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C.S. LEWIS, DEMOCRACY AND MODERN RELATIVISM


Colin D. Pearce
University of Guelph-Humber

Some decades after his death C.S. Lewis remains one of the best selling and most
widely read authors in the world today. Lewis is well known for his Christian apologetics and
his children’s stories and like that other “objectivist,” Ayn Rand, he has consistently
maintained a huge following outside the groves as academe.
By contrast, the name of William Graham Sumner is all but forgotten in this day and
age. And yet he is a vital piece in the intellectual puzzle of which Lewis is a part. He was an
Episcopalian clergyman who went on to become one of the fathers of modern, intellectual
“relativism.” After he left the Church and arrived at Yale in the 1880’s he worked mightily on
his classic and foundational studies in the field of sociology called Folkways (1907) and
Science of Society (1920). In an introductory memoir to Folkways his student William Phelps
exclaims “And how he hated metaphysics, philosophy, theology and all kindred subjects!”
Sumner had said that “Philosophy is in every way as bad as astrology.” And connected to this
opinion was his view that the word “immoral” never means anything “but contrary to the
mores of the time and place.” Sumner is quite certain that there is “no permanent or universal
standard by which right and truth…can be established and different folkways compared and
criticized.” When Lewis characterizes the “modern view” it is fundamentally that of Sumner
which he describes. Thus his battle against “relativism” is implicitly both for philosophy (or
“astrology”) and against Sumner.
Lewis wishes to confront the view that “ethical standards of different cultures vary so
widely that there is no common tradition at all.” This view he describes as the one that says
“there is not one morality but a thousand.” To Lewis’s way of thinking such a claim is nothing
but “a good, solid, resounding lie.” The modern view according to Lewis “does not believe
that value judgments are really judgments at all.” They are “sentiments, or complexes, or
attitudes, produced in a community by the pressure of its environment and its traditions, and
different from one community to another.” The modern mind follows Sumner in insisting that
“to say that a thing is good is merely to express our feeling about it; (which) feeling …we have
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been socially conditioned to have.” But it is “(O)ut of this apparently innocent idea,” Lewis
says, that “the disease that will certainly end our species” will be spawned. The “fatal
superstition that men can create values” or that “a community can choose it ‘ideology’ as men
choose their clothes” makes all human purposes pointless. “Unless we return to the crude and
nursery-like belief in objective values,” Lewis says, “we perish.”
But behind Sumner’s relativism, albeit unacknowledged by him, is the larger
intellectual presence of Nietzsche, today usually described as the father of “postmodernism” or
“deconstruction.” And it is in dealing with Nietzsche that we see Lewis implicitly facing
Sumner. “(T)he Nietzschean ethic,” Lewis says, “can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap
traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no
ground for any value judgments at all.”
But despite this, Lewis and Nietzsche agree that the danger with democracy is that it
tends to become too democratic for its own good. It overthrows standards that it itself needs
for its own success and continuance. But unlike Nietzsche, Lewis points the finger at
“relativism” as the villain of the piece because it is a “lie” at both the level of theory and of
practice. “If relativism triumphs,” Lewis asks, “will democracy be able to sustain any
reasonable standards?” Lewis feels sure that relativism will cause democracy to lose respect
for virtue and merit and as a result Plato’s description of the chaos of the democratic regime in
Book VIII of The Republic will come true. “If ‘good’ means only local ideology,” Lewis
says, “how can those who invent local ideology be guided by any idea of good themselves?”
“Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy.”
For his part, Nietzsche might allow that relativistic thought, if it were to “seep” into
popular thinking could lead to great social problems, but this would not of itself say anything
about the truth of relativism. Indeed, for him relativism or perspectivalism has to be the final
“truth.” Nietzsche would readily concede that the bulk of the population will always be
“objectivistic” in its thinking. It will, like Dr. Johnson, always be inclined to refute “Mr.
Hume” and others like him by giving the stone in its pathway a good kick. What distinguishes
democracy or “the majority” for Nietzsche is precisely its incapacity for “relativism.”
Relativism is the distinct property of the aristocratic type. In a word, an “objectivist
aristocracy” is an oxymoron in Nietzsche’s terms. To expect of democratic or egalitarian
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politics that it be “pluralist” or even “tolerant” is like expecting a cat to bark. It is not there in
the nature of things.
Nietzsche’s attempted solution to the relativism problem is to try to identify virtue with
a capacity to “practice” relativism. If relativism is defined as a sign of the highest virtue in the
first place, then a tendency to objectivism will be seen as a sign of bronze rather than gold in
the soul. In other words, relativism itself becomes the “objective” standard which the
democracy needs. The special “few” – Nietzsche called them many things – “free spirits,”
“Hyperboreans,” “Argonauts of the intellect,” “geniuses of the heart,” - are for him those who
can live in the face of relativism’s “truth.” They have “no a priori truths” but they do have the
power to see the world from a thousand perspectives and the ability to “dance” between them.
They are in “process.” They do not rest contented with Lewis’s “Good” (or Plato’s “Being”)
but abandon themselves to the joy of experiencing a world which is always “becoming.”
Nietzsche’s standard of virtue is in some sense the polar opposite to that of Lewis – it is to
attain to as much relativism or “subjectivism” of thought as is humanly possible given that life
constantly pulls us down toward objectivism.
From Nietzsche’s point of view then, Lewis’s means are ill suited to his ends. He
would save democracy from itself while continuing to insist on the “poison” which is debasing
it, i.e. not the “poison of relativism” but the poison of “objectivism.” As paradoxical as it may
sound at first blush, only by relativism can the hierarchy of virtue, which hierarchy democracy
itself most needs in order to prevent its destructive tendencies be saved. Only by the
“production” of “relativists” can democracy be saved from anarchy and disorder.
But Lewis rejects all relativistic thinking as being ultimately socially deleterious. He
thinks that without “objectivism” society as we have known it must of necessity collapse into
some less desirable form of community. Precisely when we “believe that good is something
invented,” our rulers become infused with the spirit of “dynamism” and “creativity.” But
“dynamism” and “creativity” are far from being high qualities in Lewis’s view. “If we returned
to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial –
virtue, knowledge, diligence and skill.”
Lewis is therefore highly critical of the modern moral reformer. He or she is the type
who believes that traditional values can and should be overthrown and a new social order
constructed on the basis of new sociological, psychological, biological and physical sciences.
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Lewis denies outright this possibility. “Many a popular ‘planner’ on a democratic platform,”
Lewis says, and “many a mild-eyed scientist in a democratic laboratory means, in the last
resort, just what the fascist means.” Such an individual thinks exactly along the lines Sumner
had taught in Folkways. “He believes that ‘good, means whatever men are conditioned to
approve.” But for Lewis “All idea of ‘new’ or ‘scientific’ or ‘modern’ moralities must
therefore be dismissed as mere confusion of thought.” The choice is a clear one. “Either the
maxims of traditional morality must be accepted as axioms of practical reason which neither
admit nor require argument to support them …or else there are no values at all.”
Lewis’s “moral reformers” are very clearly Nietzsche’s “Improvers of Mankind.” He
and Lewis come at the moral reformers or “improvers of mankind” from different angles but
arrive at very much the same result. They see their influence as both irrational and pernicious.
But for Lewis it is because these “improvers” would have the benefits of the Great Tradition
without any of the burdens; while for Nietzsche it is because they are the end product of a
mistaken tradition stemming all the way back to Plato. For Lewis the reformers are too proud
and for Nietzsche they have no self respect.
For Lewis “objectivism” is the epistemology of democracy. Nietzsche would no doubt
admire Lewis for his forthright rejection of a convenient and easily adopted relativism. He
says in Ecce Homo that he feels closer to the “traditionalists” than to trendy “English and
American liberals” or libre penseurs as he calls them. What Nietzsche sought was a dialectic
with thinkers like Lewis precisely because they had relinquished the desire to have their cake
“and eat it too”, i.e. to defend democracy with its implicit absolute foundation in equality,
while adhering to relativism as a final philosophical stance. For Nietzsche objectivism can only
practically mean the social recognition of a “special few” who by definition must be
thoroughgoing relativists. For him, democracy can no more get along without a relativist
“elite” than it can in the absence of objective standards.
Both Lewis and Nietzsche realized that an ongoing dialectic between relativism and
objectivism is coeval with serious social thought. What they sought was a genuine
confrontation between the two. They knew that a mutual willingness to be fully exposed to the
claims of the other side could only have the effect of making the relativist more serious and the
objectivist more philosophical.
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Readings

