Wednesday, April 14, 2010

C. S. Lewis on the Implications of the Nazi Holocaust

In his essay "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State," C. S. Lewis took a view that most people would associate with Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, as to the modern shift in regarding criminal punishment as no longer a debt paid to society as a matter of justice, but as a means of curing the patient of his pathological tendencies toward crime. Like Foucault, Lewis saw this shift in very negative terms as a direct assault on personal freedom, one that granted governments the power not only to enforce laws, but to reshape man in whatever image best suited to the interests of the State. Lewis goes further, by arguing that the modern view of crime was a necessary component in allowing the Holocaust to happen:

I will mention the trainloads of Jews delivered at the German gas-chambers. It seems shocking to suggest a common element, but I think one exists. On the humanitarian view all crime is pathological; it demands not retributive punishment but cure. This separates the criminal's treatment from the concepts of justice and desert; a 'just cure' is meaningless.

On the old view public opinion might protest against a punishment (it protested against our old penal code) as excessive, more than the man 'deserved'; an ethical question on which anyone might have an opinion. But a remedial treatment can be judged only by the probability of its success; a technical question on which only experts can speak.

Thus the criminal ceases to be a person, a subject of rights and duties, and becomes merely an object on which society can work. And this is, in principle, how Hitler treated the Jews. They were objects; killed not for ill desert but because, on his theories, they were a disease in society. If society can mend, remake, and unmake men at its pleasure, its pleasure may, of course, be humane or homicidal. The difference is important. But, either way, rulers have become owners. Observe how the 'humane' attitude to crime could operate. If crimes are diseases, why should diseases be treated differently from crimes? And who but the experts can define disease? One school of psychology regards my religion as a neurosis. If this neurosis ever becomes inconvenient to Government, what is to prevent my being subjected to a compulsory 'cure'? It may be painful; treatments sometimes are. But it will be no use asking, 'What have I done to deserve this?' The Straightener will reply: 'But, my dear fellow, no one's blaming you. We no longer believe in retributive justice. We're healing you.'

I take a similar attitude when teaching about the Nazis. The popular view of the Nazis as people motivated by hate, with the obvious liberal lesson of tolerance, misses the point. The Nazi leadership, by and large, particularly those directly involved in the Final Solution, was dominated by perfectly sane, reasonable and rational people. They simply believed that the world would be a better place without any Jews in it. The Jew was suffering from a disease; since the disease, in practice, could not be cured, Jews themselves would have to go. From their perspective, those who planned the Final Solution were humanitarians, taking upon themselves the morally difficult task that other people would be too squeamish to carry out themselves. Reading up on Adolf Eichmann for example, I never got the sense that he hated Jews in any conventional sense. Can anyone conceive of Eichmann losing control and going on a Hitler-like rant about the evils of the Jews? Eichmann was a highly intelligent, rational person, committed to duty, whose reading of the modern situation, Kant and Jewish literature led him to the conclusion that Jews needed to be removed, nothing personal.


Chris said...

"one that granted governments the power not only to enforce laws, but to reshape man in whatever image best suited to the interests of the State."

As a voluntary member of the State, should we not be required to, at least in some aspects, be willing to conform to what the State says is the right way to act? And if we do not conform, then should the State not be able to "treat" you in whichever way they please? Granted, this makes more sense, at least in a humanitarian sense in our democratic system where the people are the State (at least in theory), and less so where the State is one person.

Izgad said...

Our being subjects of the State is less than completely voluntary, particularly if we are born and raised in the State. Not causing direct physical harm to other people without their consent is one thing. Why should the State have any more power than that? Being a democracy does not really improve things in this regard. The masses are just as desirous of exercising tyrannical power as any autocrat. In fact, as J. S. Mill argued, the democratic masses are even more dangerous since there is less standing in their way.

Clarissa said...

Are you a follower of Hannah Arendt, then? I'm reading her right now and some things you say sound familiar from her writings.

Izgad said...

I certainly had Arendt and her Eichmann in Jerusalem in mind when writing this post. I got into Arendt a few years ago as part of a research project I was doing as a summer job for a professor. I am still trying to figure out what I actually think of her on various issues. She certainly has been a big influence on my thinking, but I am not certain I wish to call myself a follower of hers. Have you read her debate with Gershom Scholem over Eichmann?

Clarissa said...

Yes, I have. And I find it difficult to accept fully either position. I really disagree with Scholem on Benjamin but his idea of Jewish solidarity has something very attractive to me. On the other hand, I admire Arendt's honesty and the courage of her opinions. So I'm really torn. I need to keep reading.