For a book that’s supposed to be all about political theory, Plato’s Republic has a funny way of pooh-poohing the political life in its final pages. In the Myth of Er which closes the work, we are told of a soul who wins the lottery of the Fates, getting to choose its next life before all the other souls in the queue. The lucky soul immediately chooses the life of a great tyrant, which upon further reflection, left this soul with some buyer’s remorse when it realized the various horrors such a course of life would entail alongside the obvious glory. Apparently, this short-sighted soul “had lived in an orderly republic (politeia) in his earlier life, someone who had gotten hold of virtue by custom without loving wisdom (philosophia).” The soul of the ever-curious Odysseus, by contrast, chooses last but gladly selects the opposite biography from the one it had just lived, repenting of its former penchant for craving honor and selecting instead the life of a “private man who avoided politics.” It takes no penetrating esoteric reading to see who chose more wisely, and the moral of Er’s tale is timeless.
In this piece, we are not chiefly concerned with Plato but C. S. Lewis, one of Plato’s more recent students and admirers. Indeed, Lewis’s writings on Christianity and culture are as timely as ever, even if his instincts conflict with many prevailing intellectual fashions among (especially American) Christians in 2022. One could, for example, point to his skepticism of “national repentance” and his perspicuous distrust of the underlying psychology, which itself was disproportionately the product of certain sociological factors.
Alternatively, one could look to his interesting remarks about “the West” and the value of what some might call “cultural Christianity.” As an Anglican and self-described “dinosaur” who marinated in the mentality of the premodern like his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, we would probably expect Lewis to defend “the West” and bemoan the erosion of Christian values. Surprisingly, some in Lewis’s mid-twentieth-century world felt cultural Christianity and “the West” were actually on the rebound. Lewis puts this thinking in the mouth of an anonymous, blowhard Headmaster in a brief essay titled “Revival or Decay?”
‘Then again’, boomed the Headmaster, ‘even where there is, or is as yet, no explicit religion, do we not see a vast rallying to the defence of those standards which, whether recognised or not, make part of our spiritual heritage? The Western — may I not say the Christian — values . . .’
But Lewis cuts off the Headmaster’s monologue to say, “We all winced.” By essay’s end, Lewis reveals himself to be stubbornly indifferent to the supposed comeback of Western or Christian values. In his view, people like the Headmaster confuse authentic Christianity with “religion” or better yet “religions.”
Is there a homogeneous ‘West’? I doubt it. Everything that can go on is going on all round us. Religions buzz about us like bees. A serious sex worship — quite different from the cheery lechery endemic in our species — is one of them. Traces of embryonic religions occur in science-fiction. Meanwhile, as always, the Christian way too is followed. But nowadays, when it is not followed, it need not be feigned. That fact covers a good deal of what is called the decay of religion. Apart from that, is the present so very different from other ages or ‘the West’ from anywhere else?
Those of us expecting the clever and clear argumentation so characteristic of Lewis may feel surprised and perhaps a touch disappointed to read him so ambivalent to traditional values, the regnancy of Christianity, and Western Civilization.
Lewis further explains his thinking in the similarly-themed essay, “The Decline of Religion,” and he frames the issue in terms familiar to us anxious Christians many decades later: low institutional participation.
The “decline of religion” so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels. Now it is quite true that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. But this change was not gradual. It occurred at the precise moment when chapel ceased to be compulsory. It was not in fact a decline; it was a precipice. The sixty men who had come because chapel was a little later than “rollers” (its only alternative) came no more; the five Christians remained. The withdrawal of compulsion did not create a new religious situation, but only revealed the situation which had long existed. And this is typical of the “decline in religion” all over England.
Thus the “decline of religion” becomes a very ambiguous phenomenon. One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the “world,” was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded churchgoing as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners as (at worst) a proof of respectability. Hence a social pressure, like the withdrawal of the compulsion, did not create a new situation. The new freedom first allowed accurate observations to be made. When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered. It should be added that this new freedom was partly caused by the very conditions which it revealed. If the various anticlerical and antitheistic forces at work in the nineteenth century had had to attack a solid phalanx of radical Christians the story might have been different. But mere “religion”—”morality tinged with emotion,” “what a man does with his solitude,” “the religion of all good men”—has little power of resistance. It is not good at saying No.
Lewis will admit that this decline of this old religion tends to increase a certain kind of disorder for the world at-large, particularly in public life, but he doubts this turn has made anything worse for sound Christianity itself; if anything, the competing sides are all much clearer now.
