Contra C.S. Lewis

By Todd Lewis

Sometime in the year 1940, C.S Lewis delivered a talk entitled “Why I Am Not a Pacifist” to a now-unknown group of English pacifists, where he made his case against the practice of Christian pacifism in light of the horrors wrought by Nazi Germany. While C.S. Lewis is a beloved apologist among the Christian community today, the egregious errors and fallacies in this shoddy and poorly thought-out work has driven me to take up the pen to write a rebuttal in defense of Christian pacifism. I open by discussing Lewis’ theory of knowledge and then discuss his judgments on pacifism when he applies his theory of knowledge to this problem.

Lewis  begins by differentiating between Conscience and Reason.  Lewis defines Conscience as “(a) the pressure a man feels upon his will to do what he thinks is right; (b) his judgment as to what the content of right and wrong are[1].” For Lewis’ purpose in this essay he will speak of Conscience in terms of definition (b). Lewis defines Reason as: “the whole man judging… about truth and falsehood.[2]

Lewis argues that there are three steps one passes through when reasoning to a conclusion: (1) receiving facts, (2) Intuition, and (3) to demonstrate Intuitions by using facts to demonstrate this or that Intuition. As to (1), there are two sources of facts: personal experience and the experience of others. Due to the limits of individual experience, one is obligated to frequently rely on the experience or authority of others when discovering facts. For Lewis, an induction is a self-evident truth: if premise A implies premise B, and premise B implies premise C, then premise A implies premise C. Lewis argues that it is pointless to argue with a man who does not see an Intuition for either “you do” or “you do not.” If you do not then nothing is to be done, since a man cannot be given new facts. Lewis argues that sometimes men claim that they cannot see something when what they really mean is they would rather not or cannot be bothered to see it. Such cases are often the result of distemper in a man’s passions. Such a man is not to be reasoned with; but by removing the distemper in his passions, we then remove the stumbling block so that he can see the Intuition. Lewis argues that this process is also mirrored in Conscience in order to discern good from evil. Lewis argues that if one’s passion is liable to corrupt one’s judgment in the realm of Reason, it is a fortiori true to a greater degree in the realm of Conscience. Also a fortiori true is that if one must rely on the authority of others, one must do so to an even greater degree in the realm of Conscience.

Lewis claims that the only Intuitions of the moral sort in step two of the process are those beliefs that cannot be doubted as they are self-evident. Any self-evident moral truth is not to be doubted; for Lewis, the man that doubts a moral Intuition is as much an idiot as the man who doubts 2 + 2 = 4. Such intuitions like: health is good, do good rather than harm, it is better to tell the truth than to lie, etc. People who claim that this or that moral value, such as vegetarianism, as a moral Intuition are mistaking an opinion for an Intuition. The opinion that eating meat is wrong is not an Intuition, since it is not self-evident and men who are not moral idiots can in good faith disagree about it. Ergo, any ethical position that is not self-evident cannot be an Intuition. Lewis, based on this understanding, rejects any pacifist argument that views pacifism as an Intuition. Lewis argues that a moral precept is to be believed if (1) no besetting passion is driving him in that direction and (2) if men of good standing agree with his facts and conclusions.

The failure of Lewis’ argument here is rooted in his claim that the discovery of truth in Conscience is analogous to the discovery of truth in Reason. The intuitions for mathematics and geometry are supplied through Intuition, or a self-evident truth. Moral truths are not at all self-evident; both the Apostle Paul[3] and Nieztsche agree on that point. This is the crucial error in Lewis’ theory of knowledge and represents the expression of a latent perennial philosophy. Perennial philosophy argues that all the world’s religions share in the same universal truth or expression of universal reality. Such perennial thought is seen in his definition of the Tao as described in The Abolition of Man and in his appendix to that book entitled Illustrations of the Tao. In that work, Lewis proceeds to compile a list of ethical truths on which people from all religions and time periods and geographic locations have agreed on.

