9 years ago: C.S. Lewis on theocracy

May 15, 2004, on this blog: C.S. Lewis on theocracy

I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber barron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely more because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.

And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme — whose highest claim is to reasonable prudence — the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication.

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  • aunursa

    That quote is extremely similar to this one…

    Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

    – C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, 1948

  • I like this quote and I have repeatedly thought about it since the last election cycle.

  • Seraph4377

    Sometimes I wonder if Lewis underestimated the robber barons…and their ability to rally the Inquisitors to their side.

  • Deborah Moore

    Presumably Communism would rate as a sort of semi-theocracy.

  • Random_Lurker

    According to this line: ” A metaphysic held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign,” I believe it does qualify.

  • Nathaniel Winer

    C.S. Lewis was wrong. He didn’t account for the possibility of being ruled by people who are Robber Baron’s and Theocrats.

  • Justin

    This is why it drove me nuts when S.E. Cupp, a supposed atheist, would say she felt more comfortable with a leader who thought they were talking to God. I think someone denying you birth control because their god said not to give it to you is worse than someone allowing you birth control because they want you to fuck more. I’d rather you had impure motives to do the right thing than pure motives to hurt others.

  • Alix

    Also, it’s much, much harder to argue with people who believe God is on their side.

  • And yet, in the Narnia series, Lewis’ favored form of government appears to be “absolute monarch divinely appointed by Aslan/Jesus” (High King Peter, Caspian, etc).

  • I think people should fuck more. Or at least better. And that we, as a society, are completely wrong in thinking fucking less is a good thing. It’s a good thing when someone chooses on their own, and with no moral judgment, how much and whom and in what way they want or do not want to fuck.

    Wanting to make birth control more available so that women will be able to fuck more when they want to is a good moral stance. Wanting to force women to fuck less is an evil moral stance, one that is based in controlling women’s bodies.

  • “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”

    -Susan B. Anthony (a much better person than C.S. Lewis)

  • CG

    Much better person?

    Where does that come from?

  • From reading C.S. Lewis.

  • Hth

    Jeez, it’s almost as if his fairytale books for children weren’t in every single respect an accurate representation of Lewis’s beliefs about the real world.

  • Aw, CS Lewis can shut his yap. Like any conservative, he nodded with approval to those who were openly greedy and selfish, while frowning suspiciously at anyone trying to do the right thing and assuming that they were out to take away his God-almighty freedom.

    And he did not understand robber barons. For a true capitalist, greed *is* a moral imperative. The more loot they can get, the better people it proves them to be in their own minds. The same self-righteous thrill that Lewis’ “theocrat” gets from forcing people to behave in the way he considers moral, Lewis’ “robber baron” gets from forcing people to slave endlessly to enrich him. Either way, they are forcing the world into the shape they know in their heart that it ought to have, and that is morally satisfying.

    The problem is not that some people have morals, because everyone has morals. The problem is that a lot of people have morals that are bad.

  • And then, to reward the children for their bravery, Aslan suggested that the people of Narnia should have a constitutional republic, but it was, of course, entirely up to them. Ten years later, the four children who, by then, were President, Senator, Representative for their district, and dogcatcher, stumbled across a random cave and when they came out the other end, they were home. The End.

    Note: I know that in the UK they have a House of Lords and House of Commons and not a Senate and a House of Representatives, but the HoL and HoC require nobility, and I wanted to avoid any kind of reference to royalty/nobility in my suggestion.

  • And he did not understand robber barons.

    C.S. Lewis, the writer, was brilliant. C.S. Lewis, the theologian and moralist, was… not, to put it kindly. C.S. Lewis understood how to write a good sentence and how to tell a good tale. The writer was compromised by the moralist; the tales were wrecked by the soapbox theology*. I think, therefore, that he was projecting with this.

    It is absolutely true that people who come down from on high and tell you what’s best for you and do things to you for your own good, without bothering to listen to what you actually want, are a plague. It is also absolutely true that robber barons are a plague. What C.S. Lewis could not understand was that robber barons and the type of do-gooder he lambasted have always been allies. Each group wants to control society, and especially poor people. And so they have been allies since at least the Roman Empire, and probably earlier.

    *Btw, I think the same thing about Philip Pullman, so this isn’t some atheist anti-Christian stance, before I’m accused of that.

  • I’ve seen this quote used by libertarians as an argument against Great Society liberalism.

  • SisterCoyote

    Man, discovering that C.S. Lewis’s theology was dickish wrecked me. His books were the first things I ever read as a conscious choice to consume media that was forbidden to me – and so much of what he said resonated with me! A thousand daydreams of bullied, lonely children whose parents/guardians were absent or neglectful, and finally, finally someone who actually GOT the concept of Wild, and why it felt so sacred…

    And then, foolishly, some years later, I read Mere Christianity, and The Space Trilogy, and it was the WORST. (Reading A Grief Observed, with some guilt, and then Til We Have Faces kinda redeemed his voice for me, but that memory still stings.)

    But no, I don’t think there’s anything anti-Christian about criticizing C.S. Lewis, and I would really hope that the commentariat would agree with that.

  • The House of Commons requires Nobility? Since when?

  • You do realize that in Narnia, “dogcatcher” would be sort of a horrific profession, right?

  • ohiolibrarian

    Because feeding and housing people is … torturing them?

  • Madhabmatics

    Yeah, this is where I see this quote more often. “They think they can help you, that’s the first step to tyranny!”

  • BaseDeltaZero

    And yet, in the Narnia series, Lewis’ favored form of government appears to be “absolute monarch divinely appointed by Aslan/Jesus” (High King Peter, Caspian, etc).

    I get the strange impression that in roughly half of C. S. Lewis’ railing against some sin or another, he’s talking about himself.

    You do realize that in Narnia, “dogcatcher” would be sort of a horrific profession, right?

    dogcatcher, not Dogcatcher. The danger un-controlled wild animals (little a) could have on a society which has many members that are roughly prey-sized is… consierable.

    Yeah, this is where I see this quote more often. “They think they can help you, that’s the first step to tyranny!”

    But, there’s a difference between ‘I can help you’, and ‘Do exactly as I say, it’s for your own good.’ (The ‘Or Else’ is implied).

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Presumably, xe means the dichotomy implied by House of Lords/House of Commons requires nobility. House of Commons might not, though… perhaps if you have a government that’s half Starship Troopers (i.e., one half of the government is elected solely by public servants, the other by the population in general).