All Commentary
Sunday, November 1, 1981

C. S. Lewis on Compelling People to Do Good

Between the lines, Lewis tells us that to do or be good is a human possibility, that it is moral, and that it becomes so by choice.

One of the more amiable traits which many people have is the inclination or desire to share something good with others. If good fortune befalls them, they rush to share it with their friends. If they discover a good recipe, an interesting author, a new plant, or whatever, they can hardly wait to share the information with someone. I once knew a good woman who was so given to sharing what she cooked with others that her husband accused her of waylaying passersby on the road to feed them.

There are pitfalls to be avoided, however, even in such good-natured sharing. Not everyone is at every moment at the right spiritual pitch to appreciate the good tidings of others. Not all palates are prepared for experiencing some exotic flavor that may be thrust upon them by sharers. Having to look at and appreciate someone else’s vacation pictures is notoriously unpopular with many people. Wise sharers select their sharees with care.

There are those, however, who are not content with merely sharing what they conceive to be good with willing recipients. Indeed, there are those who go beyond sharing with reluctant recipients. If they decide that something is good, or would be good for us, they are determined we must have it or do it whether we want it or not. In short, they force it upon us. But they go beyond that even; they do not stop with forcing others to share what is theirs. They use the powers of taxation to take from all of us what they are determined to force upon at least some of us. In brief, they would compel all of us to be good, do good—what is “good” by their lights, of course—or to provide goods for those whom they judge to have an inadequate supply.

Ancient Practices

Ours is not the only age in which those with a bent to such compulsions have gained the upper hand. Peoples in other times have differed with us about what goods should be imposed or dispensed but have been equally moved to provide them for everyone. In some lands, clergymen have been paid at public expense to insure that the populace would have the benefits of their message. The American Puritans thought that listening to sermons was such a great good that attendance should be required. In the late Middle Ages, there were countries in which orthodox religious belief was reckoned to be so important that failure to profess the approved beliefs could lead to torture and death. Quite often, in the course of history, people have been compelled by those in power to do what was thought would be good for their bodies, their minds, their souls, their rulers, their countries, or what have you.

But it has remained for our age to systematize, regularize, and generalize the compulsions to do “good.” The Internal Revenue Service has made the inquest an annual affair for everyone, with computers to ferret out the most likely candidates for fullfledged inquisition. Nor did the Puritans increase their sermonic benefits based on a cost of sinning index.

As I say, we have systematized both taxation and the modes for the bestowal of goods. Compulsory “doing good” is the largest and most expensive enterprise in the United States. People are compelled to pay taxes, much of which are set aside for doing “good works.” These “good works” run the gamut from providing free lunches for some school children to giving foreign aid to whole countries. Compulsion is also used more directly to make people do “good,” as when parents are compelled to send their children to school or employers are compelled to adopt safety measures imposed by OSHA. But it is as taxpayers that we are most universally made to join in “doing good.”

The Propriety of Force

Much can be and has been said for and against many of the programs themselves. That good has been and can be done in these ways can be questioned. But I wish to examine some more basic questions here. I want to focus on the matter of the use of force itself, and of its propriety for Christians. Granted, this subject may be of primary interest only for Christians, but, as I hope to show, it concerns others as well.

Apparently, many people assume that because Christian teaching enjoins giving help to those who are in need it is, therefore, in keeping with Christianity to use the force of government to do good works. Social gospellers, for example, advanced this notion with considerable fervor.[1] There have been Christian socialists who favored the redistribution of wealth by government as being in accord with Christian principles. Indeed, the argument has even been made, though not very actively of late, that Marxism or Communism is nothing more nor less than putting the teachings of Jesus into practice. At any rate, many professing Christians are not averse to using government in myriad ways that are supposed to do good, and a goodly number of non-Christians incline to accept the notion that their attitude is in keeping with Christianity.

There should be no doubt that Christians are enjoined to do acts of helpfulness, kindness, and works of charity for the helpless and those in need. Nowhere is this made more emphatic than in the description by Jesus of the Last Judgment. There, the distinction between the righteous and the damned is precisely between those who have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, shown hospitality to strangers, clothed the naked, and visited those who were sick or in prison and those who have not. For, he said, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (Matthew 25:45-46.)

But it does not follow that Christians are to use force in doing these good works or give their approval to government use of force in doing so. The Bible is not, of course, a textbook in political science or political economy. It is not surprising, then, that the subject does not come up directly in the New Testament. But even if there were much more political commentary than is the case, the subject of government compelling people to do good might not have arisen. Governments in those days were not greatly addicted to doing good deeds.

