C. S. Lewis and the Meaning of Freedom

By Gillen, Steven | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

C. S. Lewis and the Meaning of Freedom


Gillen, Steven, Journal of Markets & Morality


The idea of liberty has ultimately a religious root; that is why men find it so easy to die for and so difficult to define.

--G. K. Chesterton, A Miscellany of Man

When Winston Churchill offered Clive Staples (C. S.) Lewis (1898-1963), the great Christian apologist and author of the Chronicles of Narnia, the honorary title of Commander of the British Empire, Lewis declined on the grounds that accepting would strengthen the hands of "knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda." (1) Those somewhat familiar with C. S. Lewis' writings might infer that his reluctance to involve himself in politics simply reflected his personal preference for evangelization in the private sphere. It would be a mistake, however, to infer that his religious writings were apolitical. Indeed, in his essay "Meditation on the Third Commandment" (1941), Lewis acknowledged the political dimension of evangelization: "He who converts his neighbour has performed the most practical Christian-political act of all." (2)

Although Lewis was not a political scientist, a thorough study of his writings--religious and nonreligious, as well as fiction and nonfiction--reveal a well-considered political and economic philosophy--a kind of Christian libertarianism that combined Aristotelian, medieval Catholic, and classical liberal traditions regarding democracy, natural law, and human nature. Central to his political philosophy was the sanctity of personal liberty. Therefore, it is logical to begin any systematic analysis of Lewis' political ideas by organizing and analyzing them according to a theoretical framework that employs the semantics of one of the most profound debates within political science--specifically, the definition of freedom. (Note that most political scientists generally assume that the modern English words liberty and freedom, though derived from Latin and Old English, respectively, are synonymous--an assumption that might trouble an English professor such as Lewis.) Accordingly, this article will survey and analyze several writings of C. S. Lewis that correspond to the most common political-philosophical distinctions regarding the meaning of freedom and will demonstrate significant similarities between his concept of liberty and those of major classical liberal and libertarian theorists.

Christianity and the Nature of Negative Freedom

The first distinction regarding freedom is that of so-called positive freedom and negative freedom. Notions of freedom held by most classical liberals are generally regarded by modern political scientists as negative in that freedom was defined as the absence of coercion by individuals against one another. For example, John Locke (1632-1704) in his Second Treatise on Civil Government (1690) maintained that liberty is to be "free from restraint and violence from others" and "not subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man." (3) Moreover, Adam Smith (1723-1790) in The Wealth of Nations (1776) wrote, "All systems either of preference or of restraint, therefore, being thus taken way, the obvious and simple system of natural liberty establishes itself of its own accord." (4) For contractualists such as Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and John Locke, the arguments for freedom as a natural right were deontological and deistic, and freedom's value was intrinsic. For naturalists such as John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Adam Smith, the arguments for freedom were teleological and usually agnostic, and freedom's value was merely instrumental. Nevertheless, both strands of classical liberalism defined liberty without reference to the power of persons to benefit from their freedom.

By the twentieth century, the classical tradition of liberalism had faded, but its concept of freedom survived among libertarians. For example, the British-Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992) defined freedom as "independence of the arbitrary will of another. …

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