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Long Read of the Week: Equality by C. S. Lewis

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. Whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people — all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumors. 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.

This introduces a view of equality rather different from that in which we have been trained. 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. I don’t think the old authority in kings, priests, husbands, or fathers, and the old obedience in subjects, laymen, wives, and sons, was in itself a degrading or evil thing at all. I think it was intrinsically as good and beautiful as the nakedness of Adam and Eve. It was rightly taken away because men became bad and abused it. To attempt to restore it now would be the same error as that of the Nudists. Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty.

But medicine is not good. 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.

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. But it would be wicked folly to restore these old inequalities on the legal or external plane. Their proper place is elsewhere.

We must wear clothes since the Fall. Yes, but inside, under what Milton called “these troublesome disguises” (2). We want the naked body, that is, the real body, to be alive. We want it, on proper occasions, to appear — in the marriage-chamber, in the public privacy of a men’s bathing-place, and (of course) when any medical or other emergency demands. In the same way, under the necessary outer covering of legal equality, the whole hierarchical dance and harmony of our deep and joyously accepted spiritual inequalities should be alive. It is there, of course, in our life as Christians — there, as laymen, we can obey – all the more because the priest has no authority over us on the political level. It is there in our relation to parents and teachers – all the more because it is now a willed and wholly spiritual reverence. It should be there also in marriage.

This last point needs a little plain speaking. Men have so horribly abused their power over women in the past that to wives, of all people, equality is in danger of appearing as an ideal. But Mrs. Naomi Mitchison has laid her finger on the real point. Have as much equality as you please – the more the better – in our marriage laws, but at some level consent to inequality, nay, delight in inequality, is an erotic necessity. Mrs. Mitchison speaks of women so fostered on a defiant idea of equality that the mere sensation of the male embrace rouses an undercurrent of resentment. Marriages are thus shipwrecked (3). This is the tragi-comedy of the modem woman — taught by Freud to consider the act of love the most important thing in life, and then inhibited by feminism from that internal surrender which alone can make it a complete emotional success. Merely for the sake of her own erotic pleasure, to go no further, some degree of obedience and humility seems to be (normally) necessary on the woman’s part.

The error here has been to assimilate all forms of affection to that special form we call friendship. It indeed does imply equality. But it is quite different from the various loves within the same household. Friends are not primarily absorbed in each other. It is when we are doing things together that friendship springs up – painting, sailing ships, praying, philosophizing, fighting shoulder to shoulder. Friends look in the same direction. Lovers look at each other — that is, in opposite directions. To transfer bodily all that belongs to one relationship into the other is blundering.

We Britons should rejoice that we have contrived to reach much legal democracy (we still need more of the economic) without losing our ceremonial Monarchy. For there, right in the midst of our lives, is that which satisfies the craving for inequality, and acts as a permanent reminder that medicine is not food. Hence a man’s reaction to Monarchy is a kind of test. Monarchy can easily be “debunked”, but watch the faces, mark well the accents of the debunkers. These are the men whose taproot in Eden has been cut — whom no rumor of the polyphony, the dance, can reach – men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honor a king they honor millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead — even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served — deny it food and it will gobble poison.

That is why this whole question is of practical importance. 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. Human nature will not permanently endure flat equality if it is extended from its proper political field into the more real, more concrete fields within. Let us wear equality; but let us undress every night.

(1) C.S. Lewis lived and wrote in England. Hence, his reference to “being a Democrat” had nothing to do with our (USA) “Democratic Party”.
(2) John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667), Book IV, line 740. 18
(3) Naomi Mitchison, The Home and a Changing Civilization (London, 1934), Chapter I, pp. 49-50.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ghostsniper April 10, 2021, 1:49 PM

    I think the words he is dancing around, pertaining to marriage, are mutual respect.
    Without it no union can survive.

  • julie April 10, 2021, 10:11 PM

    Seeing this in the full context is excellent; thanks, Gerard.

  • Barry Montgomery April 11, 2021, 6:59 AM

    Another home run, Gerard. Read this aloud to my wife just now. She is an English professor, she is convinced she needs your work in her classroom. Deep thinking isn’t easy these days, thanks for being a provocateur.

  • Kevin in PA April 11, 2021, 8:24 AM

    There is no doubt that Lewis was a towering intellectual in his day. He could even challenge the intellect of many a modern day philosopher. It is important to point out that he was a Freemason until his conversion to Christianity.

    I fear that in the modern era, many people may not understand the concept of democracy as he puts it forward. Indeed, many in America do not know that we were never to be a Democracy. It is stated, not once, but twice in the Constitution for the United States that ours was to a be a Republican form of government (“if you can keep it.”)…..and when was the last time you heard any politico talk about “our Republic”?

