Swimming Upstream: Why the Natural Law Resists Totalitarianism

Jan 6, 2023

Article ID: JAF4441 | By: R. Keith Loftin

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 01 (2021). ​For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.

It seems C. S. Lewis and Friedrich Hayek never met, and more’s the pity. Lewis spent much of his life in the cloisters and classrooms of Oxford and Cambridge universities, teaching and writing about literature and Christianity. Hayek, the great economist and winner of the 1974 Nobel Prize in economics, spent the bulk of his career writing on economic and monetary theory, as well as the evils of fascism, Nazism, and socialism. Though born in different countries — Lewis in Northern Ireland, Hayek in Austria — their lives and work converged in interesting ways. Born only five months apart, Lewis and Hayek each observed what Winston Churchill called “the gathering storm” of geopolitical events that precipitated World War II. This included the deteriorating political situation in Germany, which centered on the rise of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party (the Nazis). At this time, Lewis was teaching in Oxford, while Hayek had joined the faculty of the London School of Economics. By the autumn of 1940, when Germany commenced its campaign of bombing London (“the blitz”), both Lewis and Hayek had grown accustomed to carrying out their academic careers under wartime conditions. Though neither was involved in day-to-day politics, each resolved academically to resist totalitarianism.


“Totalitarianism” is the aim of collectivist power to organize society and all its resources toward some unitary goal, the pursuit of which, says Hayek, leaves no room for personal liberty or “autonomous spheres in which the ends of individuals are supreme.”1 While the specific goals of collectivist powers will vary, they are totalitarian in virtue of their shared diminution of individual liberty. As Hayek further explains, classical liberalism “is concerned mainly with limiting the coercive powers of all government, whether democratic or not.” The “majority rule” form of government, which Hayek terms “democracy,” on the other hand, “knows only one limit to government — current majority opinion.”2 It is significant that, on Hayek’s construal, liberalism and democracy are neither identical nor necessarily opposed to one another. “The difference between the two ideals,” Hayek elaborates, “stands out most clearly if we name their opposites: for democracy it is authoritarian governments; for liberalism, it is totalitarianism. Neither of the two systems necessarily excludes the opposite of the other: a democracy may well wield totalitarian powers, and it is conceivable that an authoritarian government may act on liberal principles.”3 It is, therefore, possible for totalitarianism to emerge within (broadly) democratic societies.

Although totalitarianism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has often come at the end of a sword (e.g., Hitler’s National Socialists, the Soviet Union, North Korea, and the Islamic State [ISIS]), Lewis and Hayek recognized the subtler threat of what Alexis de Tocqueville calls “soft despotism,” that is, despotism of a “more extensive and milder” sort that “would degrade men without tormenting them.”4 Under this guise, the collectivist power comes as a “paternal power”: “[It] likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, [and] divides their inheritances.”5

Though incremental, the expansion of such power gradually crowds out the exercise of individual liberty. “It does not break wills,” explains Tocqueville, “but it softens them, bends them, and directs them….It does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces” its citizens to “a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd”6 (emphasis added). This diminishment of individual liberty by collectivist power is, Hayek remarks, “inevitable” because “the inherent logic of collectivism makes it impossible to confine it to a limited sphere.”7 Hayek detected the soft despotism lurking within the Trojan horse of paternal power offered by modern totalitarians.

The Natural Law

Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, a tour de force against central planning and the slow but sure road of socialism to totalitarianism, was completed in 1943. Although he demurs from overt reference to the natural law, his arguments frequently require or presuppose the natural law.8 Lewis’s contributions of this same period, however, place the natural law front and center.

On February 23, 1943, Lewis delivered the Riddell Memorial Lectures. These lectures, published later that year as The Abolition of Man, seek to re-establish the natural law — that is, “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”9 If that is so, then questions about human behavior, including how we ought to organize and govern ourselves, must be recast. To that end, Lewis argues that modern man’s attempt to mold and conduct society in rejection of the natural law has a dehumanizing effect. “For the wise men of old,” Lewis writes, “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 [and, we might add, totalitarianism] the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men” rather than how to bring our wishes and structures into alignment with reality.10

Lewis’s efforts to reinstill the natural law into the popular British intellect began in 1941 through a series of talks for the BBC’s religious broadcasting department that aired in England. His topic was the “Law of Nature,” that is, the natural law. His aim was to prompt listeners to recognize that, as Cicero puts it, “there is in fact a true law — namely, right reason — which is in accordance with nature, applies to all men, and is unchangeable and eternal.”11 This law is not only knowable, Lewis argues, but stands behind all human interaction. If this were not so, then, “What was the sense in saying the enemy [Nazi socialism] were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practised? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair.”12

