Four lessons from C. S. Lewis on politics

From Micah Watson, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Politics and Religion at Union University:

The first lesson is that politics is not everything, nor is it nothing. Lewis noted that the people who did the most for this world are those who had their minds most on the next.This world has a built-in purpose; history has a direction to it that leads to God and a coming reality that frames everything we do in this already-but-not-yet phase of life. Lewis grounds his view of second things on the priority of the first thing, and in doing so follows Jesus’ command to seek first God’s kingdom and then all these other things shall follow. Politics is one of these second things, as it is a practice necessary to protect and promote the good earthly gifts God has provided. The dignity that rightly pertains to political matters depends on our recognition of its limits.

Lewis believed those limits to be rather robust for two reasons, and this is our second lesson. Men and women are made in God’s image, and destined to a future existence that dwarfs this earthly sojourn. At the same time, human beings are fallen. These bedrock truths about the human condition limit the scope of government.

Lewis supported democracy, he wrote in his essay “Equality,” because he believed in the Fall. Bringing to mind Lord Acton’s maxim about power and corruption, Lewis wrote that human beings are so fallen that they cannot be trusted with untrammeled power, and democracy, for all its faults, better checks this dynamic than other systems.

We also should see governments as limited given their respective mortality. In his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” Lewis reminds us that human beings have an eternal destiny, whether of unimaginable joy or abject horror and misery. In contrast, the lives of governments, businesses, cultures and even taxes have the lifespan of gnats. Governments are temporary, people are eternal. This is a potent reminder for us, then, that the former should always be seen as subservient to the latter. For these reasons, then, in his essay “Membership,” Lewis described government’s mandate as modest, though still important:

As long as we are thinking of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of the spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary.

If these first two lessons help us situate politics, what does Lewis say about what should guide our political activity? Lewis famously defended both biblical truth and a version of natural law, what he called the Tao. Lewis believed that while God revealed political ends, or goals, in the Bible, He did not usually prescribe the specific means to achieve these ends. God tells us to feed the hungry but leaves it up to us to learn how to cook. We must protect and provide for the widow and orphan, fight oppression, and pursue justice; but the Bible does not provide details on whether a bicameral legislature or proportional representation will be best suited to achieve those ends.

The best Christian political thought and action will be accomplished, then, not by clergy per se but by Christians engaged in the practice of politics as financiers in finance and doctors in medicine. Politics is a craft, a discipline, and so a genuinely Christian politics will be practiced by Christians who apply the Golden Rule to the varying contingencies and messiness of politics.

The fourth consideration from Lewis is both a warning and an encouragement. In an essay titled “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” Lewis considers the dangers of conflating Christian involvement in politics with a formal Christian party or attempting to Christianize an existing party. The problem is that politics is, in part, about means to achieve ends, and Christians can and do disagree in good faith about the best means. The result will either be a party that fundamentally disagrees about means (which cannot function as a party), or a group of Christians purporting to represent all Christians in matters on which the Bible is not clear (which risks violating the third commandment). This is the warning, then, but what did Lewis encourage Christians to do instead?

Lewis did not think retreating from the public square was an option. “The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society,” Lewis wrote in another essay, “but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow-subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish.”

The alternative to quietism is, in part, for Christians to clearly articulate their non-negotiable convictions, in the hopes that in a pluralistic society parties wishing to garner the support of Christians will take care not to alienate them. Yet Lewis concluded his meditation with more powerful advice, reminding us again how putting God first can impact the second things. In language that evangelicals in particular will harken to, Lewis notes that the best way of being salt and light in the culture is to share the Gospel. After all, “He who converts his neighbor has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all.”

This is not to say that Lewis would have us evangelize merely for the sake of politics. Far from it. Rather, Lewis’s final encouragement to us is that while political schemes and practices have their place, the truly Christian witness in the political world will be found in the sort of people we are: fallen, redeemed, loved, and living for the love of God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Politics is about our shared conception of the good life, and that includes earthly matters. Our Father in heaven knows we need these things. Yet our witness to the earthly good life only works in the light of our witness to the good life, for those who “aim at heaven get earth thrown in: those who aim at earth get neither.”

