C.S. Lewis and The Abolition of Democracy

The American Founders asserted that, “[A]ll men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Not only did this claim justify the American War for Independence, but it also unified the colonies around a principle common to all men at all times—a principle worth living and dying for. The ideas laid forth in the Declaration of Independence are part of a broader concept, which C.S. Lewis called the “Tao,” objective principles that unify humanity. Lewis argued in The Abolition of Man that stepping outside of the Tao would ultimately lead to his treatise’s title: the abolition of man. If individuals lose—or abandon—the ability to reason to objective conclusions, they also abandon the unifying ideas that hold democracies like America together. While some might argue that a distinction between the public and private can separate the two spheres completely and so ensure the survival of democracy, this is not the case: the two spheres are inseparable, and rejection of objectivity will at best result in democratic tyranny, which is not democracy at all, or at worst result in the dictatorship by “dehumanized Conditioners” akin to poets bending language to their will and their will alone.

Democracies only exist because the rulers and the ruled hold the same principles in common. G. K. Chesterton writes, “This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately.”[1] In order for the self-governance of a group of people to be successful, that group must hold something in common. During the founding of the early colonies in North America, religion was the object held in common among groups of people. For example, the first colonial governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, laid out his ideas for a Christian community in his sermon entitled “A Model for Christian Charity.”[2] However, because many of the religious beliefs varied amongst the colonists, the American Founders appealed to something broader than religion, yet which all could agree upon: reason. The “self-evident truths” they declared in their independence are an example of Lewis’s Tao, “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”[3] It was their agreement about the fundamental rights of mankind that provided the Founders with, “[A] common human law of action which [would] over-arch rulers and ruled alike.”[4] Without adhering to the Tao, the early American colonies would have had no reason to unite and revolt against the crown of Great Britain.

Without the unifying force of objective principles, democracies become nothing less than tyranny. Some philosophers argue that the public and private life can be separated so that while individuals are free to create meaning for themselves apart from the burden of objectivity in their private lives, they can also stand in solidarity with others publicly because of shared subjective values. However, as C.S. Lewis wrote, “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.”[5] Without the Tao, every kind of governance—even democracy—becomes tyrannical, the very thing that self-governance is intended to prevent. If one rejects objectivity, then one rejects any kind of absolute standard by which men can be judged and everything becomes permissible. A distinction between private life and public governance cannot be reconciled with the need for objective Truth that applies to all men at all times. When the worth of private matters are left to be determined by subjective standards of measurement, it is only a matter of time before the shared public values are changed by what Lewis called “the Conditioners.” He wrote, “The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race.”[6] In a world without objectivity, shared subjective values that might unify a people can be seen only as social constructs, with those who have the most cultural influence being the constructors. Without the Tao, there is no one and nothing to hold the Conditioners to a higher standard that spans across all people and all ages; without the Tao, the Conditioners become tyrants over the human race; and without the Tao, minorities in a democracy become the victims trampled by the boot of the tyrannical majority.

If we are to preserve democracy for our posterity, we must also preserve the belief in objectivity. The Founders who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence provided us with a tool of utmost importance: the basis for self-governance on principles that extend beyond time and space, discovered by reason and built on the foundation of truths recognized by philosophers throughout the ages. The ideas they laid forth are too fundamental to the persistence of democracy to cast aside as social constructions. We now have the responsibility to pass the Truth revealed to us by reason and experience down to the next generations and so ensure an objective standard by which all might be judged properly.


[1] Gilbert Keith Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1995), 52.

[2] John Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity” in Puritan Political Ideas, ed. by Edmund S. Morgan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishers, 2003), 77.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: HarperOne, 1974), 18.

[4] Ibid., 73.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lewis, Abolition of Man, 61.