    From the Founders all the way back to the Ancients of Greece, they understood Democracy was a terrible system. In its pure form Democracy is nothing less than mob rule. As an example; Twelve individuals all with an equal vote assemble and vote on whether to hang an individual – we will call him person number 12. Eleven of the group (a clear majority) vote to hang number 12. Number 12 is not pleased and asserts that he has done no wrong. He is innocent. However, the majority has voted and that’s just tough luck for number twelve.

    By contrast, in a Republican form of government, there are an established set of laws that prohibit the taking of an innocent life, the majority be damned. A Republic, in theory, has a duty to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority.

    Many of the associated rules of a Republic have been abrogated over time. i.e.; Initially, voting rights were only recognized for landowners. Why should someone who doesn’t have a stake in the game have a right to vote on the game? Today, we see people who contribute nothing to the system, but vote to demand they receive more benefits from said system.

    Another example; Women’s right to vote ushered in a lot of the feminist nonsense we now witness daily. Initially, men would vote and that vote spoke for that household. We have many a divided household today and history has demonstrated that a house divided can not stand.

    And what about 18-year-olds? One argument made that it is inherently unfair for someone who can be drafted to fight in war but doesn’t have an opportunity to vote on the matter. Perhaps the better answer is for the populous to demand that those elected to represent stop dragging the nation into endless wars for (the ever-elusive) perpetual peace. While on the surface it seems fairer to allow 18-year-olds to vote, but really, what does an average 18 year old know about….anything? There has even been some talk of lowering the voting age to 16…God help us!


  • Fletcher Christian April 11, 2021, 9:35 AM

    A modern version of “stake in the game” might be that only someone who makes a net contribution to the public purse gets to vote. With exceptions for those who are actively serving the state, perhaps, such as front-line first responders and military on non-bureaucratic active duty.

    This would eliminate welfare queens from the rolls, but also “civil servants” and some proportion of politicians.

    And I am strongly in favour of term limits for all government positions, elected or otherwise, and elimination of pensions for government jobs as well.

  • James ONeil April 11, 2021, 10:32 AM

    We (used to) hold these truths to be self-evident…

  • Joan of Argghh! April 11, 2021, 12:25 PM

    Some of this idea fleshes out in Downton Abbey, of all places. The depiction of people in their roles of life, some accepting, some striving to rise, some failing to thrive, some allowing an accidental rise in station to form their thinking, some trying to drag nobility down to the common. I liked the balance of the series in allowing American viewers to simply see it. It fascinates us and makes the sober and thoughtful among us a bit envious of the colorfulness of inequality that Lewis describes: the dance, the polyphony, the contrasts that nurture wisdom and virtue. The very word, nobility, alludes to a power structure and implementation of same in a way that causes all stations beneath it to thrive in their place, if not in an equal political structure.

  • james wilson April 11, 2021, 1:59 PM

    Tocqueville remains the greatest observer of the democratic mind (and there is such a thing, more all the time). He and his traveling companion Gaston loved America and were mightily impressed by all the ways Americans in which avoided the pitfalls of democracy and exploited the advantages, many dozens of them. We broke every branch on that tree falling out of it.

    He stated that his great opus would perhaps have been better named Equality In America, because a democratic equality is the mortal disease of democracy. “Democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom, but for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, and invincible: they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery.”

    “The more social conditions become equal and the less power individuals possess, the more easily men drift with the crowd and find it difficult to stand alone in an opinion abandoned by the rest.
    However the powers of a democratic society are organized and weighted, it will always be very difficult for a man to believe what the mass of people reject, or to profess what they condemn. Philosophic systems that destroy human individuality will have secret attractions for men who live in a democracy.”

    “What concerns me in our democratic republics is not that mediocrity will become commonplace, but that it may be enforced.”


  • Vanderleun April 11, 2021, 2:22 PM

    What excellent comments and responses. I am much restored.

  • Casey Klahn April 13, 2021, 4:07 PM

    Art. He included nakedness in the medical clinic and the bathhouse (European bathhouse before they were all gay) and the marriage chamber. He should’ve added in the artist’s studio, as well. I get that protestants have a shitty understanding of art, but I am just adding that it is culturally written that the artists gets the privilege of nakedness (and I suppose this includes the theater, as well). Otherwise, I never correct CS Lewis. But, I’m an old man now, and not a bible college student any longer. I suppose that I’ve read 90% of everything he ever wrote, but need badly a review of it all. After reading Clive Staples, one feels that he can think again. At least, until he reads the news. This abuses him of thinking real fast.

    I mentioned 4 places for nakedness, and 2 of those are erotic. Go no farther.