C.S. Lewis on the purpose of collective action

From C.S. Lewis’ lecture “Membership,” as it appears in The Weight of Glory:

The secular community, since it exists for a natural good and not for our supernatural, has no higher end than to facilitate and safeguard the family, and friendship, and solitude. To be happy at home, said Johnson, is the end of all human endeavour. As long as we are thinking only of natural values we must say that the sun looks down on nothing half so good as a household laughing together over a meal, or two friends talking over a pint of beer, or a man alone reading a book that interests him; and that all economies, politics, laws, armies, and institutions, save insofar as they prolong and multiply such scenes, are a mere ploughing the sand and sowing the ocean, a meaningless vanity and vexation of spirit. Collective activities are, of course, necessary, but this is the end to which they are necessary. Great sacrifices of this private happiness by those who have it may be necessary in order that it may be more widely distributed. All may have to be a little hungry in order that none may starve. But do not let us mistake necessary evils for good. The mistake is easily made. Fruit has to be tinned if it is to be transported and has to lose thereby some of its good qualities. But one meets people who have learned actually to prefer the tinned fruit to the fresh. A sick society must think much about politics as a sick man must think much about his digestion; to ignore the subject may be fatal cowardice for the one as for the other. But if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind–if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else–then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease. (161-162)

One of the key distinctions that Lewis makes in the lecture is that to be a member originally meant being like an organ in a body, not exactly like all of the other members. Modern mass societies and groups operate in a very different way.

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