Consider the following remark: “The new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge. If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists’ puppets.” Or this one: “Under the nascent régime, education alone will get you into the ruling class . . . [Y]ou cannot get in without becoming, or without making your masters believe that you have become, a very specific kind of person, one who makes the right responses to the right authors.”

Both quotes might sound like political rallying cries from contemporary populist rhetoric, but they are not: they come from the twentieth century’s most beloved Christian author, who remains today a source of inspiration for readers around the world. Born on November 29, 1898, he would now be celebrating his 125th birthday: C. S. Lewis.

Lewis’s continued popularity rests not only on his ability to tell a good story, though he could certainly do that. He also had a keen nose for the zeitgeist, sensing how the cultural winds were blowing and responding through his writingswhich, even today, continue to address the concerns of subsequent generations. The Abolition of Man remains among the best analyses of the subjectivism infecting post-Nietzschean education and culture. The science fiction trilogy raises questions about the connection between scientific progress and morality that have become ever more pressing with continued technological developments. And when the Iraq War broke out during my undergraduate years, my father sent me a copy of the essay “Learning in War-Time” as a not-so-subtle reminder to get back to my books and spend less time glued to the television watching broadcasts from Baghdad.

I could go on recounting ways in which Lewis still speaks to contemporary concerns a century and a quarter after his birth. Amid the current populist wave sweeping America and other Western democracies, however, one topic on which he seems especially prescient is the relationship between education and politics. Lewis often sounds like a typical populist critic of meritocratic elites, as in the two passages I cited above (taken, respectively, from his essays “Is Progress Possible?” and “Lilies that Fester”). He worries frequently about the social and political consequences of entrusting government to a self-perpetuating class of experts.

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A good example of this is the essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” in which Lewis criticizes those who abandon the traditional view of criminal law as intended to right wrongs and punish injustice, regarding such an attitude as vengeful and outdated. A more humane theory, such people suggest, would be that punishment is acceptable only for the sake of deterrence or to rehabilitate the wrongdoer. Lewis argues that this apparently compassionate view is in fact dangerous. If punishment is intended only to deter or cure, then its determination is no longer a question of morality and justiceabout which any of us might offer an opinion grounded in experience or practical wisdombut rather a problem for the psychologist, educational theorist, or sociologist. Sentences are placed “in the hands of technical experts whose special sciences do not even employ such categories as rights or justice.” Perhaps these experts will have good intentions, but even if they do, they could still prove cruel rulers: “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”

Lewis’s most incisive description of how education can feed an elitist politics comes in his analysis of what he terms “charientocracy” in the essay “Lilies that Fester.” Lewis coins this term to name an “intolerable” form of government he sees developing from the coalescence of two new social classes. The first consists of “the χαρίεντες, the venustiores, the Hotel de Rambouillet, the Wits, the Polite, the ‘Souls,’ the ‘Apostles,’ the Sensitive, the Cultured, the Integrated, or whatever the latest password may be.” We might think of those who inhabit the upper echelons of academia, the media, entertainment, and business and who pride themselves on their open-mindedness, tolerance, inclusivity, and progressiveness. Charientocracy emerges when these “cultured” merge with the “new, real, ruling class: what has been called the Managerial Class.”

Lewis’s continued popularity rests not only on his ability to tell a good story, though he could certainly do that. He also had a keen nose for the zeitgeist, sensing how the cultural winds were blowing and responding through his writings which, even today, continue to address the concerns of subsequent generations.


In Lewis’s view, education is the vehicle for their merger, because “education is increasingly the means of access to the Managerial Class.” Lewis especially fears the conformism created by this dynamic. Young men and women attend the right schools, get to know the right people, and learn to signal that they hold the right opinions. They make their way into circles of influence “only by becoming, in the modern sense of the word, cultured.” Thus we come to be governed by an educated elite sharing certain experiences and opinions that, in their own eyes, set them apart from the rest of us and give them a claim to govern in the name of their superior expertise and refinement.

Lewis describes the endpoint of these trends in particularly sinister terms in That Hideous Strength, where science and education join forces in an unholy and despotic alliance. In an effort to raise humanity to a new level of perfection and overcome death, N.I.C.E. (the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments) aims explicitly to eliminate the unwashed masses. In public, they conceal their goals behind a fog of propaganda, but in private, they justify those plans by virtue of their ostensible wisdom and expertise. As one of them says early in the novel, a person must be on the side of either “obscurantism or Order.” Humanity finally has the power “to take control of our own destiny. If Science is really given a free hand it can now take over the human race and re-condition it.” Some people, of course, will have to lead the way in this effort. Lord Feverstone (whom readers of Out of the Silent Planet had encountered in that novel under the name Devine) makes this explicit early on as he attempts to recruit a young researcher to the cause: “Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest . . . You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of.”

