C.S. Lewis’s Lesson on Enterprise

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”—C.S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man

Anyone who knows that C.S. Lewis even existed has probably heard this quote before. In fact, there is a pretty good chance they have it listed on their “favorite quotes” on Facebook or have shared it on Twitter recently. It’s very popular. I’ve even discussed it before on this blog, where I explain:

Lewis is making an argument against the intrusion of moral relativism into primary education. He speaks at length to the consequences of the atrophy of the “chest,” where moral principles including “valour and good faith and justice” are fostered. While Lewis is speaking specifically to education, it is just as true that if the government diminishes the fostering of valour and good faith and justice, that it will hollow out society.

As someone who has studied this topic at length and fancies myself as a Lewis fan above the level of just Facebook quoting, I realized that there is a nugget of gold in this quote that for years I have missed.

Usually I read the quote like this: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue.” And then I go on from there. How ironic! How foolish! We all know that virtues and morals are the keystone to a prosperous society. And so on…

But Lewis put this little word in there after “virtue” that changes everything—and. That means it can be read this way as well: “We make men without chests and expect of them enterprise.”

For someone writing for the American Enterprise Institute, this little change knocked me back. I really wish that I could have picked Lewis’s brain over a pint at his favorite Oxford pub on this one.

While there are a few ways to define the word, I particularly like this definition taken from Dictionary.com:

en·ter·prise [en-ter-prahyz] noun: boldness or readiness in undertaking; adventurous spirit; ingenuity.

It is the go-get-’em-ness that makes dedicated students stay up and study, ambitious employees wake up before dawn, and business owners take new risks. Enterprise is the power behind entrepreneurship. It is the energy that drives a free market.

Those at AEI are all pumped up on enterprise at the moment, with the release of AEI President Arthur Brooks’s new book “The Road to Freedom: How to Win the Fight for Free Enterprise.” The whole premise of the book is:

American policy is at a crossroads. Though 70 percent of Americans claim to love American free enterprise, the size and scope of government continues to grow. This is not a result of Americans loving free enterprise nostalgically, as the Left asserts. Rather, America’s slide toward statism is a direct result of limited government advocates failing to make the moral case for free enterprise, leaving citizens with a choice between materialistic, data-driven arguments from the Right and the morally based but failing policies of the Left. Arthur Brooks will argue that humans are inherently moral beings and that the free enterprise system, more than any other system, aligns with the morals and values all of us hold dear.

Is it possible then, as Lewis asserts, that by making men without chests, we make men that are not inherently moral—who are not capable of being enterprising? Men who do not understand the moral urgency of freedom?

Of course, the power of the use of the word and is that it suggests the interdependency of virtue and enterprise. If we continue to make men without chests, not only will we end up with amoral men—traitors, even—but we will end up will a society not capable of engaging a free market.

We will end up with a people who, like Brooks rightly points out, claim to love free enterprise but who will do nothing to defend it. They will be a people lacking the capacity for freedom.

To use another recognizable quote, this one from President Reagan, “We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”

That is, if we can’t teach our children virtue and enterprise.

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