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By Michael Ward | The potential tyranny of big government is not the only constitutional danger facing Western democracies.

In Norman Maclean’s fly fishing novella, A River Runs Through It, Maclean suggests (echoing some Native American traditions) that fishing isn’t merely an exercise in raw power, but a graceful recognition that you and the fish you seek to catch are part of one wondrous whole. Not only must you have the right combination of skill and luck to catch a fish, but the fish itself must freely rise to the bait. In effect, the fish makes you into a fisherman.

Such a symbiotic relationship is a delicate balance, and thus a difficult one for us to strike. Maclean writes, ‘It is natural for man to try to attain power without recovering grace.’1 But, he suggests, in fishing as in life, the two can—and perhaps should—go together.

This is a daring thought in a modern context because it does not assume (as we all too often assume) that power is inherently evil—in fact, it implies that power rightly understood can be a good thing; and, even more challengingly, that power rightly practised can be a good thing.

Of course, what passes for a good thing in the relationship between man and fish will not necessarily map onto the relationship between man and man. It is all well and good that the fisherman and his catch form one wondrous whole, but there is clearly a winner and a loser. One needn’t approach fishing (and hunting more generally) with a Baconian ‘conquest-of-nature’ mindset to realize that if one gets what one wants, namely survival, something has to die. Yes, a hunter can kill an animal with something like love and respect, but it is tricky to transpose that attitude to intra-human relations. Let us then consider another picture of power relations, this time between two people.

In Brian Keenan’s account of his four-year captivity in Beirut, An Evil Cradling, he recalls the occasion when, one Easter, he was allowed to watch a television program about a hospital run by nuns for the care of the mentally handicapped:

. . . a nun was attending one of the patients, a full-grown man whose mental retardation was so severe he had spent his whole life in a cot-like bed. His frail skeletal body was ageless. He lay naked and unmoving, his dark hollow body in stark contrast to the nun’s white habit. I watched as she patted and pawed him all over. Her touch was not the gentle pat of affection. She seemed to be slapping him. Her blows were a brutal compassion. I understood then that she was trying to break through the useless withered shell of his body to touch his semicomatose mind and give him a sense of himself and the otherness of the world around him.

I watched entranced . . . The eyes of the paralytic mesmerized me. They stared at the nun with such questioning intensity. They were asking ‘What are you doing? What do you want?’ Those eyes, so big and bright in that dark face, were staring right through the nun and beyond her. In that instant I knew the nun’s need of this pathetic creature was greater than his of her. The intensity of his eyes watching her told me that somehow he knew it too. They were creatures in a symbiotic relationship. Each was meaningless and lifeless without the other. Something erupted within me. I was filled with absolute assurance, a resolution of confusions beyond my immediate dilemmas. I gasped for breath. I sat staring at the TV, seeing nothing, feeling the shock recede. I was dimly perceiving a new world of meaning.2

Keenan discovers here that a nurse needs a patient in order to be a nurse, just as Maclean shows that a fisherman needs a fish in order to be an angler. The weakness or vulnerability of the inferior party in these relationships is what constitutes the superior party in its superiority. In that sense, therefore, the weakness is a power: it confers ‘nurse-hood’ or ‘fisherman-hood’ and is not simply passive or receptive.

C.S. Lewis never read either Norman Maclean or Brian Keenan, but his thoughts on hierarchical relationships and the distribution of power within such relationships bear a similarity to their perspectives. And although Lewis never wrote any full-dress examination of the subject of power, it is a theme that occurs in various modes throughout much of his oeuvre. Lewis’s understanding of power and human relationships was a countercultural one, in which, as we shall see, he demonstrates that a tyrannical exercise of authority is not the only way that power can be abused.

There are, in fact, three other abuses of power that are commonly found in human relationships, and since these other abuses are perhaps just as pervasive and damaging to contemporary society as tyranny, Lewis’s perspective is one from which I think both conservatives (by which I mean people who approve of hierarchy and social stratification) and liberals (by which I mean people who favor egalitarianism and interchangeability) could learn something to their benefit.

Trinitarian sources

As a Trinitarian Christian, Lewis’s conception of power was in large part shaped by his belief in the divine Persons in whose image mankind was made. Lewis accepted the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds with their insistence on the co-eternity of the Son with the Father, but believed that the essential equality of divine being among the Persons of the Trinity was not incompatible with an ordering, even a kind of hierarchy, within the Godhead. Obviously, Christ was subject to the Father as man; but Lewis also thought he was subject to the Father as God. The locus classicus for this belief is 1 Corinthians 15:28, ‘When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one.’ There is, in orthodox Christian theology, a place for both equality and hierarchy in the relationship of the divine Persons. Moreover, we cannot conceive of God the Father as such without conceiving of God the Son. Although the Nicene Creed proclaims that the Son is ‘begotten of the Father’, it must be remembered that Fatherhood and Sonhood are mutually constitutive. To that extent, we may say that the Father is, in more than merely a manner of speaking, ‘begotten of the Son’.

