The Church, the School and the Political Economy of Virtue

Ravi Jain uses C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle as a guide, explaining the importance of virtue in every arena of life.

The final book in the Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle, paints a provocative political scenario. A talking ape dresses up a talking donkey in a lion skin to impersonate Aslan. The ape hopes to rule Narnia by using the lion-donkey as his puppet mouthpiece. When the donkey, named Puzzle, objects that he does not want to rule Narnia, the ape, named Shift, tries to convince him of the benefits.

“Everyone would do whatever you tell them.”

“But I don’t want to tell them anything.”

“But think of the good we could do!” said Shift. “You’d have me to advise you, you know. I’d think of sensible orders for you to give. And everyone would have to obey us, even the King himself. We would set everything right in Narnia.”

“But isn’t everything right already?” said Puzzle.

“What!” cried Shift. “Everything right? When there are no oranges or bananas?”

“Well, you know,” said Puzzle, “there aren’t many people – in fact, I don’t think there’s anyone but yourself – who wants those sort of things.”

“There’s sugar, too,” said Shift.

“H’m, yes,” said the Ass. “It would be nice if there was more sugar.”

“Well then, that’s settled,” said the Ape. “You will pretend to be Aslan, and I’ll tell you what to say.”

In The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis brings Narnia to anend. Father Time rolls up the sky, and the stars are eachsummoned to Aslan’s side. But this occurs only after Narnia falls to the bizarre and tyrannical rule of the ape, aligned with the Calormenes who worship the evil god Tash. At first, the true king of Narnia, Tirian, does not know that Aslan has not appeared and is only being impersonated. The talking beasts all report to Tirian that Aslan has come and that indeed he is “not a tame lion.” The beasts did not perceive the ape and donkey’s lie. But Tirian and his steed, Jewel the Unicorn, conclude by the disgusting behavior and vicious commands of the false Aslan that something was dreadfully amiss. Tirian begins:

“Horrible thoughts arise in my heart. If we had died before today we should have been happy.”

“Yes,” said Jewel. “The worst thing in the world has come upon us.”

What is this worst thing in the world? It is to conclude that the lord whom one has worshiped and placed hope in is in fact an unjust and cruel tyrant. It is to conclude that
the foundation of justice is itself unjust. The reported deeds of this false Aslan nearly convince Jewel and Tirian that he is an impostor. But it is finally the words of the Ape that ring as blatant heresy and spring Tirian into action. The Ape says:

“Tash is only another name for Aslan. All that old idea of us being right and the Calormenes wrong is silly. We know better now …. Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.”

To this Tirian finally objects:

“Ape,” he cried with a great voice, “you lie. You lie damnably. You lie like a Calormene. You lie like an Ape.”

Slowly the plot thickens and the differences between the two sorts of government emerge. Both the traditional Narnian rule and the government of the ape have habits, causal explanations and theological foundations. But one ruling culture believes in a transcendent source of divine goodness, and the other says good and evil are the same.

The statements of the Ape and the Calormenes feel familiar even to a child – familiar but disingenuous. They have the recognizable tinge of hypocrisy. At the bottom of that system lie the arbitrary wants and desires of the Ape and the king of the Calormenes, the Tisroc. While they claim to serve everyone, they serve only themselves. Nonetheless a whole government emerges around these motivations. How? In contrast to the Narnians, the Calormenes are ruled not by their own consciences or by alignment with what is right. The Calormenes are full of trickery and deceit and are compelled by force. The Narnians who defect to their side are willing to affirm their deplorable practices grounded in Realpolitik.

The true and faithful Narnians, on the other hand, are ruled by a transcendent code of conduct, the pursuit of virtue. At one point King Tirian and Jewel strike down two Calormenes without first warning them of attack and calling them to arms. After some reflection, the two Narnians feel disgraced. While the Calormenes were indeed part of an evil plot, the Narnians conclude that the way they themselves attacked the Calormenes was outside the bounds of proper combat. The end did not justify the means.

Lewis, a master of history, in Narnia and elsewhere often contrasts the ideologies of the present with the ideals of the past. In his Funeral for a Great Myth, he criticizes the myth
of progress, the notion that things are inevitably getting better all the time. And nowhere else in The Chronicles of Narnia besides The Last Battle does he more vividly depict the differences between the ancient and modern visions of political economy.

While readers of the Chronicles feel the contrast, they may still wonder, “What would a political economy founded in Christian virtue look like?” This is a good question because the term “political economy” did not enter into the Western lexicon until after politics itself had departed from upholding the primacy of virtue for public life. The word “economics” is an old one, used by Aristotle and meaning “the law of the household” or “household management.” In ancient Greece, households were also small businesses, often specializing in a craft such as the production of cloth or another trade. But the word “economics” did not come to have its contemporary meaning until after the days of Adam Smith. Adam Smith wrote about political economy, “the household management of nations.” He extended Aristotle’s meaning to ask about the relations not merely within the city but between cities and nations – between polities. For both Aristotle and Adam Smith, economics and politics were within the discourse of moral philosophy, the mother of contemporary social science. As Gladys Bryson explains in The Emergence of the Social Sciences from Moral Philosophy, “From the time of Socrates until the emergence of the social sciences in the 19th century, moral philosophy consistently offered the most comprehensive discussion of human relations and institutions.”