The Political and Apolitical C. S. Lewis (Canon & Culture)

The Divine Comedy as the ultimate self-help book?

DanteRod Dreher, senior editor of The American Conservative:

Without my quite realizing what was happening, “The Divine Comedy” led me systematically to examine my own conscience and to reflect on how I too had pursued false images of the good.

I learned how I had been missing the mark in my vocation as a writer. My eagerness to chase after new ideas before I had mastered old ones was a form of intellectual gluttony. The workaholic tendencies I considered a sign of my strong professional ethic were, paradoxically, a cover for my laziness; the more time I spent writing, the less time I had for the mundane tasks necessary for an orderly life.

Most important of all, reading Dante uncovered the sin most responsible for my immediate crisis. Family and home ought to have been for me icons of the good—that is, windows into the divine—but without meaning to, I had loved them too much, seeing them as absolute goods, thereby rendering them into idols. They had to be cast down, or at least put in their proper place, if I was going to be free.

And “The Divine Comedy” persuaded me that I was not helplessly caught by my failings and circumstances. I had reason, I had free will, I had the assistance of good people—and I had the help of God, if only I would humble myself to ask.

Why did I need Dante to gain this knowledge? After all, my confessor had a lot to say about bondage to false idols and about how humility and prayer can unleash the power of God to help us overcome it. And at our first meeting, my therapist told me that I couldn’t control other people or events, but, by the exercise of my free will, I could control my response to them. None of the basic lessons of the Comedy was exactly new to me.

But when embodied in this brilliant poem, these truths inflamed my moral imagination as never before. For me, the Comedy became an icon through which the serene light of the divine pierced the turbulent darkness of my heart. As the Dante scholar Charles Williams wrote of the supreme poet’s art: “A thousand preachers have said all that Dante says and left their hearers discontented; why does Dante content? Because an image of profundity is there.”

That image is what Christian theologians call a “theophany”—a manifestation of God. Standing in my little country church this past January on the Feast of the Theophany, the poet’s impact on my life became clear. Nothing external had changed, but everything in my heart had. I was settled. For the first time since returning to my hometown, I felt that I had come home.

Can Dante do this for others? Truth to tell, it is impossible for me, as a believing (non-Catholic) Christian, to separate my receptiveness to the poem from the core theological vision both Dante and I share.

But the Comedy wouldn’t have survived so long if it were just an elaborate exercise in morality and Scholastic theology. The Comedy pulses with life, and it bears witness in its luminous lines and vivid tableaux to the power of love, the deathlessness of hope and the promise of freedom for those who have the courage to take the first pilgrim step.

Over Lent, I led readers of my blog on a pilgrimage through “Purgatory,” one canto a day. To my delight, a number of them wrote afterward to say how much Dante had changed their lives. One reader wrote to say that she quit a three-decade smoking habit while reading “Purgatory” over Lent, saying that the poem helped her to think of her addiction as something that she could be free of, with God’s help.

“I’ve had the sensation of maddeningly stinging, prickling skin during the nicotine withdrawal phase when I’ve tried to quit before,” she said, “but reading Dante helped me to imagine the sensation as a cleansing fire.”

Michelle Togut, a Jewish reader in Greensboro, N.C., told me that she was surprised by how contemporary the medieval Italian poet seemed. “For a work about what supposedly happens after you die, Dante’s poem is very much about life and how we choose to live it,” she said. “It’s about spurning our idols and taking a long, hard look at ourselves in order to break out of the destructive behaviors that keep us from both G-d and the good life.”

The practical applications of Dante’s wisdom cannot be separated from the pleasure of reading his verse, and this accounts for much of the life-changing power of the Comedy. For Dante, beauty provides signposts on the seeker’s road to truth. The wandering Florentine’s experiences with beauty, especially that of the angelic Beatrice, taught him that our loves lead us to heaven or to hell, depending on whether we are able to satisfy them within the divine order.