This paradoxical combination of egalitarianism and hierarchy, of equality and inequality that works both ways simultaneously, extends in Lewis’s writings beyond intra-Trinitarian relationships and into human ones. As a Christian, he believed that people are designed to reflect, indeed to enact, divine qualities. How, then, did he think that human beings should imitate both ‘high’ and ‘low’, both ‘leader’ and ‘follower’, both ‘begetter’ and ‘begotten’, with the polarity always working both ways at once?

Power and Egalitarianism

The first thing to point out is the wrong method of imitation. Lewis shared Lord Acton’s view that, in a fallen world, power corrupts, at least to some extent. He quotes Acton’s famous line3 in the essay ‘Membership,’ in which he observes that governments have historically been forced to intervene in human relationships and substitute a ‘legal fiction of equality’4 where the tyrannical abuse of power has led to suffering—husbands mistreating wives, fathers mistreating sons, priests wielding political power over laymen, and humans abusing animals.

And rightly so. But how far should this intervention go? Lewis believed that no person or group of people is good enough to be trusted with unchecked power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the greater its potential danger – to both rulers and subjects. The worst kind of government, therefore, to his mind, was theocracy because, claiming omniscience, it ‘forbids wholesome doubt’. The government or the political party who holds a theocratic metaphysic invests itself – disastrously – with religious significance (and we can all think of modern political movements that do this, whether they are actually religious or not). Lewis writes:

‘A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme—whose highest real claim is to reasonable prudence—the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theo­rems, is a kind of intoxication.’5

There is an important difference in principle between theocracy and ‘big government’: a proponent of big government need not attach the fatal tag, ‘thus saith the Lord’, to any of its manifestos or policies or statutes. Nonetheless, human pride being what it is, the wider the reach of a government’s authority, the keener the temptation to governmental self-aggrandisement. Lewis accordingly appeared to favour ‘small government’. In his fictional depiction of the ideal realm, his Narnian kings and queens ‘saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.’6 And Lewis’s real-life politics were consistent with his literary vision. He was, for example, a critic of the Attlee administration, which was voted into power in Britain in 1945 on a platform of extending governmental oversight. In an article entitled ‘Willing Slaves of the Welfare State’ he articulates the grounds for his opposition:

‘The more completely we are planned [as a society], the more powerful [the politicians] will be. Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?’

The inescapable fact of human corruptibility is, he says, ‘the true ground of democracy’. He favours democracy not because he thinks every citizen equally good and therefore entitled to an equal share in the election of a government or entitled to the freedom to join the governing class, but because all people are equally fallen and therefore no person is entitled to unchecked power over his fellows.

There is, however, also a positive element to Lewis’s negative egalitarianism. Though we are all equally fallen into a state of sin, we are all equally loved by God despite that fact. No man should be allowed unchecked power over his fellows; but also, no man is beyond the grace of God, not even a tyrant who wickedly seizes power over his fellows. In a private letter written during the Second World War, Lewis talks about how he prays each night for Hitler and Stalin.7 Even the abominable abuse of power by these tyrants could not eradicate the fact that God loved them and gave himself for them every bit as much as he did for the greatest of the saints. Therefore they should be prayed for.

Power and Hierarchy

But equality is not where Lewis leaves things. There is also hierarchy, which we might understand as a distribution – natural or otherwise – of power and powers. Within humanity, equally fallen and equally loved by God, there is a hierarchical arrangement of persons and stations. Lewis writes about this most extensively in his A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’, published in 1942. Chapter Eight of that book discusses hierarchy and shows how John Milton wove his love for it into his great epic. The account Lewis gives is strictly speaking descriptive: Lewis is just telling us what he thought Milton believed. But one cannot help thinking – and indeed Lewis’s other works support the idea – that Lewis shared much, if not all, of Milton’s love of hierarchy, which he summarises as follows:

According to the hierarchical con­ception degrees of value are objectively present in the uni­verse. Everything except God has some natural superior; everything except unformed matter has some natural in­ferior. The goodness, happiness, and dignity of every being consists in obeying its natural superior and ruling its natural inferiors. When it fails in either part of this twofold task we have disease or monstrosity in the scheme of things until the peccant being is either destroyed or corrected. One or the other it will certainly be; for by stepping out of its place in the system (whether it step up like a rebellious angel or down like an uxorious husband) it has made the very nature of things its enemy. It cannot succeed. 8

In our modern conceptions of power, we tend to think of it in the language of dictatorship—power is a thunderbolt striking down from high to low. This abuse of power is tyranny. But according to the hierarchical conception, power is better understood in a sense similar to that expressed by Maclean and Keenan, as a relationship or as an energy surging back and forth between two parties, not as a weapon brandished over the heads of underlings by a despotic ruler. True and effective rulership consists of a relationship, a relationship that might be pictured as a two-way street, connecting ruler to ruled and ruled to ruler. Tyranny is only one way in which this relationship can go wrong. The other three ways are these:

• Servility. If tyranny consists in ruling natural equals, servility consists in obeying natural equals. You serve those whom you should not serve.

