C.S. Lewis on Modern Political Mass Excitement



If I wished to satirise the present political order I should borrow for it the name which Punch invented during the first German War: Govertisement. This is a portmanteau word and means ‘government by advertisement’. But my intention is not satiric; I am trying to be objective. The change is this. In all previous ages that I can think of the principal aim of rulers, except at rare and short intervals, was to keep their subjects quiet, to forestall or extinguish widespread excitement and persuade people to attend quietly to their several occupations. And on the whole their subjects agreed with them. They even prayed (in words that sound curiously old-fashioned) to be able to live ‘a peaceable life in all godliness and honesty’ and ‘pass their time in rest and quietness’. But now the organisation of mass excitement seems to be almost the normal organ of political power. We live in an age of ‘appeals’, ‘drives’, and ‘campaigns’. Our rulers have become like schoolmasters and are always demanding ‘keenness’. And you notice that I am guilty of a slight archaism in calling them ‘rulers’. ‘Leaders’ is the modern word. I have suggested elsewhere* that this is a deeply significant change of vocabulary. Our demand upon them has changed no less than theirs on us. For of a ruler one asks justice, incorruption, diligence, perhaps clemency; of a leader, dash, initiative, and (I suppose) what people call ‘magnetism’ or ‘personality’.

Source: From Lewis’ acceptance lecture as chair of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature in Cambridge, a position specifically designed for Lewis. Quoted from ‘Selected Literary Essay’, Cambridge University Press, 2015

*‘New Learning and New Ignorance’, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding Drama, The Oxford History of English Literature, vol. III (Oxford, 1954), p. 50.


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