In our discussion of civics, we began with a recognition of certain biblical principles (justice, honor, righteousness) that are essential to a truly Christian interaction with the world around us. And though these principles have taken a variety of forms throughout the ages, in our current cultural climate they are often labeled as conservative or traditional. But this sort of conservatism is more than a contemporary political philosophy, its roots go much deeper (going back to the Garden) and broader (drawing from both the East and the West) than our current place in time and space.
We find an interesting parallel to these thoughts in a short, three-chapter treatise by C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. A few months ago, we saw a glimpse of his approach to ethics by way of his views on universal morality and the Golden Rule. For example, in Miracles Lewis writes:
If we are to continue to make moral judgements (and whatever we say we shall in fact continue) then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature. It can be valid only if it is an offshoot of some absolute moral wisdom, a moral wisdom which exists absolutely ‘on its own’ and is not a product of non-moral, non-rational Nature. (60)
Though this theme recurs in several of his other works as well (Mere Christianity, Surprised by Joy, and even the “deep magic” of Narnia), in The Abolition of Man, it becomes the fundamental ground of both educational and political reform. If being human means anything at all, this meaning must drive our efforts to live, love and learn. But by rejecting this traditional understanding of human nature, modernism reflects a narrow and incomplete view of humanity, which can only produce more of the same: “Men without Chests” (AM 25).
To illustrate this principle of universal morality, Lewis intentionally draws on the Confucianism of the East and its conception of the Tao (the Path or Way). “It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others are really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are” (18). So by living in a world that actually exists and among actual people capable of reason, man can utilize his common sense to recognize this Way and live by it.
Such a view of the Tao is present in almost every pre-modern or modern society, though under a sundry of different names, such as “Natural Law or Practical Reason or the First Platitudes” (43). In truth, then, it is not merely one way to view reality, it is the Way: “It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained” (43). Or as he states previously with greater brevity, “If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved” (40). Rationality depends on an objective reality and meaning outside, and independent of, human thought. And if we cannot even agree on the fundamental facts of reality human reason (much less language!) is a mere exercise in futility.
Of course, as we have pointed out before, the self-evident existence of the Tao does not extend to complete identity of ethical principles and precepts across cultures. Lewis, thus readily admits that, “Some criticism, some removal of contradictions, even some real development is required” (45). But this does not amount to a completely subjective, relativistic view of morality, since reality itself provides the ultimate test of authenticity. So while one age may “harmonize discrepancies in its letter by penetration to its spirit,” these developments are a vindication and fulfillment of the Way, rather than evidence of its demise (47). In other words “the Tao admits development,” but only “from within” (45).
Though modern ethical and political thinkers have rejected much of traditional thought on the subject, Lewis also provides a stern warning. If freedom is indeed the goal (or better, one of the goals) of Western democracy, democracies must recognize and renew their commitment to core principles, or else collapse into sheer tyranny. “Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery” (73). If the Tao falls, so does human dignity, so does common sense, so do human communities.
As you have probably figured out by now, true civics is much more than politics. It is a religious, moral and cultural endeavor that seeks to reform human society based on timeless principles; to remind us what it means to be human; and to point us to an order and a Mind far above our own. As we continue our march to the midterms, then, we will progress in what may seem strange directions, but which grow naturally from the principles we have discussed thus far (discussing literature, education, economics, and foreign policy) all the while maintaining a primarily literary approach (Jane Austen, Aristotle, Harold Bloom, Lawrence Levine, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, and Samuel Huntington). But before we proceed, we must address the greatest threat to such an approach: the post-modern pragmatism of Friedrich Nietzsche.