In “The Decline of Religion,” Lewis also rearticulates misgivings about the supposed solution to the problem: a national renewal of Christianity begun in intellectual circles, the sort of revival championed by the aforementioned Headmaster. While he did not oppose a growing academic interest in Christianity per se, Lewis warned that it was still essentially an intellectual fashion, which would condense and then dissolve with rapidity. Moreover, he reckoned it unlikely to produce many thorough converts outside of places like Oxford. Besides, if such a comprehensive, large-scale renewal of Christianity were to appear, it would inevitably generate real opposition. Indeed,
as the real meaning of the Christian claim becomes apparent, its demand for total surrender, the sheer chasm between Nature and Supernature, men are increasingly “offended.” Dislike, terror, and finally hatred succeed: none who will not give it what it asks (and it asks all) can endure it: all who are not with it are against it. That is why we must cherish no picture of the present intellectual movement simply growing and spreading and finally reclaiming millions by sweet reasonableness. Long before it became as important as that the real opposition would have begun, and to be on the Christian side would be costing a man (at the least) his career. But remember, in England the opposition will quite likely be called Christianity (or Christo-democracy, or British Christianity, or something of that kind).
Relevance to the Present
Of course, Lewis’s opinions are not dogma. Protestants like himself generally take a dim view of binding sub-authorities or obligatory Traditions nested within the Christian tradition, which is to say, his analysis could be wrong or simply irrelevant to the present. Yet given the venerable status in Anglophone Christianity, it’s worth considering his mid-twentieth-century perspectives and how they relate to our own cultural churnings now. I suggest three points speak to our moment.
- Much like Plato in my reading, Lewis also doubts the ultimate value of the ideal, optimally-structured politeia. By politeia, which is often unhelpfully translated “regime,” we mean more than a governmental constitution but also cultural mores and social arrangements generally: a community’s whole way of life. Plato suggests that virtue achieved by social conventions is actually quite a frail; Lewis distrusts those same conventions to produce “radical” Christians. Yes, societies that instantiate a superficially Christian order may be better off in some meaningful ways compared to their overtly anti-Christian or otherwise dehumanizing counterparts. But can they actually facilitate the kind of conversion, the profound transformation of will, demanded of Christian disciples? Perhaps not all thoughtful interlocutors will agree with my skepticism, but I’d rather err toward Lewis and (I think) Plato here.
- Historical trends are fickle. It may seem incredible given what we normally suppose about Western secularization in the twentieth century, but some in Lewis’s Britain believed Christian culture was actually making a comeback. Lewis warned that this had yet to become anything more than a fad among some intellectuals, and the continued secularization that followed this moment of optimism proves the wisdom in his circumspection. Historical tides will roll in and out; the expectation for widespread Christian revival obviously did not achieve anything close to what its loudest proponents projected, just as current causes of pessimism could themselves wash out with new conditions in a decade. In his own day, the great socio-political and (in his words) mythical object of Lewis’s criticism was what he called “evolutionism” or “developmentalism,” which we would now probably label “progressivism”: the belief that humanity, especially aided by modern science and technology, is ever progressing or evolving for the better. Basically a competitor to traditional Christianity, this worldview serves as the reoccurring antagonist in the Ransom Trilogy, particularly That Hideous Strength; it had dominated the popular imagination and cultural heights of Western societies since at least the mid-1800s. Yet in his own lifetime, Lewis read the signs that this great mythology was on its way out, and the postmodern turn which mostly caught on after his death has proven him right once more.
- In Lewis’s “Headmaster,” one discerns a forerunner to many of today’s various post-liberalisms, nationalisms, integralisms, and alarmisms, especially those looking to draw support from Judaism and Christianity. To these, Lewis might recall the simile of Luther, that history is like a drunk man who, having fallen off his horse to the right, then falls off to the left: a warning to all reactionaries. Admittedly, some symptoms these movements have identified represent real ills indeed, but again with the crucial proviso “at the moment.” Similar to Lewis’s own skepticism, I expect these often angsty and chiefly rhetorical movements to make little headway in their stated goals. Meanwhile, where the politeia of heaven is keeping the real score, actual Christian conversion and renewal remain costly, mainly achieved, I think, at a painstakingly small-scale. As I have caveated elsewhere, this realization need not have us bind a millstone to all Christian interest in the social order and cast it into the sea. It should, however, put us on guard against any present players of that most ancient and venerable of games: the instrumentalization of Christianity.
Andrew Koperski is a doctoral candidate in ancient history at The Ohio State University. His fields of focus include Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, and Byzantium. Much of his current research examines the formation of the biblical canon and the reception of apocryphal literature.
619c,translation adapted from The Republic of Plato, trans. Allan David Bloom, 2nd ed (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 302. ↑
C. S. Lewis, “Dangers of National Repentance,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 205–8. ↑
C. S. Lewis, “Revival or Decay?,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 277.. ↑
Lewis, “Revival or Decay?”, 279. ↑
C. S. Lewis, “The Decline in Religion,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 237-8 ↑
Lewis, “The Decline in Religion”, 239. ↑
Lewis, “The Decline in Religion”., 243. ↑
See for instance, Lewis’s “The Funeral of a Great Myth.” ↑