Natural Law and Motivations

If the natural law is the foundation for all value judgments, then its rejection leaves only unprincipled desires and will. In other words, apart from the natural law we find such expressions as John F. Kennedy’s Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country or End human trafficking now oddly puzzling. Why? Because apart from the natural law, there’s no way to move from the fact that Human trafficking harms society to the universal imperative End human trafficking now. To be sure, those with sufficient power could endeavor to impose upon society their desire to end human trafficking — after all, “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases,” says Lewis, “means the power of some men to make other men what they please”13 (emphasis in original). But make no mistake: that Human trafficking harms society can play no part in the motivation to see the end of human trafficking apart from the natural law. In short, unless we know that Society ought not be harmed or Human trafficking violates the intrinsic dignity of persons, then our actions are constrained only by the unprincipled desires and will of those having power.

“But,” someone will object, “surely it is good for people to realize their duty as citizens and surely it is good for human trafficking to be ended — regardless of whether people understand or even care about the natural law!” In response, first, the objection itself appeals to the natural law: the objector assumes the truth of the proposition the wrongness of human trafficking transcends personal opinion, and so the objection turns out to be supportive of Lewis’s point. Secondly, apart from the natural law, totalitarians have recourse only to their private, subjective motivations. Yet having abandoned the deliverances of the natural law, totalitarians have left themselves but one motive: their “felt emotional weight at a given moment.”14 As Lewis explains, the “point is that those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.”15

Natural Law vs. Totalitarianism

What becomes clear is that the natural law resists totalitarianism in at least two ways. First, the natural law is transcendent. It is, as Cicero puts it, eternal and unchangeable, and this means it cannot be made subservient to any totalitarian authority. It therefore constitutes an impregnable fortification against the encroaching appetites, will, and power of tyrants. Indeed, it stands in judgment over the actions of totalitarians, which is one reason that modern totalitarians tend to marginalize and even eradicate religion; conversely, it is one reason why religious liberty must be safeguarded.16

A second reason the natural law resists totalitarianism is its close connection with anthropology. Importantly, anthropology is downstream of the natural law. As Aquinas explains in question 91 of his Summa Theologica: “the rational creature…participates in providence, providing for himself and for others. Hence, in him…there is a participation in eternal reason through which he has a natural inclination to his due act and end. And the rational creature’s mode of participation in the eternal law is called natural law.” But, Aquinas continues, “every operation of reason and will in us is derived from what is in accord with nature. For every instance of discursive reasoning stems from principles that are naturally known to us, and every desire for things that are ordered to an end stems from a natural desire for the ultimate end. And so…the initial ordering of our acts to their end…must be brought about through natural law.”17 The idea is that, given the natural law and the kind of rational and morally responsible creatures we are, the facts of the natural law are to guide the ways we live.

This connection between the natural law and human nature is, for Lewis, significant to the resistance of totalitarianism. The natural law preserves for man an inviolable dignity. Apart from the natural law, what is to prevent the powerful from reducing or instrumentalizing the weak in service of the interests or desires of the powerful? Given the kind of creatures we are, there is a natural way in which human beings flourish, and that way requires the proper ordering of our souls to reality. But there is a problem, as Lewis recognizes:

I am a democrat [that is, one who affirms democracy over totalitarianism] 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….I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people….The real reason for democracy is [that]…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.18

Human beings are fundamentally self-interested creatures. That is why Lewis argues so strenuously in The Abolition of Man that education must be founded upon the natural law. This is precisely the point of Lord John Acton’s famous claim that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”19 In short, when power meets self-interest in the absence of the natural law, the inevitable result is totalitarianism.

Keith Loftin, PhD, is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Scarborough College.



  1. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents, ed. Bruce Caldwell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 101.
  2. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 166.
  3. Hayek, Constitution of Liberty, 166.
  4. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. and trans. by Harvey Mansfield and Debra Winthrop, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 2:662.
  5. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2:663.
  6. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 2:663.
  7. Hayek, “Nazi–Socialism,” in Road to Serfdom, 247.
  8. Erik Angner, Hayek and Natural Law (New York: Routledge, 2007).
  9. C. S. Lewis, Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 29.
  10. Lewis, Abolition of Man, 77.
  11. Cicero, De Republica 33.
  12. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), 5.
  13. Lewis, Abolition of Man, 72.
  14. Lewis, Abolition of Man, 78.
  15. Lewis, Abolition of Man, 78.
  16. See J. Daryl Charles, Natural Law and Religious Freedom (New York: Routledge, 2018).
  17. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I–II, q. 91.
  18. C. S. Lewis, “Equality,” in Present Concerns, ed. Walter Hooper (Orlando: Fount Paperbacks, 1986), 17.
  19. Letter to Archbishop Mandell Creighton on April 5, 1887.


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