Becker, Carl. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers.


New Haven: Yale UP, 1932.

Christopher, Joe R. C.S. Lewis. Boston. Twayne Publishers,1987.

Ebbinghaus, Julius. “Interpretation and Misinterpretation of the Categorical Imperative”


Kant: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert Paul Wolff.
New York: Anchor Books, 1967.

Fagothey, Austin. Right and Reason. C.V. Mosby Company, 1976.

Griffin, William. Clive Staples Lewis: A Dramatic Life.


San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986.

Johnson, Oliver A. Ethics: Selections From Classical and Contemporary Writers.


Fort Worth: Harcourt, Brace, 1999.

Lecky, W.E.H. The History of European Morals. 2 vols. New York: Appleton, 1875.

_____________. The Rise of Rationalism in Europe. New York: D. Appleton, 1884.

Lowith, Karl. “Can There be a Christian Gentleman?” Nature, History and


Existentialism. Evanston,Ill.: Northwestern University Press,1966.

Lewis, Clive Staples. “Objectivism.” The Conservative Reader.


Ed.Russell Kirk. Harmondsworth. Penguin Books, 1982.

_________________. “The Poison of Subjectivism.” Christian Reflections.


Ed. Walter Hooper. London: Collins, 1967.

_________________. The Abolition of Man. New York. HarperOne. 2001.

________________. The Christian World of C.S. Lewis. Grand Rapids, Michigan:


Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing,1964.

_______________. All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis 1922-1927
Ed.Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991.

Mackie, J.L. Ethics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.

Morris, Clifford. “A Christian Gentleman.” C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table.


Ed. James T. Como. New York: Macmillan, 1979.
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Nagel, Ernst. “A Defense of Atheism.” Reason at Work. Eds. Steven M. Cahn et.al.
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1990.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage,1967.

_______________. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974.

________________. Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Walter Kaufmann.New York:


Vintage Press, 1989.

________________. The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufmann and Richard J. Hollingdale
New York: Vintage Books,1967.

____________. “The Antichrist.” The Viking Portable Nietzsche.


Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking,1954.

____________. Twilight of the Idols.” The Viking Portable Nietzsche.


Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Viking,1954

Rachels, James. Elements of Moral Philosophy. Boston: McGraw-Hill,1998.

___________. The Right Thing to Do. Boston: McGraw –Hill, 1999.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope. Penguin Books,1999.

Stephen, Leslie. “Mr. Lecky’s History of European Morals” Fraser’s Magazine


1869:273-279.

Sumner, William Graham. Folkways. New York: Ginn and Company,1907.

Veatch, Henry B. Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics.


Bloomington: Indiana University Press,1964.

Wolfson, Harry Austryn. Religious Philosophy: A Group of Essays.


New York: Athenaeum, 1965.