The problem with perennial thought is twofold: (1) it is not taught in Scripture and (2) it is rendered impotent under closer investigation. Let us imagine a scenario in which Lewis presents his theory of knowledge to Moses, David, or the Maccabees and argues that ethical axioms have to be vouchsafed for by pagans as well as the righteous. What other response would he have received other than “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he is not fit to live!” There is absolutely no precedent in the Old Testament or the New Testament that a moral truth is intuitive if and only it is accepted by all men (pagan and Christian, Jew, and Greek). The truth value of a moral belief is true if and only it is an expression of and conforms to the Will of God; the opinion of pagans is not needed. If we take Lewis seriously, then the doctrine of worshiping one God alone, ceasing worship to idols, and other central theological beliefs are not self-evident truths, but rather only conclusions to premises derived from self-evident truths; this, of course, is ridiculous. One does not discern what is right or wrong at the most basic level by reasoning from perennial Intuitions, but from humbly seeking and submitting to the revealed Will of God.

Perennial philosophy is also useless, for men do not universally agree on what is good. For example, Herodotus in his Histories 3:38 gives an example of King Darius to illustrate that each man thinks his customs are best. Darius asked the Greeks under what circumstances would they eat their dead; the Greeks answered that they would do so under no circumstances (for the Indian tribe of the Callatiae, of whom members were present and given translation of what was asked, eat their deceased parents). Then Darius asked the Callatiae under what circumstances would they burn their dead; outraged, the Callatiae questioned who would commit such an impiety (which the Greeks heard through translators). This illustrates that cultures do not actually agree on what the good is, even on such simple and fundamental questions. Such examples could be multiplied hundreds of times over, but the point is, I think, adequately expressed in Herodotus’ story. Lewis and other perennial thinkers might retort: Yes, but they both agree on honoring the dead even if they disagree on how they should be honored. This shows us the limitation of perennial thought, since if the mode of reverence can be disassociated from the intent of reverence while perennialism supplies no method to adjudicate between the two; in other words, it is utterly worthless. Even if we grant that excuse, we have the problem of a genuine contradiction where some societies view murder as good and right (though none would call their acts “murder” since murder implies an ethical structure) While our contemporary society may call certain acts “murder,” Sparta, Rome, and pirate bands would not necessarily see such acts as immoral or wrong. Spartans would routinely murder their helot slaves in their sleep as a coming of age ceremony for their young men. The Romans turned murder into a sport in the Coliseum. Pirates murder for a living. The perennial thinker might reply: Yes, but they all agree it is wrong to murder someone from the in-group, while in the out-group it may  be fine to murder. Yet this objection fails, for one cannot call a bifurcated view of murder, in which some men can be murdered and others not, a genuine rejection of murder; for the rejection of murder is a universal concept and applies to in-groups as well as out-groups. By giving concrete examples, we find that whatever perennial Intuitions there are, they are either so few as to be useless or entirely non-existent. Having demonstrated the flaws in Lewis’ epistemology, I will demonstrate that his arguments against pacifism also fail.

Lewis begins his attack on pacifism by applying his three-fold method of knowledge. He argues that the “facts” of the matter are that pacifists claim that wars do more harm than good. Lewis says this would be impossible to prove since it would amount to saying that Persia should have beaten Greece; Carthage over Rome, and Germany over the Allies (WW1). Lewis says there is no possible way in which one could prove that. He argues that such an argument is really a complex rhetorical style to illustrate what did happen. The problem with this argument is that it cuts both ways. Lewis is obligated to say that some wars do more good than harm (i.e. the wars he likes), yet this is also impossible to prove for the very same reasons he gave. Lewis has shown nothing.

Lewis moves on to Intuition. Lewis argues that the only intuitions that will satisfy the moral Intuition are intuitions that no good man has ever doubted; given Lewis’ perennial thought this would include pagans, to which he alights on the doctrine do good to others. From this intuition Lewis argues that one cannot do good to mankind in general, but an act of good to a man. This entails that if I help A from drowning I allow B to drown. He then argues that this will logically lead to me doing harm to B to save A. By harm Lewis implies the possibility of physical violence even unto the death of B. This is of course a false dilemma; since there are non-violent ways to help A in relationship to the aggressor B. One might argue that the actions under the criteria of non-violent assistance are fewer in number and inferior in outcome to those sets of actions that one willing to use violence to defend A has at his disposal. Yet the fact stands that there are two modes of helping; violent and non-violent. Lewis is here indulging in the fallacy of a false dilemma. He argues either you help A violently by killing B or you callously let A be aggressed against by B. This, as I have demonstrated logically ,is an absurd false dilemma. Also Lewis would have to condemn Christ as callous and cowardly since He never, during his time on earth in the 1st century, used violence to protect A form B.