Voluntary Giving

Even so, it is possible to infer a Christian position from Scripture. The impetus of New Testament teaching is in the direction of the voluntary, loving, and concerned doing of good, not in that of forced acts. There is a large body of evidence pointing to the conclusion that voluntary giving is what is commended, but there is also some evidence that government and force are not directly a part of the Christian endeavor. For example, in an effort to trap Jesus, the chief priests and scribes sent agents who asked him if it were lawful to pay taxes. Jesus requested a coin and asked them whose likeness was on it. They answered that it was Caesar’s. “And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” (Luke 20:25) One of the inferences to be drawn from this is that God and Caesar (government) operate in different realms and, undoubtedly, in different ways.

On the use of force, Jesus had something quite pointed to say. When he was being arrested to be put on trial, one of the disciples, Peter, according to one version, drew his sword and cut off the ear of a man who had laid hands upon Jesus. “Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place; for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Again and again, Jesus said that he came to bring life. The sword (force) is an instrument of death, hence, proscribed in Christian undertakings.

The Gospel on Government, According to St. Paul

The Apostle Paul dealt with government in some detail in the 13th chapter of Romans. In essence, what he had to say is this: the powers that be are ordained of God to punish wrongdoers. It is for your good that wrongdoers should be punished; therefore, you should obey the powers over you and pay that tribute to them which is their due for the office they perform. In the conclusion of the chapter which just precedes that one, however, he had urged the avoiding of the use of force:

Recompense to no man evil for evil . . . .

If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves . . . .

Therefore, if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink; for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-21.

It is clear to me, at least, that there is no warrant in the teachings of Jesus and his disciples for compelling people to do good works or to be good. Voluntary aid is commended; force is eschewed. But the late C. S. Lewis had some illuminating thoughts on these matters, and I should like now to call attention to some of them. I do so the more gladly because it provides me with the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite writers. Also, it adds the weight of one of the leading Christian apologists of the twentieth century to the case against compulsion.

As I noted, however, even the innocent offer to share is not always welcome, and I have had occasion to learn that Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) does not appeal to all readers. A lady to whom I loaned one of his books assured me that he was too difficult. A minister gave it as his opinion that his work was tedious, or, at least, that he went on and on about things that might be better handled briefly. Another thought him rather too bold in choosing his subjects. Thus, although my enthusiasm for his work is undiminished by any adverse criticism I have en countered, my determination to share him with others is tempered by the realization that not everyone will be as taken by his wit, his wisdom, his tenacious reasoning, and his candor as I have been. He has not lacked readers, of course. For example, his little book, Mere Christianity, was published in the United States as a paperback in 1960. By 1970, it was in its twelfth printing. I recommend him, rather, because each new reader may, perchance, be Surprised by Joy, as he titled his autobiography.

A Scholarly Mission

C. S. Lewis was nothing less than a Christian missionary to the twentieth-century intellect. He perceived that the modern temper makes it unusually difficult to accept the claims to truth of Christian teaching. Yet, he set himself the task of demonstrating the intellectual possibility of their truth and, that done, to assert those claims boldly and without compromise with the spirit of our times, or any other. He was superbly equipped for the undertaking. He was a scholar, an Oxford don, a professor of English literature, a man at home in the classics, a poet, a novelist, a satirist, a writer of children’s stories, yet a man who did not shrink from debates with atheists, nor count himself too high to bring his thoughts to unlearned soldiers.

Appropriately enough, Lewis was a convert to Christianity, for he had that zeal about it often associated with converts. A convert from what? From modern intellectualism, no doubt, from its relativism, from its tendency to reductionism, from its sophistries, and, ultimately, from its world-weariness.

For C. S. Lewis, becoming a Christian was a jarring awake, a coming alive, so to speak, a coming alive to possibilities, to choices, to the perils of the soul, to the potentialities of the mind, and, above all, to the more-than-ness of everything about him. As Paul Holmer has said, “He wanted to be tasteful, to live with relish, to be a master of daily life not its victim, to be upright and just, to be holy and pure . . . . He put his academic training and skills under the sovereignty of those more fundamental aspirations.”[2] If he had been a more sensual man, it might have been more appropriate to say that he lived life with gusto; as it was, he lived the life of the mind and spirit with more than a little gusto.

