christian knows that equality must be defined carefully. Yes, we are all equal in this sense: we are all made in the image of God, we are all sinners, and we all need to get right with God through Christ. But not everything is or should be equal.
Not all ideas are equal. Not all religions are equal. Not all lifestyles are equal. Not all cultures are equal. Not all governments are equal. Not all worldviews are equal. Not all political policies are equal. Some are clearly better than others.
And people are different – we all have differing talents, abilities, gifting, desires, virtues, vices, motivations, goals, habits and drives. Again, some are clearly better than others. Forcing different things or people to be equal means we end up with inequality. And Lewis was aware of the dangers of enforced equality.
In various places he looked at the concept from both a political angle and a philosophical angle. Let me look at three of his writings on this. I begin with one of his works of fiction: The Screwtape Letters. In it, a junior devil, Wormwood, and his uncle and mentor Screwtape, discuss ways to trip up and render ineffective a new believer.
In a brief follow-up to the book – Screwtape Proposes a Toast – there is a discussion on the issue of democracy. Screwtape says this:
You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate. And of course it is connected with the political ideal that men should be equally treated. You then make a stealthy transition in their minds from this political ideal to a factual belief that all men are equal. Especially the man you are working on. As a result you can use the word Democracy to sanction in his thought the most degrading (and also the least enjoyable) of human feelings. You can get him to practise, not only without shame but with a positive glow of self-approval, conduct which, if undefended by the magic word, would be universally derided.
The feeling I mean is of course that which prompts a man to say I’m as good as you.
The first and most obvious advantage is that you thus induce him to enthrone at the centre of his life a good, solid, resounding lie. I don’t mean merely that his statement is false in fact, that he is no more equal to everyone he meets in kindness, honesty, and good sense than in height or waist measurement. I mean that he does not believe it himself. No man who says I’m as good as youbelieves it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.
And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners, recreations, choice of food…. ‘They’ve no business to be different. It’s undemocratic’.
My second quote comes from “The Grand Miracle,” an April 1945 article based on a sermon he gave. In it he speaks of the miraculous nature of Christianity, primarily as found in the Incarnation, and how undemocratic it actually is – and how unequal it is:
We, with our modern democratic and arithmetical presuppositions, would so have liked and expected all men to start equal in their search for God. One has the picture of great centripetal roads coming from all directions, with well-disposed people, all meaning the same thing, and getting closer and closer together. How shockingly opposite to that is the Christian story! One people picked out of the whole earth; that people purged and proved again and again. Some are lost in the desert before they reach Palestine; some stay in Babylon; some becoming indifferent. The whole thing narrows and narrows, until at last it comes down to a little point, small as the point of a spear—a Jewish girl at her prayers. That is what the whole of human nature has narrowed down to before the Incarnation takes place. Very unlike what we expected, but, of course, not in the least unlike what seems, in general, as shown by nature, to be God’s way of working. The Universe is quite a shockingly selective undemocratic place out of apparently infinite space, a relatively tiny proportion occupied by matter of any kind…
The people who are selected are, in a sense, unfairly selected for a supreme honour; but it is also a supreme burden. The People of Israel come to realize that it is their woes which are saving the world….
What the story of the Incarnation seems to be doing is to flash a new light on a principle in nature, and to show for the first time that this principle of inequality in nature is neither good nor bad. It is a common theme running through both the goodness and the badness of the natural world, and I begin to see how it can survive as a supreme beauty in a redeemed universe.
Lastly, let me draw on a short essay from the Spectator on “Equality” Lewis wrote during the middle of the Second World War. It was been reprinted in various places. For example, it is the second chapter in Present Concerns: Essays by C. S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper (1986).
This brief August 27, 1943 piece made a number of important points. Let me quote parts of it here. He begins:
I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. 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. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. 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.
This introduces a view of equality rather different from that in which we have been trained. I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent. I don’t think the old authority in kings, priests, husbands, or fathers, and the old obedience in subjects, laymen, wives, and sons, was in itself a degrading or evil thing at all. I think it was intrinsically as good and beautiful as the nakedness of Adam and Eve. It was rightly taken away because men became bad and abused it. To attempt to restore it now would be the same error as that of the Nudists. Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty.
But medicine is not good. There is no spiritual sustenance in flat equality. It is a dim recognition of this fact which makes much of our political propaganda sound so thin. We are trying to be enraptured by something which is merely the negative condition of the good life. And that is why the imagination of people is so easily captured by appeals to the craving for inequality, whether in a romantic form of films about loyal courtiers or in the brutal form of Nazi ideology. The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved.
When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. That mind is the special disease of democracy, as cruelty and servility are the special diseases of privileged societies. It ‘will kill us all if it grows unchecked. The man who cannot conceive a joyful and loyal obedience on the one hand, nor an unembarrassed and noble acceptance of that obedience on the other, the man who has never even wanted to kneel or to bow, is a prosaic barbarian. But it would be wicked folly to restore these old inequalities on the legal or external plane. Their proper place is elsewhere.
He concludes as follows:
Every intrusion of the spirit that says “I’m as good as you” into our personal and spiritual life is to be resisted just as jealously as every intrusion of bureaucracy or privilege into our politics. Hierarchy within can alone preserve egalitarianism without. Romantic attacks on democracy will come again. We shall never be safe unless we already understand in our hearts all that the anti-democrats can say, and have provided for it better than they. Human nature will not permanently endure flat equality if it is extended from its proper political field into the more real, more concrete fields within. Let us wear equality; but let us undress every night.
The entire article is found here: archive.spectator.co.uk/article/27th-august-1943/8/equality
Let me close with a piece which also draws upon the wisdom of Lewis. In an article from The Federalist several years ago, an obvious application is made:
Some of our most poisonous philosophies have only managed to afflict America under the aegis of this kind of equality. No matter what our differences may be, we are told that these differences make no difference because we are all equal. Yet civilization hinges on the being able to recognize and judge certain differences. When we willfully fail to do so, the natural consequences are dire.
Socialists, for example, proclaim an idealistic equality of rich, poor, and everyone in between as their rationale for equalizing wealth and income among them in fact. They chant equality over incomes and outcomes and expect society to fall in line. But a broad equality that purports to cover every aspect of economics ignores the very important distinction between the industrious and the lazy—between those who produce wealth and those who merely consume it.
Unfortunately, a society that is either blind to this difference or dismisses it as unimportant is fundamentally incapable of either discouraging laziness or rewarding and training a strong work ethic. It cannot encourage economic excellence among its citizens because it flattens the difference between excellence and inferiority. Equality instead demands the redistribution of wealth among lazy and industrious alike. Accordingly, such a society rewards the administration of wealth rather than its production, for only administration can achieve this venerated equality.
As always, thank you for your profound insights and understanding Mr Lewis.
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