Thursday, October 1, 2009

C.S. Lewis Quotes on Mammon, Evils, Democracy & Tyranny:

Because of the labyrinthine way that the Net can take you're here and there, I came across this quote from C.S. Lewis that I want to share:

The difference between us [Professor J.B.S. Haldane, biologist and Marxist] is that the Professor sees the 'World' purely in terms of those threats and those allurements which depend on
money. I do not. The most 'worldly' society I have ever lived in is
that of schoolboys: most worldly in the cruelty and arrogance of
the strong, the toadyism and mutual treachery of the weak, and
the unqualified snobbery of both. Nothing was so base that most
members of the school proletariat would not do it, or suffer it, to
win the favor of the school aristocracy: hardly any injustice too
bad for the aristocracy to practice. But the class system did not in
the least depend on the amount of pocket money. Who needs to
care about money if most of the things he wants will be offered by
cringing servility and the remainder can be taken by force? This
lesson has remained with me all my life. That is one of the reasons
why I cannot share Professor Haldane's exaltation at the banishment
of Mammon from 'a sixth of our planet's surface'[Haldane refers here to the U.S.S.R.]. I have
already lived in a world from which Mammon was banished: it
was the most wicked and miserable I have yet known. If
Mammon were the only devil, it would be another matter. But
where Mammon vacates the throne, how if Moloch takes his
place? As Aristotle said, 'Men do not become tyrants in order to
keep warm'. All men, of course, desire pleasure and safety. But all
men also desire power and all men desire the mere sense of being 'in
the know' or the 'inner ring', of not being 'outsiders': a passion
insufficiently studied and the chief theme of my story [Lewis refers here to That Hideous Strength from the Ransom trilogy]. When the
state of society is such that money is the passport to all these
prizes, then of course money will be the prime temptation. But
when the passport changes, the desires will remain.

Lewis continues his argument:

My fears of such a tyranny will seem to the Professor either
insincere or pusillanimous. For him the danger is all in the
opposite direction, in the chaotic selfishness of individualism. I
must try to explain why I fear more the disciplined cruelty of
some ideological oligarchy. The Professor has his own explanation of
this; he thinks I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I
'stand to lose by social change'. And indeed it would be hard for
me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a
concentration camp. I might add that it would be likewise easy for
the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the
highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the
motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing ad
, but when all the mud has been flung every man's views
still remain to be considered on their merits.

The quotes from Lewis conclude with this statement on democracy:

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 the rulers and to the subjects. Hence
Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a
tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron's
cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point 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
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 real
claim is to reasonable prudence -— the sort of assent which we
should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of

This false certainty comes out in Professor Haldanes article.
He simply cannot believe that a man could really be in doubt
about usury. I have no objection to his thinking me wrong. What
shocks me is his instantaneous assumption that the question is so
simple that there could be no real hesitation about it. It is
breaking Aristotle's canon—to demand in every enquiry that
degree of certainty which the subject matter allows. And not "on
your life" to pretend that you see further than you do.

Being a democrat, I am opposed to all very drastic and
sudden changes of society (in whatever direction) because they
never in fact take place except by a particular technique. That
technique involves the seizure of power by a small, highly
disciplined group of people; the terror and the secret police
follow, it would seem, automatically. I do not think any group
good enough to have such power. They are men of like passions
with ourselves. The secrecy and discipline of their organisation
will have already inflamed in them that passion for the inner ring
which I think at least as corrupting as avarice; and their high
ideological pretensions will have lent all their passions the
dangerous prestige of the Cause. Hence, in whatever direction the
change is made, it is for me damned by its modus operandi. The
worst of all public dangers is the committee of public safety. The
character in That Hideous Strength whom the Professor never
mentions is Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the secret police. She is
the common factor in all revolutions; and, as she says, you won't
get anyone to do her job well unless they get some kick out of it.

Lewis represents for me, at least in these quotes, a sensibility that I find very attractive and persuasive. It is, in some sense "conservative", but more in the way of cautious rather than reactionary. It doesn't celebrate the "free market", nor does it seek to impose Christianity on everyone (some persons expectations of Lewis notwithstanding), rather it takes a very empirical and practical, yet deeply insightful view of the human condition. I say, "Three cheers for Professor Lewis!". (My first inclination of Lewis as a careful and insightful student of the human condition came from reading the Narnia books to my daughters, and given that experience, none of his thoughts expressed above come as a surprise. Thank you, daughters!)

BTW, the website that I found this on (don't ask me how I got there, I don't know!) is the "Chicago Boyz Blog", apparently a tribute the all thinking associated with UC, as odd a mixture as that may prove to be.