Acton Institute PowerBlog

C.S. Lewis and the root of power philosophy

C.S. Lewis is perhaps best known for his work in children’s literature and Christian apologetics. “Mere Christianity”, “The Problem of Pain and “The Abolition of Man are among his most popular works, and yet he has many more valuable essays regarding truth and Christianity which are not as widely read. A favorite lecture of mine, titled “The Poison of Subjectivism”, can be found in his collected essays, “Christian Reflections”.

After leaving Malvern College in June 1913, Lewis (or Jack as he preferred to be called) traveled to Great Bookham Surrey where he studied under a former tutor of his father’s, W.T. Kirkpatrick (who later served as the inspiration for Professor Digory Kirke in “The Chronicles of Narnia”). Kirkpatrick was the former headmaster of Lurgan College and drilled into Lewis an understanding of and appreciation for the reasoning and logic which continued to serve Lewis throughout his career. Lewis was given a scholarship to attend University College, Oxford in 1916 and later went on to become an Oxford don where he gave other such lectures on philosophy and reasoning.

“The Poison of Subjectivism” addresses the root of humanist philosophies which have given way to encroachments in democracy-subjectivism. It is “out of this apparently innocent idea” that men propose to have developed a better and more modern morality, claiming to have paved the way to Utopia. Research Director for the Acton Institute, Samuel Gregg, explained succinctly in his course on Christian Anthropology at Acton University earlier this month the danger in believing man can shape perfect order on earth: “Human nature is flawed: there is a radical disorder that runs through the core of every person’s existence. This has immense implications for the social order. It rules out utopian-ism and produces the attitude of Christian realism.” It is out of subjectivism which fascism and totalitarian regimes rise. If men believe that truth is as fluid as present trends in culture, “then of course ideologies themselves cannot be better or worse than one another.”

Based on our human experience we know this to be false; throughout history, many ideologies have failed and resulted in wars and destruction. The French Revolution and National Socialism stem from ideologies which are humanist. The dependence on a system apart from freedom understood through the lens of truth results in the reliance in flawed human ‘solutions.’

Subjectivism erodes our understanding of the principles of who man is-our anthropology. In turn, we are “thereby trusting our own reason so far that we ignore the Fall, and are retrogressively turning our absolute allegiance away from a person to an abstraction”. Goodness must be a “fixed” value. “If good is a fixed point, it is at least possible that we should get nearer and nearer to it; but if the terminus is as mobile as the train, how can the train progress towards it?” The canon with which one measures goodness, including the goodness of ideas, must be found outside man. In 1877, Lord Acton stated in his address to the members of the Bridgnorth Institute (found in The History of Freedom) that “the great question is, to discover not what governments prescribe, but what they ought to prescribe; for no prescription is valid against the conscience of mankind.” Goodness comes from God alone, and can be seen written on the hearts of men through natural law.

Lewis goes on to describe how the subjectivism creeps into many contexts, and when implemented is disastrous.

Many a popular “planner” on a democratic platform, many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last resort, just what the Fascist means. He believes that ‘good’ means whatever men are conditioned to approve. He believes that it is the functions of him and his kind to condition men; to create consciences by eugenics, psychological manipulation of infants, state education and mass propaganda.

Lewis proposed freedom which did not originate apart from objective truth. “The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which over arches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy.”

A Youtube channel, CSLewisDoodle has drawn out the lines of logic in “The Poison of Subjectivism“, and for visual learners this is especially helpful.