• Rebellion. Power can also be abused by failing to obey a natural superior, as when a child disobeys its parents, or as when thirteen American colonies rebel against their rightful king (joke!).

• Remissness. This is the failure to rule a natural inferior, as when a schoolteacher lets his class run riot, or when a dog-owner allows the dog to jump up and snatch food from the table.

These four corruptions of power are to Milton, Lewis says, equally aberrations from the hierarchical principle. They may not all be equally damaging aberrations, but aberrations they all certainly are. And it is worth noting how tyranny, which dominates our thinking about power and its abuses, is only the flip-side of servility. Tyranny and servility feed off each other, as do rebellion and remissness. An interesting historical illustration of this (though one, of course, that is contested in some quarters) is France’s bloody revolution, which was preceded not initially by a period of tyranny but, as Tocqueville noted, a period of remissness by an aristocratic class that had forgotten its obligations.

Properly understood, a relationship between unequals is not, of necessity, an evil, and in fact we all recognise this. The relationship between parents and children is one of inequality; the relationship between president and people, or between employer and employee is one of inequality, and everyone is content for these inequalities to exist because—at least when rightly understood and rightly exercised—power really does work to the benefit of everyone. That is why it is better to think of power not as a thunderbolt, but as a kind of electrical circuit or magnetic field, something in which the south pole is as necessary as the north pole. Power is not something simply striking down de haut en bas, from high to low. At a concert you expect the musicians to be audible and the musicians expect you to be quiet: there is, in that sense, an inequality (the performers and the audience are not equally well worth hearing), but it serves the purposes of both parties. At a formal dance, there is again an inequality. Since men are normally larger and stronger than women, it makes sense, when they are moving in consort, for the man to lead the move. Both woman and man are thereby released into a mutually enriching dynamic. The circuit is completed; the electricity flows; the magnetism comes alive.

We can see, in Lewis’s commitment to equality, how concerned he was by the dangers of tyranny. But Lewis thought that wariness of tyranny should not be taken so far as to distract us from other abuses of power, namely the servility that enables tyranny to thrive, and the rebellion and remissness which, as a pair of vices, distort human relations in another direction.


Power unites people both in circuits comprised of equals and in circuits comprised of unequals, as it unites the Persons of the Trinity who are equal in nature and being, but ordered in relationality. As exercised within human relationships, power can of course be corrupted: among equals by overreaching itself in tyranny or under-respecting itself in servility; among unequals by impatiently arising into rebelliousness or foolishly dissolving into remissness. Meanwhile, good power remains where it is, a mixture or interpenetration of both liberalism and conservatism, of equality and hierarchy. The electrical current needs both positive and negative nodes. The magnetic field binds both north and south poles.

Lewis was fond of the Latin tag, abusus non tollit usum (‘abuse does not abolish use’). Power can be abused, but the fact that a thing can be abused does not mean it cannot be used at all, or even used well; strictly speaking, in fact it implies just the opposite. Therefore I propose that we stop using power as a dirty word and reclaim it as a positive term. Power is a good thing, indeed, it is a divine attribute: ‘for Thine is the kingdom and the power . . .’ Although it is natural for man ‘to try to attain power without recovering grace,’ as Maclean puts it, that error tells us nothing about the intrinsic nature of power itself, but only about the gracelessness of human beings.

Lewis considered George Bernard Shaw to be a somewhat graceless author; he satirises him as Pshaw through the mouth of his diabolical character, Screwtape.9Nevertheless, we leave the last word to this same Shaw who, in a fine epigram with which Lewis would surely have concurred, once opined, ‘Power does not corrupt men; fools, however, if they get into a position of power, corrupt power.’


  1. Norma Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) p. 3.  (back)
  2. Brian Keenan, An Evil Cradling (London: Vintage, 1993) pp. 282-283.  (back)
  3. Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, 3 April 1887.  (back)
  4. ‘Membership’, a paper read to the Society of St Alban and St Sergius, Oxford, and published in Sobornost, No. 31 (June 1945).  (back)
  5. ‘A Reply to Professor Haldane’, first published in C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966).  (back)
  6. C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950) chapter 17.  (back)
  7. Letter to Dom Bede Griffiths (16 April 1940).  (back)
  8. C.S. Lewis, A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942) pp. 73-74.  (back)
  9. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1942) letter 22.  (back)

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© 2014. The John Jay Institute.