This is why “The Divine Comedy” is an icon, not an idol: Its beauty belongs to heaven. But it may also be taken into the hearts and minds of those woebegone wayfarers who read it as a guidebook and hold it high as a lantern, sent across the centuries from one lost soul to another, illuminating the way out of the dark wood that, sooner or later, ensnares us all.

The Ultimate Self-Help Book: Dante’s Divine Comedy (Wall Street Journal). Alternative version: How Dante Saved My Life (The American Conservative)

Why read The Odyssey?

Stephen Mitchell, a translator of The Odyssey, on the imaginative world of the epic poem:

Reading “The Odyssey,” we enter a world infused by the imagination. Everything becomes fresh and new; familiar objects light up with an inner radiance, as if we were seeing the sky or smelling the grass for the first time. And we are always carried along by the steady yet constantly varying rhythms of the meter, which serves as a counterpoint to even the most horrific events, so that everything we read is lifted up into the realm of the beautiful.

On the central theme of going home:

“I know no place that is sweeter than my own country,” Odysseus says, and that is a feeling we can all recognize. The goddess Calypso even promises Odysseus eternal life, if only he will stay with her on her idyllic island and submit to a life of constant sex and unalloyed sensual pleasure. But he refuses her offer. He longs for his home and his wife more than he cares about immortality. This is not a case of nostalgia, which is a longing for a past that can never be and perhaps never has been, and therefore necessarily ends in disappointment. He is longing not for a past but for a future, in a place that is beloved beyond all others on earth or in heaven. Penelope, his wife, was 20 when he sailed for Troy; she is 40 now, and whether or not she has kept her physical beauty is beside the point. She is a woman, not a goddess, but she is the one he loves. Odysseus’s refusal of immortality is the most moving tribute that a marriage has ever received. It is like Adam’s refusal in “Paradise Lost”: when Eve offers him the fruit, Adam bites into it, fully aware of the consequences, because he loves her so deeply that he can’t bear to remain in Eden without her.

Why You Might Want to Read The Odyssey (Huffington Post)

On reading Kafka

Franz Kafka is a tough read. Of course that’s his intention. Consider this famous quotation from Kafka’s letter to Oskar Pollak in 1904:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we would write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

While I would not choose all my reading based on this criteria, I do think we occasionally need to read those books that “wake us up with a blow on the head.” The poet W. H. Auden provides wise guidance on when one should read Kafka:

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

Quotations about Franz Kafka

A reviewer remarked recently that Kafka was in danger of becoming the idol of a clique; this would be a pity indeed, for there is no modern writer who stands so firmly and directly in the European tradition, none less romantic and eccentric. Had one to name the artist who comes nearest to bearing the same kind of relation to our age that Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe bore to theirs, Kafka is the first one would think of.
—W. H. Auden, “The Wandering Jew

The distinction Kafka, or his heroes, draw between this world and the world does not imply that there are two different worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the true conception.
—W. H. Auden

Fantasy, for Kafka even more than for most writers of fiction, was the way out of his skin, so he could get back in. He felt, as it were, abashed before the fact of his own existence, “amateurish” in that this had never been quite expressed before. So singular, he spoke for millions in their new unease; a century after his birth, he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man’s cosmic predicament.
—John Updike, Foreword to Franz Kafka’s The Complete Stories (Schocken)

Kafka’s survey of the insectile situation of young Jews in inner Bohemia can hardly be improved upon: “With their posterior legs they were still glued to their father’s Jewishness and with their wavering anterior legs they found no new ground.” There is a sense in which Kafka’s Jewish question (“What have I in common with Jews?”) has become everybody’s question, Jewish alienation the template for all our doubts. What is Muslimness? What is femaleness? What is Polishness? These days we all find our anterior legs flailing before us. We’re all insects, all Ungeziefer, now.
—Zadie Smith

Kafka engaged in no technical experiments whatsoever; without in any way changing the German language, he stripped it of its involved constructions until it became clear and simple, like everyday speech purified of slang and negligence. The common experience of Kafka’s readers is one of general and vague fascination, even in stories they fail to understand, a precise recollection of strange and seemingly absurd images and descriptions—until one day the hidden meaning reveals itself to them with the sudden evidence of a truth simple and incontestable.
—Hannah Arendt