While C.S. Lewis is famous for his fantasy and theology writing, it’s impossible to understand the Oxford don’s work without reference to the world scarred by the tragedies of the 20th century he inhabited. A survivor of WWI trench warfare, the Great Depression, and WWII, Lewis witnessed the immense tragedies of the 20th century. As a result, he never lost sight of the consequences of human sinfulness, even as he retained a sense of hope through his faith and the goodness he witnessed in his brothers-in-arms, neighbors, and fellow Christians.

This hopeful view of humanity, even with our capacity for evil, can be seen in his view of democracy. For C.S. Lewis, representative government was the best form of government; not because of any virtues inherent in mankind or democracy itself, but because the fallen nature of mankind demanded that power be limited.

C.S. Lewis did not see democracy as a natural law or a moral absolute. His political essays and novels are replete with warnings against technocrats and governments that would seek to use their powers to dominate the individual. However, his distrust of the few did not translate into the infallibility of the masses. In a letter to George Every, Lewis responded to the argument that supported democracy by relying upon the virtue of individual citizens saying, “There is a quite different possible defense of democracy. I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall and therefore think men are too wicked to be trusted with more than the minimum power over other men.” In other words, democracy should serve as a check on human nature.

Lewis’ views on democracy were informed by his understanding of human nature and the Fall. Tending towards political realism, his views were in sharp contradistinction with more theoretical and utopian views on democracy. French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously asserted that humans, if freed from the shackles of stultifying institutions like monogamy and traditional religion, would form a more perfect democratic society. The people’s expressed popular will (the “general will”), as an indicator of sentiments, is an absolute moral good unto itself. The perceived righteousness of democracy then becomes akin to a natural law, as in the French Revolution.

Lewis viewed popular conceptions of democracy that emphasized the inherent goodness of mankind, or democracy’s intrinsic moral superiority, with great suspicion. In his mind, it was not based upon sound political or theological foundations. As he wrote in his 1943 essay to The Spectator:

“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.”

This exposure is explored in Lewis’ essay, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”, a follow-up to The Screwtape Letters. In this essay, the arch-tempter Screwtape discusses manipulating humans through “democratic” language: “Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose… It will never occur to them that Democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them.” This point is emphasized in another letter to Mary Van Deusen where Lewis contemplates the limits to democracy’s moral authority: 

“If the Communists in this country can persuade the majority to sell into Russia, or even to set up devil-worship and human sacrifice, what is the democratic reply? When we said ‘Govt. by the people’ did we only mean ‘as long as we don’t disagree with the people too much’? And is it much good talking about ‘loyalty’? For on strictly democratic principles, I suppose loyalty is obligatory (or even lawful) only so long as the majority want it. I don’t know the answer. Of course, there is no question of it being our duty (the minority’s duty) to obey an anti-God govt. if the majority sets it up. We shall have to disobey and be martyred. Perhaps pure democracy is really a false ideal.”

For C.S. Lewis, mankind is fallen, not uplifted—a flawed arbiter of goodness, not a perfect judge. Therefore, mankind and democracy should not be uplifted to idealistic heights.

Given Lewis’ skepticism of mankind and his critique of moral democracy, why does he call himself a democrat? If mankind has fallen and democracy is a tool for governance rather than a moral law, why did C.S. Lewis believe in it? He believed in democracy because he believed that mankind was so sinful and fallen that no one was fit to rule:

“I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people—all the people who believe advertisements,and think in catchwords, and spread rumours. 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.”

What politicians and Christians should learn from C.S. Lewis’ observations is that democracy and the popular will are not panaceas to human nature. They cannot eliminate sin or cleanse nations of their flaws. When democracy is saddled with idealistic expectations it can’t fulfill, the outcome will inevitably be disappointing and disillusioning. In the worst cases, this disappointment can drive nations towards extreme remedies. However, democracy is simply a means to the end of governing human societies because, in a fallen world, no one can be trusted with absolute power. This view requires considerable humility on the part of the citizen and in his dealings with others, for in Lewis’ words, “Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously; it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves.”