Aristotle wrote two key books on moral philosophy – what he called practical philosophy – Nicomachean Ethics and Politics. In Aristotle’s point of view, human bonds are natural, and one cannot learn to be ethical in a social vacuum. Rather, one learns virtue in the context of the community, the city, the polis. “Man is by nature a political animal,” he wrote in Politics. Virtue was historically a central concern of moral philosophy and, therefore, of both politics and economics. To grow in virtue was a lifelong pursuit that began in childhood and was not finished until death. Aristotle writes Nicomachean Ethics that, “Moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).” He goes on to explain that, “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.” Moreover, the majority of moral philosophers throughout the ancient and medieval world believed that one could not live a happy or blessed life without growing in virtue. Virtue was essential to the purpose of life.

While there are key differences between the ancient pagan notions of virtue and Christian notions, they do share similarities that are now rejected by the modern moral order. Both the pagans and the Christians believed that there is a transcendent order and that to grow in virtue is to grow more aligned with that order. As C. S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man, “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.”

In the modern moral order, there are no given goals or ends for human beings. Machiavelli and Hobbes stand at the headwaters of the modern political tradition. Both are less interested in the development of virtue among the citizens of the polis than they are interested in the means to accomplish the purposes of the ruler. How can The Prince
(or the state) accomplish his goals, whatever they may be? The questions ignore ends and ask only of means. Only in this post-Hobbesian context could Adam Smith advance in his Theory of Moral Sentiments the centrality of self-interest or “self-love” for accomplishing desirable ends without falling afoul of historic Christian thought. Nonetheless, Adam Smith sounds more balanced than his immediate predecessor, Bernard Mandeville, who in 1705 wrote a book titled The Fable of the Bees: or Private Lives, Public Benefits. Just four centuries earlier at the time of Dante, the Augustinian notion of virtue as “ordered loves” was still axiomatic. While Augustine conceded that the “City of Man” is indeed ordered around self-love, the “City of God” is ordered around the love of God. Christians are called to a political economy of ordered loves, a political economy of virtue.

In a telling passage from The Last Battle, the Ape explains the goals of his rule. What does it mean to “set everything right in Narnia” and what does a well-governed productive society look like?

“Everybody who can work is going to be made to work in the future. Aslan has it all settled with the King of Calormen…”

“No, no, no,” howled the Beasts. “It can’t be true. Aslan would never sell us into slavery to the King of Calormen.”

 “None of that! Hold your noise!” said the Ape with a snarl. “Who said anything about slavery? You won’t be slaves. You’ll be paid – very good wages, too. That is to say, your pay will be paid in to Aslan’s treasury and he will use it all for everybody’s good … There, you see!” said the Ape. “It’s all arranged. And all for your own good. We’ll be able, with the money you earn, to make Narnia a country worth living in. There’ll be oranges and bananas pouring in – and roads and big cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and saddles and cages and kennels and prisons. Oh, everything.” 

“But we don’t want all those things,” said an old Bear. “We want to be free. And we want to hear Aslan speak himself.”

“Now don’t you start arguing,” said the Ape, “for it’s a thing I won’t stand. I’m a Man: you’re only a fat, stupid old Bear. What do you know about freedom? You think freedom means doing what you like. Well, you’re wrong. That isn’t true freedom. True freedom means doing what I tell you.”

No arguing, says the Ape. More pointedly, no moral discourse. In the modern moral order the foundation for applying moral reasoning has been eroded. (See Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.) The traditional notion of the liberal arts supported exactly the polity that was founded upon the freedom of conscience. Though in Cicero’s Orator he uses the Latin words probare, delectare and flectere (to test, to delight and to persuade) in describing the duties of the orator, by the Renaissance the Ciceronian duties of the
orator are commonly listed as movere, docere and delectare (to move, to teach and to delight). The goals of dialectic are to discover and demonstrate arguments through reasoned dialogue. Aquinas writes in Summa Theologica that they are called liberal arts “in order to distinguish them from those arts which are ordained to works done by the body, which arts are, in a fashion, servile, inasmuch as the body is in servile subjection to the soul, and man as regards his soul is free.” The church fathers recognized in the liberal arts those studies that support the freedom of conscience. Regarding this freedom, Christ said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28). Aquinas similarly wrote that, “Man as regards his soul is free.” One can say that 2+2=37 all day long and threaten another’s life and limb if he does not accept this as true. While the mathematically persecuted man may repeat any phrase that is demanded, when the threat is removed he will again acknowledge that 2+2=4. You cannot make somebody believe something against his will. He must be persuaded. This is the job of the liberal arts. The opposite is when states of affairs are enacted by force not by reason and conscience. This kind of dogmatic bureaucracy is too often a marker of contemporary social ideology. Nonetheless, it can be detected. The behavior and commands of the Ape, despite all his platitudes, brought slavery, not freedom.

