C.S. Lewis on Equality and Our Core Misconception About Democracy
By Maria Popova
“The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former,” wrote the great French philosopher Simone Weil shortly before her untimely and patriotic death as she contemplated the crucial difference between our rights and our obligations. “A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.” Nowhere do we muddle these two notions more liberally than in our treatment of democracy and its foundational principle of equality — a basic right to be conferred upon every human being, but also something the upkeep of which demands our active participation and contribution.
That’s what C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963) examines in a superb 1943 essay titled “Equality,” originally published in The Spectator three days after Weil’s death and later included in Present Concerns (public library) — a posthumous anthology of Lewis’s timeless and timely journalistic essays.
A generation before Leonard Cohen contemplated democracy’s foibles and redemptions, Lewis writes at the peak of WWII as history’s deadliest and most unredeemable failure of democracy is sweeping Europe:
I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure… The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Parker Palmer’s notion of democracy as the “politics of the brokenhearted,” Lewis expands upon his counterintuitive case for equality:
I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes. I think it is in the same class as medicine, which is good because we are ill, or clothes which are good because we are no longer innocent… Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty.
In a passage of chilling poignancy and timeliness today, as we witness tyrants rise to power by playing to people’s craving for supremacy as a hedge against insecurity and fear, Lewis writes:
There is no spiritual sustenance in flat equality. It is a dim recognition of this fact which makes much of our political propaganda sound so thin. We are trying to be enraptured by something which is merely the negative condition of the good life. That is why the imagination of people is so easily captured by appeals to the craving for inequality, whether in a romantic form of films about loyal courtiers or in the brutal form of Nazi ideology. The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved.
Just as true generosity lies in mastering the osmosis of giving and receiving, true equality, Lewis argues, requires the parallel desires to be honored and to honor. He writes:
When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. That mind is the special disease of democracy, as cruelty and servility are the special diseases of privileged societies. It will kill us all if it grows unchecked. The man who cannot conceive a joyful and loyal obedience on the one hand, nor an unembarrassed and noble acceptance of that obedience on the other, the man who has never even wanted to kneel or to bow, is a prosaic barbarian.
Every intrusion of the spirit that says “I’m as good as you” into our personal and spiritual life is to be resisted just as jealously as every intrusion of bureaucracy or privilege into our politics. Hierarchy within can alone preserve egalitarianism without. Romantic attacks on democracy will come again. We shall never be safe unless we already understand in our hearts all that the anti-democrats can say, and have provided for it better than they.
Complement Present Concerns with Lewis on why we read, the essence of friendship, what it really means to have free will in a universe of fixed laws, his ideal daily routine, and the key to authenticity in writing, then revisit Walt Whitman on how literature bolsters democracy.
Published November 29, 2016