Lewis further argues that if you want to escape his false dilemma you must believe either: (a) violence to B is lawful if and only if it stops short of taking his life or (b) taking B’s life if not objectionable, but the mass slaughter of war is disanalogous to the example and is immoral. Lewis argues that (a) is only relatively true. Yes we should seek to attempt to do as little harm as possible to B, but since we all must die, B will die, just as well now as later. What a callous thing to say; could one imagine our Lord saying that? As to (b) Lewis’ response is similar; all men die so why not have them die when they are the least selfish, such as when motivated by patriotism; again how callous! Can anyone imagine our Lord saying that? In response to (b), Lewis argues that by making war the worst possible evil it belies a latent materialism where pleasure is good and pain is bad. Which is of course an absurd claim; for example, the original teachings of the Buddha were pacifist, and so far from being a materialist; he was an idealist with his goal being the dissolution of the ego into Nirvana. Lewis discusses worse things, such as high culture being supplanted by a lower one. I guess that is why Lewis supported the triumph of Bolshevism in Russia, a direct corollary to England’s involvement in WW1, which he supported. This line of inquiry is also false due to its basis on a false dilemma as described above.

Lewis takes another tack based on Intuition. He says while the pacifist might say that war is not the greatest evil, it is a great evil and should be abolished. Lewis argues this is foolish since only liberal societies tolerate liberals; they would either be unsuccessful in encouraging disarmament (and hence accomplish nothing), or they are successful in encouraging disarmament and fatally weaken the liberal society, paving the way for their totalitarian neighbors to take over. Since totalitarian regimes execute pacifists, the pacifist has no chance to influence them and are only weakening the liberal regimes who give them the luxury of being pacifists. This of course is an absurd argument since the authoritarian Roman state not only failed to stamp out Christianity, which in its inception was pacifist, it was in fact overcome by Christianity, sadly at the cost of the latter’s pacifism. Lewis might as well say you better not condemn the bombing of civilian centers, the starvation blockade of nations, or the construction of concentration camps in order to win a war, since the totalitarian states will have no compunction in using every tool at their disposal to win, including those. We will only be handicapping ourselves by applying the rules of Just War to our war effort. In other words, to protect ourselves from totalitarianism is to become totalitarian. Poetic justice for a faulty argument, indeed.

Lastly, Lewis turns to authority. He turns to specific and general, as well as secular and sacred. As far as the specific secular authority of England, he writes:

“If I am a Pacifist, I have Arthur and Aelfred, Elizabeth and Cromwell, Walpole and Burke, against me. I have my university my school, my school and my parents against me. I have the literature of my country against me, and cannot even open Beowulf, my Shakespeare, my Johnson or my Wordsworth without being reproved.”

This argument is clearly fallacious as I will demonstrate with a reductio ad absurdum. If Lewis wants to play the perennial game, his abolitionism is also suspect, since in all times and places slavery was accepted. Imagine what Lewis might have said to that crazy radical Wilberforce:

“If I am an Abolitionist, I have Arthur and Aelfred, Elizabeth and Cromwell, Walpole and Burke, against me. I have my university my school, my school and my parents against me. I have the literature of my country against me, and cannot even open Beowulf, my Shakespeare, my Johnson or my Wordsworth without being reproved.”

Granted not all the works of literature listed speak on slavery, but with slight modification all works that do mention slavery mention it favorably. Lewis also assumes that there is not an English thinker or writer who was a pacifist, something which is an unproven and hidden assumption.

As to general secular authority Lewis says:

“From the dawn of history down to the sinking of the Terris Bay, the world echoes with the praise of righteous war. To be a Pacifist, I must part company with Homer and Virgil, with Plato and Aristotle, with Zarathustra and the Bhagavad-Gita, with Cicero and Montainge, with Iceland and Egypt. From this point of view, I am almost tempted to reply to the Pacifist as Johnson replied to Goldsmith, “Nay Sir, if you will not take the universal opinion of all mankind, I have nothing more to say.””