Christianity provided C. S. Lewis with a perspective on life, not a theory. It was a perspective from which everything mattered, but some things matter much more than others. What matters most in this world is the individual, he thought. That is, if Christianity is true, it is individuals that matter most. Lewis said, “If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilisation, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilisation, compared with his, is only a moment.”[3]

The Human Potential

The ultimate importance of the individual, Lewis believed, lies in the potentiality he has for growing, maturing, and developing as far as may be into man as he could be. In other words, it is to become as fully human as possible. Only as he has prepared as fully as he can by realizing the human in him will he be ready for the Divine in the hereafter. It is this perspective on man that informed Lewis’s outlook on the use of compulsion. That spiritual growth and development which he held to be the end of man can only occur significantly as it is chosen and willed. Even God only stands at the door and knocks; it is hardly appropriate for man to do more.

Lewis was an Englishman, and many of his remarks about government were penned amidst the growth of government control during World War II and under the Labour Party. However, they were not partisan either in tone or words. He declared that the “modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good—anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers.’ We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.”[4]

Lewis denied either that government could make men good or that it was its office to attempt it. “You cannot make men good by law,” he said, “and without good men you cannot have a good society.”[5] Good people, he thought, were an individual matter, not something achieved in the mass. The basic business of government is to punish wrongdoers, Lewis believed, not to make men good.[6]

He explored the notion of compelling people to do or be good in an essay titled, “Lilies that Fester.” There he identified two different types of rule in which it may be attempted. One is a theocracy, of course, which means, simply, rule in the name of God. The other he called “charientocracy.” As best I can make out, a “charientocracy” is rule by intellectuals, the “cultured,” technocrats, scientists, or, in short, a humanistic elite under the sway of the notion that they know what is best for us.

Theocracy Deplored

Lewis left no doubt about his low estimate of the merits of a theocracy. He said, “Theocracy is the worst of all possible governments. All political power is at best a necessary evil; but it is least evil when its sanctions are most modest and commonplace, when it claims no more than to be useful or convenient and sets itself strictly limited objectives. Anything transcendental or spiritual, or even anything very strongly ethical encourages it to meddle with our private lives. Let the shoemaker stick to his last.”[7] Along the same lines, he declared elsewhere, “I do not like the pretensions of Government—the grounds on which it demands my obedience—to be pitched too high . . . . I believe in God, but I detest theocracy. For every government consists of mere men and is, strictly viewed, a makeshift; if it adds to its commands ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ it lies, and lies dangerously.”[8]

On the matter of Christians imposing their view on society at large, he had these things to say. Even if Christians were in the majority in a society, he said, “our rulers would still be fallen men, and therefore, neither very wise nor very good. As it is, they will usually be unbelievers. And since wisdom and virtue are not the only or the commonest qualifications for a place in the government, they will not often be even the best unbelievers.”[9] He doubted that even the Christian concept of the durability of marriage should be forced upon the society generally. “A great many people seem to think,” he pointed out, “that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone. I do not think that. At least I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christians, and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.”[10]

But Lewis doubted that England, or any other country, was in much danger of a fullfledged theocracy. There have been some changes of mood since the days when he was writing. Israel has elements of both theocracy and socialism in its practices. So do several of the Moslem countries. There are even distant rumblings of theocratic impositions in the United States, though I suspect there is more sound than fury behind them. In any case, Lewis understood rightly that what we are up against is both the prospect and reality of government compelling people to do good on humanitarian, scientific, elitist, and welfare-statist grounds rather than theocratic. While he must have been aware that there is often an admixture of the social gospel underlying the thrust of these, he was not inclined to ascribe it to Christianity.

He went into the humanitarian and scientific arguments most thoroughly in connection with capital punishment. Lewis did not profess to know whether there should be capital punishment or not. But he objected strenuously to the line of arguments used by opponents of it. Opponents of capital punishment—and, by extension, any kind of punishment, per se—usually attempt to maintain that it could only be justified on either one or both these grounds: that it would deter others from committing crimes or that it would reform or improve the criminal. But if these were the only grounds for punishment, Lewis pointed out, they remove “from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust.”[11] Lewis noted, too, that the tendency to interpret crime as being the result of a pathological condition tends to shift the emphasis from reforming the criminal to healing him. Thus, his contention “that this doctrine, merciful though it appears, really means that each one of us, from the moment he breaks the law [is arrested, would be better], is deprived of the rights of a human being.”[12]

Morality and Choice

Although it may not appear to be the case on first glance, it seems to me that Lewis came to the heart of the matter of compelling people to do good in his case against what he called “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” Between the lines, Lewis tells us that to do or be good is a human possibility, that it is moral, and that it becomes so by choice. Remove the element of choice, attempt to impose it as therapy, and man is reduced to the level of an animal, the mentally incompetent, or a small child. Goodness is bereft of its moral character.