Surely Lewis was aware of the political philosophy of Jean Jacque Rousseau who describes the role of the state thus:

He who dares to undertake the making of a people’s institutions ought to feel himself capable, so to speak, of changing human nature, of transforming each individual who is by himself a complete and solitary whole, into part of a greater whole from which he in a manner receives his life and being … He must, in a word, take away from man his own resources and give him instead new ones alien to him, and incapable of being made use of without the help of other men.

The 20th-century UC Berkeley and Columbia University professor, Robert Nisbet, says this of the modern state in Twilight of Authority:

The word bureaucracy has come to symbolize, above all others in our time, the transfer of government from the people, as organized in their natural communities in the social order, as equipped with the tastes, desires and aspirations which are the natural elements of their nurture, to a class of professional technicians whose principal job is that of substituting their organizations their tastes, desires and aspirations, for those of the people. It is this seemingly ineradicable aspect of bureaucracy that makes for the relentless, unending conflict between bureaucracy and freedom that more and more people in the present age have come to regard as very nearly central. And it is this same aspect that has led so many persons in the present age to despair of restoring to political government those foundations in popular will which are utterly vital to the political community.

Or in other words, “You think freedom means doing what you like. Well, you’re wrong. That isn’t true freedom. True freedom means doing what I tell you.”

Interestingly, these words themselves are not altogether wrong. Consider this prayer of St. Augustine which informs an Anglican liturgy that C. S. Lewis would have known: “Grant us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom, in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

There is one whom to serve is perfect freedom. It is the one who is himself the way, the truth and the life. It is the one who is the foundation of all virtue. Hans Boersma, the J. I. Packer Professor of Systematic Theology at Regent College, speaks of the way the church fathers thought about virtue. He writes this of the 4th-century Christian
thinker Gregory of Nyssa in Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa:

First, for Gregory, virtue is primarily identified with God or Christ. Virtue, insists
Gregory, is identical to divine characteristics such as blamelessness, holiness, purity, and
incorruptibility. The reason, therefore, that Gregory expounds on virtue . . . is [because] by
expounding on virtue one discusses the goodness and beauty of God himself. Second, human virtue is participatory in character. It is by putting on the “garb of Christ” that we become virtuous, and it is through our eating of the body of Christ in the Eucharist that we ourselves are transformed. The metaphor of Christ as the head and the Church as his body points to the participatory character of human virtue. The bride’s beauty is, in a real
sense, the Bridegroom’s beauty, because the former is derived from and participates in the latter.

Thus, to grow in Christ is to grow in virtue. And to grow in virtue is to experience true freedom. Here we encounter the centrality of the church for the fostering of true freedom. As it was for the ancient Greeks, virtue is something that is nurtured in community. But for Christians that community is not the Greek city state; it is the Church. “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (2 Corinthians 12:27). It is within the context of the Church that parents are to raise their children. As it says in Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers do not exasperate your children, but raise them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”

It is precisely this older vision of raising up children within the context of the Church for growth in virtue and growth in Christ that is today threatened. Harvard historian, Christopher Dawson explains in Crisis:

In the new America the socialization and secularization of education has created an
immense professionalized organ for the creation of moral and intellectual uniformity. In this way the constitutional principle of the separateness of Church and State which was intended to secure religious freedom has become the means of secularizing the American mind so that the churches have lost all control over the religious formation of the people. This was not so in the earlier phase of American history when the churches were the chief, and often the only, organs of education and culture. The American way of life was built on a threefold tradition of freedom – political, economic, and religious – and if the new secularist forces were to subjugate these freedoms to a monolithic technological order, it would destroy the foundations on which American culture was based. The American way of life can only maintain its character within the general framework of Western Christian culture. If this relation is lost, something essential to the life of the nation will be lost and American democracy itself will become subordinated to the technological order.

This is why The Last Battle feels so familiar. It describes the order of the Ape, a bureaucratic order in which the natural organizations of the Narnians have been replaced with the artificially imposed order of the Calormenes and the Ape. It is an order in which the Narnians’ desires for virtue and freedom have been replaced with intemperance and an inordinate lust for goods and progress – goods detached from natural desires and progress detached from reasonable human purposes. It is an order in which there is no basis for moral discourse and public reasoning, only various thinly veiled coercive techniques. What is instead needed is a political economy of virtue. And the only polis that can support this economy of virtue is the city of God, that city ordered around the love of God and not the love of self.

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