To demonstrate the fallacious nature of this argument, let us imagine Lewis applying this logic to Mr. Wilberforce in his effort to eradicate slavery:

“From the dawn of history down to the august ministers in present day Parliament, the world echoes with the praise the righteous of slavery. To be an Abolitionist, I must part company with Homer and Virgil, with Plato and Aristotle, with Zarathustra and the Bhagavad-Gita, with Cicero and Montainge, with Iceland and Egypt. From this point of view, I am almost tempted to reply to the Abolitionist as Johnson replied to Goldsmith, “Nay Sir, if you will not take the universal opinion of all mankind, I have nothing more to say.”

The problem here is that Lewis is being deceitful and he should have known it. If going against the universal dictates of all mankind is wrong, then he should support slavery. If an idea can emerge that both contradicts all previous human experience and improves upon it,which he implicitly does by supporting abolitionism, then this line of inquiry withers away and is exposed as only so much high -sounding sophistry. This is rather cheeky since later on Lewis ridicules those people of his day that believe in the myth of Progress where society is getting better and better and we are casting off the shackles of our ignorant ancestors. So Mr. Lewis, which is it? The universal testimony in favor of slavery or the small-minded myth of progress demanding abolition?

As to generic sacred authority, Lewis points to the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles, Thomas Aquinas, the Presbyterians, and Augustine. He then cites John the Baptist’s injunction to the soldiers in Luke 3:14. He appeals to doctors, popes, bishops, creeds, and councils of all Christendom uniting in support of war. Lewis’ most colossal blunder or malicious falsehood, but probably the former, is his refusal to look at that period of church history from 33-313 AD, known as the ante-Nicene church, where the universal church with one voice condemned the manslaughter of war, capital punishment, and self-defense, as I have demonstrated in In Defense of Christian Non-Violence here ( If Lewis could not be bothered to actually read the history of the church, then he should not bother us with his ignorant pontification.

As to specific sacred authority he turns to Scripture. He argues that pacifism rests solely on the teachings of Christ. This again is false as my essay mentioned above shows, but nonetheless Christ is central to the argument. Lewis then sophistically postures that he must be dealing with people who take all of Jesus’ hard sayings literally, otherwise they are hypocrites. This is a subtle ad hominem attack for even if a man were to take Jesus’ hard sayings literally only when they allowed him to avoid the unpleasant duty of soldiering, but not the unpleasant duty of giving to him who asks, that in no way makes the argument false; Lewis of all people should have known that.

Lewis then seeks to show there are three possible interpretations of Matthew 5:38-42: (1) take it at face value, (2) hyperbolically stating, have a stiff upper lip, or (3) Jesus is saying do not use force to right personal wrongs, but allows for the use of force to right public wrongs. Lewis states both he and the pacifist reject (2) and he also rejects (1) in favor of (3). I have already dealt with this argument in my essay on Christian non-violence, but the best answer to this nonsense is to be found in Tolstoy:

“The third kind of answer, still more subtle than the preceding, consists in asserting that though the command of non-resistance to evil by force is binding on the Christian when the evil is directed against himself personally, it ceases to be binding when the evil is directed against his neighbors, and that then the Christian is not only not bound to fulfill the commandment, but is even bound to act in opposition to it in defense of his neighbors, and to use force against transgressors by force.  This assertion is an absolute assumption, and one cannot find in all Christ’s teaching any confirmation of such an argument.  Such an argument is not only a limitation, but also a direct contradiction and negation of the commandment.  If every man has the right to have recourse to force in face of a danger threatening another, the question of the use of force is reduced to a question of the definition of danger for another.  If my private judgment is to decide the question of what is danger for another, there is no occasion for the use of force that could not be justified on the ground of danger threatening some other man.  They killed and burned witches, they killed aristocrats and Girondists, and they killed their enemies, because those who were in authority regarded them as dangerous for the people.”

