C.S. Lewis – equality and a basic misconception about democracy

“The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former,” wrote the great French philosopher Simone Weil shortly before her untimely and patriotic death as she contemplated the crucial difference between our rights and our obligations.

“A right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.” Nowhere do we muddle these two notions more liberally than in our treatment of democracy and its foundational principle of equality — a basic right to be conferred upon every human being, but also something the upkeep of which demands our active participation and contribution.

That’s what C.S. Lewis (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963) examines in a superb 1943 essay titled “Equality,” originally published in The Spectator three days after Weil’s death and later included in Present Concerns (public library) — a posthumous anthology of Lewis’s timeless and timely journalistic essays.

A generation before Leonard Cohen contemplated democracy’s foibles and redemptions, Lewis writes at the peak of WWII as history’s deadliest and most unredeemable failure of democracy is sweeping Europe:

“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. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure… 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.” Continue reading


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