“But it’s for your own good.” C. S. Lewis on tyranny

“But it’s for your own good.” C. S. Lewis on tyranny November 1, 2013

I was having a productive day until a friend of mine sent me the following famous quote from C. S. Lewis in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, which appeared today (11/1) in the Wall Street Journal on page A17. Now I’m all riled up and I won’t get any more work done.

My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position [imposing “the good”] would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. 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 of robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber barons cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to heaven yet at the same time likely to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be “cured” against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on the level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.

Abuse of power in Christian contexts justified on the basis of “it’s for your own good” is uncomfortably common. As “tyrannical” as this may be when even “good men” (as Lewis says) engage in such behavior, it is all the worse when guardians herd the masses toward the “right” conclusions under some sort of explicit or veiled threat, claiming “it’s nothing personal,” but only in service of the greater “good.”

I hope it goes without saying that leaders do indeed have the responsibility to lead, and there is often a fine line between leading and coercion. But I am reflecting here, as is Lewis, on the dehumanizing abuse of power that crosses far past that fine line and is, at least as I see it, more common than it should be in the church.

I’m sure many of you can fill in the blanks from your own experience.

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  • Andrew Dowling

    I would reckon practically all tyrannies are inflicted via the oppressor satiating their conscience by believing their actions ultimately serve some greater good. Did Genghis Khan really wake up in the morning and say “hmmm, how to inflict massive suffering and hardship on people today? Let’s start with . . .”

    • Well, I think the difference is that Genghis Khan was acting unabashedly for the good of the Mongolian people. The good of the people in the cities he conquered really wasn’t on his radar. The kind of tyranny Lewis was talking about was the kind that tyrannizes “for the good” of the ones being tyrannized.

  • It strikes me that one of Jesus’ goals was to spread power equally among all Christians, upon them becoming sound disciples (see parable of the sower). For example, Mt 20:20-28. I’m told this leads to anarchism, but I’m not so sure about that. What this leads to is competent, upright people self-organizing into structures in which every participant can say, “I fully choose to be part of this endeavor”—contrast this to social structures where some people hate their lives after playing their role for long enough. Ahh, but just give them Hollywood and beer and they’ll be happy! No.

  • Myron Williams

    no wonder you couldn’t work! this sounds too much like what happened here in central Kentucky when the cities decided the weather was too bad to send children out trick or treating. “it’s for their own good” the politicians said. just what we need. supposed “good people” making our decisions for us as though we are not intelligent enough, or may not choose what they think is right.

  • Bryan

    I didn’t realize that Lewis was a victim of Mill. What exactly is the ‘greater good’ anyway? This is too non-specific.

    • Connie Daniels

      the “greater good” is what is determined by the person in control..which could be anything really. Just equate it to over protective parents who often raise mentally and emotionally unstable children who can not function in society on their own.
      Freewill is taken away and creates emotionally dependent people. all the while the person in control thinks they are helping them.

  • katy

    love this from Lewis. he was an incredibly divine writer and wise man.

  • MartinLutherFan

    I highly recommend ISBN-10: 1556611609.
    Or what I call “The Diotrephes Survival Guide”. 3rd John verse 9 mentions this man, probably the church’s first narcissist “leader”.
    Good his name, and also the greek break down of “Nicolaitians” (from Rev 2).

    C.S. Lewis hits the nail on the head. Thanks for you comments as well, Peter.


  • thehomelessguy

    Faith-based Rescue Missions – one of the biggest sins of organized religion.

  • Alex

    Obamacare – tyranny “for our own good.”

    • There is always a tension between the public vs. the individual good. Is it “tyranny for our own good” to require children to be immunized? To require building owners to furnish smoke detectors and fire escapes? Democrats and Republicans stand at different places on the spectrum in which “individual freedom” is on one side and “public safety” is on the other. Whether Obamacare is tyranny or simply addressing a social need, depends on who you talk to.

  • wejrowski

    Made me think of this… Albert Schweitzer on society vs individual:

    In the last analysis, the antagonism between the two arises from their differing valuations of humaneness. Humaneness consists in never sacrificing a human being to a purpose. The ethic of ethical personality aims at preserving humaneness. The system established by society is impotent in that respect.

    When the individual is faced with the alternative of having to sacrifice in some way or other the happiness or the existence of another, or else to bear the loss of himself, he is in a position to obey the demands of ethics and to choose the latter. But society, thinking impersonally and pursuing its aims impersonally, does not allow the same weight to consideration for the happiness or existence of an individual. In principle humaneness is not an item in its ethics. But individuals come continually into the position of being in one way or another executive organs of society, and then the conflict between the two points of view becomes active. That this may always be decided in its own favour, society exerts itself as much as possible to limit the authority of the ethic of personality, although inwardly it has to acknowledge its superiority. It wants to have servants who will never oppose it. … Even a society whose ethical standard is relatively high, is dangerous to the ethics of its members. … The result is that the ethic of personality is sacrificed to the ethic of society. Ethical progress consists in making up our minds to think pessimistically of the ethics of society.

    This is from his Philosophy of civilization.. him coming up with an ethic that is sustainable (reverence for life). A big part of his argument is that it must come from personal conviction… “We shall be capable of this, however, only when the majority of individuals discover for themselves both an ethic and a profound and steadfast attitude of the world-and-life-affirmation, in a theory of the universe at once convincing and based on reflection.”

  • Gregory Danelz

    You know this applies to ALL ‘religious’ people; not just ‘christians’. The religions of atheism, secular humanism, pragmatism, etc. all fall prey to this symptom; and I would argue much more so than most christians. Christ said that the greatest among us were those who served all, therefore a TRUE Christian would never use his faith for tyranny, but serve those he wanted to expose to the gospel. Yes, there are many ‘churches’, and not just christian, that use coercion or religious tyranny to control people, but then they are by definition not christian. Paul said that if you take on but one law, then you are subject to it all, and that it was better that those people just go all the way and castrate themselves. MERE Christianity is not putting on a new yoke on your neighbor, but taking it from your neighbor so that he can be free to come to Christ.

  • Adam

    It does not simply apply only to religious people. It applies to secular saints as well; those who argue for more government control over on our lives, limiting our choices in education, economics, and health. Muslim theocracies may be the most notorious of these righteous tyrannies, but a lighter form of this tyranny exists right here at home, under the current but temporary brand known as progressivism. The brand name has changed, and will change again to make the ideas seem fresher than they truly are. Here in the US, I see little evidence of a religiously motivated righteous tyranny , but more evidence of a secular led righteous tyranny emanating from Democrats and those on the political left.

  • Janet Lingel Aldrich

    Vide the nanny state which tells us what we must and must not eat, or drink — treating us like children in the nursery who have no idea of the “right” way of doing things.