C. S. Lewis v. Patrick Henry on why we are too good or too bad for tryranny

I don’t have time to analyse the problem, but look at the quotes and see if you recognize how they are opposed to one another:

First, Lewis:

I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.

That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen, Filmer would be right, and partiarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government. But since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that “all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality. The authority of father and husband has been rightly abolished on the legal plane, not because this authority is in itself bad (on the contrary, it is, I hold, divine in origin), but because fathers and husbands are bad. Theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us. Even the authority of man over beast has had to be interfered with because it is constantly abused. (C.S. Lewis, “Membership,” from The Weight of Glory, pp. 168-7)

And now a much shorter statement from Patrick Henry:

Bad men cannot make good citizens. It is when a people forget God that tyrants forge their chains. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom. No free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue; and by a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

See the problem?

4 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis v. Patrick Henry on why we are too good or too bad for tryranny

  1. pduggie

    I wonder if you can unite these two by saying that the worst sort of bad men are those that do not know they are bad men. So Lewis is right that it is a good thing when government recognizes that the badness of man is the reason for public equality.

    Romans implies we are liberated from self-deception about our sinful state.ANd Henry is warning that we have to have structures to keep our badness from being forgotten.

  2. mark Post author

    That may work. I’m not interested in insisting that they are incompatible. I just want us to move forward. I posted this because it seems to me that the depravity teaching is invoked but to justify government and to limit it in ways that could seem arbitrary.

    Also, to drift off-topic, I think the way Lewis extrapolates from small, local relationships to the appropriateness of inequality for a commonwealth requires more than what he gives. Otherwise I would say his evidence goes the opposite way (especially if we notice that not only ethics, but information, are involved in decision-making). I cannot know as much about millions of people as I can know about my four children.

  3. Chuck Summers

    The equity of the Biblical commandments puts limits on the punishment and authority man can wield.
    You are right: we can authorize all sorts of autocratic controls on people in the name of depravity, and even justify totalitarianism on people who are not able to rule themselves. I heard that Bruce Lee recently praised the Communist Chinese government because the Chinese people needed control and not freedom. The answer for such cultures is not totalitarianism, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ who sets men free.
    I believe that as men are set free from the tyranny of sin that there is no more a need of the tyranny of men. In fact, as Henry implies, a free citizenship will guarantee a limited government.

  4. pentamom

    I think sanctification plays into it, somehow. It could be that if a people is relatively sanctified (i.e., 18th century people descended largely from the most religious elements of their larger ancestral cultures and largely continuing in that tradition for the time being), you get the Henry effect — a people who can function and live in freedom, unless and until their lusts turn them away from God en masse. However, since even the most sanctified of men are still prone to sin, you have the Lewis effect — men can’t rule autonomously over their own subspheres without a larger hierarchy of some sort being in effect.

    Does that work, at all?


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