This is an especially crass and menacing version of the danger. But Lewis’s worry about the marriage of education, influence, and wealth in a new governing class has remarkably contemporary overtones. Scholars as different as Charles Murray on the Right (in his book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010) and Robert Putnam on the Left (in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis) have decried the diverging fortunes of upper- and lower-class Americans. They describe a process fueled by what Murray calls the “college sorting machine,” which brings together smart, talented young men and women who marry, are economically successful, and raise their children in affluent neighborhoods with good schools populated by the children of other similarly successful couples. What emerges is a bifurcated America, in which pockets of highly educated, relatively wealthy, civically active, and intact families exist surrounded bybut rarely interacting withless prosperous neighborhoods that suffer from various forms of social dysfunction, the kinds of left-behind people that J. D. Vance movingly described in Hillbilly Elegy.

There is little doubt that the processes described by Murray and Putnam have fueled the rise of populism on the contemporary Right. Vance himself is a case in point, having successfully run for the Senate on a Trumpist platform. In light of this dynamic, we might wonder what Lewis, the diagnostician of charientocracy, would think of our current political discontents and partisan realignments. Lewis certainly had little patience for those he lampooned as the “cultured,” or indeed for anyone wanting to run other people’s lives. Hostility toward elitist snobbery is strong in his work. But he is not simply a populist. Populists, after all, want not only to drain the swamp but also to reoccupy it. What they fear is not so much the exercise of power as the particular people exercising it. Power should not be checked and balanced but merely put in the hands of those who can be trusted to use it well: the pure, uncorrupted, hard-working but much put-upon demos. One element of this populist resentment is always anti-intellectualism, which today manifests itself in deep skepticism toward higher education, the liberal arts, and especially the humanities.

Lewis was a scholar of English literature who spent his entire adult life at Oxford and Cambridge. His own response to the pretensions of charientocracy was not populist resentment but rather real education. He makes this point in a short essay entitled “Democratic Education.” Here he suggests that genuinely democratic education is not “the education which democrats like, but the education which will preserve democracy.” The former might cloak envy as egalitarianism, objecting to anyone who tries to rise above his station through the pursuit of learning. But a democracy cannot afford to be governed by fools any more than can any other regime. “A truly democratic education,” therefore“one which will preserve democracymust be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly ‘high-brow.’” In order to preserve democracy, it must be “a nursery of those first-class intellects without which neither a democracy nor any other State can thrive.”

This might sound as though Lewis is merely reinstalling charientocracy under a different name. But he is not, as long as we remember two important prerequisites. First, the education he is describing must be genuinely liberal. It is not for those wishing to become “cultured,” but for those who truly love culture. And who love it for its own sake, not for what they think it will get them. Ironically, in targeting liberal education and perhaps especially the humanities, populists feed the very elitism to which they object by ensuring that only the trappings of education will be available, not the real thing, and that even those trappings will be sought only by those who want them for the wrong reasons.

Lewis foresaw and to a degree sympathized with the populist dissatisfaction that is roiling contemporary politics. But he did not share the populist response.


The second prerequisite is political. Lewis envisions a limited state, with modest goals. He writes, “The practical problem of Christian politics is not that of drawing up schemes for a Christian society, but that of living as innocently as we can with unbelieving fellow subjects under unbelieving rulers who will never be perfectly wise and good and who will sometimes be very wicked and very foolish.” When government pitches its claims too high and promises to solve intractable problems caused by fallen human nature, of course, it will attract people who enjoy exercising power over their fellow citizens and who believe their special expertise gives them the right to do so. 

When government scales back its claims, by contrast, the danger is diminished. The state should claim “no more than to be useful or convenient” and set itself “strictly limited objectives. Anything transcendental or spiritual, or even anything very strongly ethical, in its pretensions is dangerous and encourages it to meddle with our private lives.” Drop the pretensions, limit the power, and you reduce the temptation for would-be meddlers.

Lewis foresaw and to a degree sympathized with the populist dissatisfaction that is roiling contemporary politics. But he did not share the populist response. The problem with blending educational elitism and political technocracy is not just that the wrong people are in charge. Lewis proposes an alternative solution that is at once more traditional and more radical. Instead of the pseudo-education of the “cultured,” Lewis calls for real, liberal education. And he counters the narrow expertise of the Managerial Class with a more modest state, offering fewer temptations for the exercise of power. 

At a moment when the values Lewis cherished often seem endangered as much by their supposed friends as by their proclaimed enemies, we would do well to remember his prescriptions.

Image by “Davivd” and licensed via Adobe Stock. Image resized.