I’ve just finished listening to The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis (read wonderfully by Joss Ackland). Some years later Lewis added a sort of postscript known as Screwtape Proposes a Toast. In it through the voice of Screwtape Lewis skewers democracy with prophetic power.
What I want to fix your attention on is the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence – moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” (in the incantatory sense) is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods? You remember how one of the Greek Dictators (they called them “tyrants” then) sent an envoy to another Dictator to ask his advice about the principles of government. The second Dictator led the envoy into a field of grain, and there he snicked off with his cane the top of every stalk that rose an inch or so above the general level. The moral was plain. Allow no preeminence among your subjects. Let no man live who is wiser or better or more famous or even handsomer than the mass. Cut them all down to a level: all slaves, all ciphers, all nobodies. All equals. Thus Tyrants could practise, in a sense, “democracy.” But now “democracy” can do the same work without any tyranny other than her own. No one need now go through the field with a cane. The little stalks will now of themselves bite the tops off the big ones. The big ones are beginning to bite off their own in their desire to Be Like Stalks.
At a similar time to Lewis, Scandinavian author Aksel Sandemose in a fiction book captured the rules by which the Nordic societies operate. It’s known as Jantelagen (the laws of Jante) and is a cause of much debate in Sweden both for and against. There are ten:
- You’re not to think you are anything special.
- You’re not to think you are as good as we are.
- You’re not to think you are smarter than we are.
- You’re not to imagine yourself better than we are.
- You’re not to think you know more than we do.
- You’re not to think you are more important than we are.
- You’re not to think you are good at anything.
- You’re not to laugh at us.
- You’re not to think anyone cares about you.
- You’re not to think you can teach us anything.
What Lewis & Sandemose saw in the relatively early days of modern democracy (not the form of voting but the values of a society) was a tendency to level everybody and everything. They also spotted a politics of envy and resentment which actually lies behind much claim to equality. If you have it, then I should have it too. It’s not fair, it’s not democratic.
The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept. And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority.
Lewis also spotted a snarling attitude towards those that might criticise. It’s almost as if he knew social media was coming.
For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first sign of criticism.
If social media has shown us anything it is how quick people are to snarl at others who they perceive as critics.
* You can read some of the toast here.