If this important limitation, which fundamentally undermines the whole value of the commandment, had entered into Christ’s meaning, there must have been mention of it somewhere.  This restriction is made nowhere in our Savior’s life or preaching.  On the contrary, warning is given precisely against this treacherous and scandalous restriction that nullifies the commandment.  The error and impossibility of such a limitation is shown in the Gospel with special clearness in the account of the judgment of Caiaphas, who makes precisely this distinction.  He acknowledged that it was wrong to punish the innocent Jesus, but he saw in him a source of danger not for himself, but for the whole people, and therefore he said, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to perish.”  And the erroneousness of such a limitation is still more clearly expressed in the words spoken to Peter when he tried to resist, by force, evil directed against Jesus (Matt. 26:52).  Peter was not defending himself, but his beloved and heavenly Master.  And Christ at once reproved him for this, saying that he who takes up the sword shall perish by the sword.

Besides, apologies for violence used against one’s neighbor in defense of another neighbor from greater violence are always untrustworthy, because when force is used against one who has not yet carried out his evil intent, I can never know which would be greater – the evil of my act of violence or of the act I want to prevent.  We kill the criminal that society may be rid of him, and we never know whether the criminal of today would not have been a changed man tomorrow, and whether our punishment of him is not useless cruelty.  We shut up the dangerous – as we think – member of society, but the next day this man might cease to be dangerous and his imprisonment might be for nothing.  I see that a man I know to be a ruffian is pursuing a young girl.  I have a gun in my hand – I kill the ruffian and save the girl.  But the death or the wounding of the ruffian has positively taken place, while what would have happened if this had not been I cannot know.  And what an immense mass of evil must result, and indeed does result, from allowing men to assume the right of anticipating what may happen.  Ninety-nine percent of the evil of the world is founded on this reasoning – from the Inquisition to dynamite bombs, and the executions or punishments of tens of thousands of political criminals.”[4]

Lewis rounds out his speech with (a) the question of the historical Jesus and (b) lack of risk for pacifists. Lewis argues that it is inconceivable that Christians of the twentieth century finally figured out what Jesus meant about pacifism. He states: “If our Lord’s words are taken in the unqualified sense which the Pacifist demands, we shall then be forced to the conclusion that Christ’s true meaning, concealed from those who lived in the same time and spoke the same language, and whom He Himself chose to be His messengers to the world, as well as from all their successors, has at last been discovered in our own time.” To anyone familiar with my essay In Defense of Christian Nonviolence, such a claim is ludicrous since in those first three centuries it was the pacifist position, not Lewis’, which was the only one. This position is conclusively shown in Ronald J. Sider’s work The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment and George Kalantzis’ Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service.

Lewis then engages in more sophistry by taking potshots at his pacifist interlocutors by stating they risk nothing by being pacifists. Well, Mr. Lewis also risked nothing working for the BBC sending England’s best and bravest to die in the war to help Stalin take over Eastern Europe and enslave millions of Christians to atheist communist dictatorships. Furthermore, how many pacifist martyrs ring down the ages from Perpetua, to Dirk Willems, to the Mennonite martyrs in the USSR who courageously sacrificed their lives for Christ? Lewis’ argument here is a red herring.  Again, he ought to have known better.

In conclusion, how did Lewis, a man of intellect and erudition, come to commit such trivial fallacies and engage in such sloppy thinking? Simple: to return to Lewis’ belief that people cannot see Intuition due to some besetting passion, Lewis in his pride totally failed to look at his own passions. Lewis was blinded by a bloodlust of supreme proportion. In all of Lewis’ work, both fictional and non-fictional, he expressed a cavalier attitude about death in war. For example, when he recounts the German and English soldier killing each other in the Great War, The Abolition of Man, and in this very essay, in his accounts of battles in the Chronicles of Narnia, and in the fight between Ransom and Wenston in Peralandra. For Lewis, life is cheap and the rush of battle glorious and honorable. Lewis, blinded by his own passion for glory in battle, fails to see the obvious contradiction with war and the teachings of Christ. If Lewis cannot be bothered to construct valid syllogisms, desist from informal fallacies, or reading up on Church history, then he is not to bother us with his opinions.

[1] The Weight of Glory pg 65

[2] ibid

[3] Romans 7:7 “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”” Also see Romans 3:20.Twilight of the Idols pg 81:“We others hold otherwise. When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: This point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God is the truth — it stands and falls with faith in God.”

[4] The Kingdom of God is Within You

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