Although there is much more to the essay that it would be worthwhile for any to read, the crux of the matter is reached in these words: “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive . . . . Their very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be ‘cured’ against one’s will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will . . . . But to be punished, however severely, because we deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better,’ is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.”[13]

In short, and as I interpret what Lewis has said, compelling people to do good not only takes away their freedom but their responsibility as well. Its tendency is to childrenize the race or produce a sub-human species.

“Lastly,” Lewis said, “I reach the point where my objections to Theocracy and to Charientocracy are almost identical. ‘Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.’ The higher the pretensions of our rulers are, the more meddlesome and impertinent their rule is likely to be and the more the thing in whose name they rule will be defiled . . . . Let our masters . . . leave us some region where the spontaneous, the unmarketable, the utterly private, can still exist.”[14]

Welfare Weakens Recipients

C. S. Lewis was in his prime at the time when the welfare state, or socialism, seemed to be most firmly fixed upon the United Kingdom. He never professed to know much about economics, indeed, denied even sufficient knowledge to make any significant comments on the subject. This was almost certainly the case. He suspected that the modern obtrusive state had become a permanent fixture, at least for this age. His objections to the compelling of people to do good might well have made him an out and out opponent of the welfare state. It did not do so mainly for two reasons, I suspect. First, his main effort was increasingly devoted to the defense and exposition of Christianity, and any partisan effort would have drawn him away from this work. Second, lacking the economic understanding, he was less than certain that he would be right in opposing the ameliorative efforts of the state. Even so, he had this to say about its ten dencies and dangers:

The question about progress has become the question whether we can discover any way of submitting to the worldwide paternalism of a technocracy without losing all personal privacy and independence. Is there any possibility of getting the super Welfare State’s honey and avoiding the sting?

Let us make no mistake about the sting. The Swedish sadness is only a foretaste. To live his life in his own way, to call his house his castle, to enjoy the fruits of his own labour, to educate his children as his conscience directs, to save for their prosperity after his death—these are wishes deeply ingrained in white and civilized man. Their realization is almost as necessary to our virtues as to our happiness. From their total frustration disastrous results both moral and psycho logical might follow.

All this threatens us even if the form of society which our needs point to should prove an unparalleled success. But is that certain? What assurance have we that our masters will or can keep the promise which induced us to sell ourselves? Let us not be deceived by phrases about “Man taking charge of his own destiny.” All that can really mean is that some men will take charge of the destiny of others. They will be simply men; none perfect; some greedy, cruel and dishonest. The more completely we are planned the more powerful they will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?[15]

In sum, the willingness to share what is ours with others is an amiable and attractive trait. Christians are enjoined to offer help to those whom they encounter in need. But even in willing sharing it is well to keep in mind the wishes of others before thrusting one’s goods upon them. To force one’s own goods upon others would be an unwarranted imposition. But tyranny is waiting in the wings, if it is not already upon the stage, when the power of government is used to force people to do or be good. And, if Lewis is correct, the higher the motive for attempting it the more vicious the tyranny. Or, as he put it, in the words of John Bunyan: “It came burning hot into my mind, whatever he said, and however he flattered, when he got me home to his House, he would sell me for a Slave.”[16]

1.   See my discussion of them in The Flight from Reality (Irvington, N. Y.: FEE, 1969), pp. 254- 74.

2.   Paul L. Holmer, C. S. Lewis: The Shape of His Life and Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), pp. 110-11.

3.   C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 73.

4.   C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, edited by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1970), p. 314.

5.   Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 72.

6.   See Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 292.

7.   C. S. Lewis, The WorM’s Last Night (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1960), p. 40.

8.   Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 315.

9.   Ibid., p. 292.

10.   Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 101-02.

11.   Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 288.

12.   Ibid.

13.   Ibid., p.292.

14.   Lewis, The World’s Last Night.

15.   Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 316.

16.   Quoted in Ibid., p. 294.

  • Clarence Carson (1926-2003) was a historian who taught at Eaton College, Grove City College, and Hillsdale College. His primary publication venue was the Foundation for Economic Education. Among his many works is the six-volume A Basic History of the United States.