The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up: Charientocracy

C.S. Lewis was an acclaimed children’s writer, setting the stage for generations of children’s books that speak in a new way to kids and adults with curious minds. Behind this children’s work was C.S. Lewis’ experience as a teacher of English literature, a writer about the history of literary movements, and a tinker in other forms of fiction. In that tinkering, and in his letters and essays, he didn’t mind creating new turns of phrase. This is the second in a series on words that C.S. Lewis coined. You can read the introduction and the first article on Bulverism here.

Charientocracy (ker-ē-en-tä-krə-sē or kär-en-tä-krə-sē)

C.S. Lewis was one of the earliest users of the word “technocracy”–a word that was important in our thinking about the world wars and more recently in the way that technology seems to be worming its way into our patterns in a deep, deep way. In that WWII context, Lewis is in concerned in The Abolition of Man and in essays about an “omnicompetent global technocracy”:

Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend. Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man (“Is Progress Possible” = “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” responding to C.P. Snow’s “Man in Society”)

This is not Lewis’ only concern about how power operates. Lewis thinks about an “angelocracy,” and in the unfinished, posthumously published “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” talks about theocracy–the idea that God or the gods are truly in power through an individual or a group of people:

Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may, possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations (also in “A Reply to Professor Haldane”)

Lewis repeats the sentiment in “Lilies that Fester,” asserting that:

“All political power is at best a necessary evil: but it is least evil when its sanctions are most modest and commonplace, when it claims no more than to be useful or convenient and sets itself strictly limited objectives. Anything transcendental or spiritual, or even anything very strongly ethical, in its pretensions is dangerous and encourages it to meddle with our private lives.”

In the end, though, Lewis does not think that a theocracy in England is remotely possible. So rather than be concerned with “theocracy,” Lewis is concerned about what he calls “Charientocracy”:

“not the rule of the saints but the rule of the charentes, the venustiores, the Hotel de Rambouillet, the Wits, the Polite, the “Souls,” the “Apostles,” the Sensitive, the Cultured, the Integrated, or whatever the latest password may be” (“Lilies that Fester”).

This may take some explaining, and the meaning might not be certain. Though I would not leave out the possibility that Lewis is making a sardonic pun on the Latin word “caritas” (deep personal love, now called Charity), Charientocracy probably comes from the Greek word for “grace.” Lewis may be using it here as in the higher graces someone in polite society is able to deploy.

We see this from another neologism in the passage, the “Venustiores”—a Latin adjective meaning “the charming ones.” I think “Charentes” probably goes back to Pineau des Charentes, a posh product from a French region that also exports premium cognac. The rest of the words are just names Lewis found lying around for high brow culture. We might add pop culture phrases like the elite, the literati, the cognoscenti, plutarchs, the glitterati, the 1%, or even—depending on how your world works—the people from X Avenue or Club Y. In my area, it vacillates between wealthy folk in Brighton who have political and financial power, and the inside crowd that frequents the farmers market and whose members smell faintly of honey, good earth, and marijuana smoke. One group has the structural power, but the other a kind of social power.

Lewis’ concern was really when those two groups coalesced. It is a bare fact that as older social orders disappear, “we find all sorts of people building themselves into groups within which they can feel superior to the mass; little unofficial, self-appointed aristocracies” (“Lilies that Fester”). When the social elite and the economic elite find each other, Lewis was certain that it would be the end of art, for children would be put to good use in their education. They wouldn’t be allowed to simply discover poetry or play in nature, but would be taught to evaluate it. If Wordsworth were born in this sort of technocratic culture, he would be put to useful writing and may never have found the words that changed the world.

That is Charientocracy, a greater social danger in contemporary post-religious society than theocracy ever could be because it turns the human into a product of a socio-economic machine. The dehumanized person then disappears from the inside out.

It is difficult to imagine that Lewis didn’t have foresight into our own age.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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30 Responses to The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up: Charientocracy

  1. What an informative essay! I tend to agree with Lewis here and enjoyed the playfulness with which he assembled his list of the literati. I am left, as you note, with a word from pop culture. Lewis was clearly not so limited in his choice of language but that should not surprise me. I grew up in a family with little money for the buying of books. I relied on the lical library and the simple library of my village school. I think that this gave me the freedom to play and explore for myself. I interfered far more in the reading habits of my daughters. I tried to hold onto Lewis’s principle of allowing them to discover what they liked rather than what they thought to be socially and culturally acceptable. Both have journeyed into adult life now. The rest is up to them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thanks for this! I just saw someone refer to this as a Lewis coinage the other day in a blog comment somewhere, and did not recognize it, and wondered about it, without going off in pursuit.
    Not surprisingly, Arend Smilde has an interesting bit of glossing – and a fascinating discussion of context and publication history:

    He does not, however, tackle ‘charientocracy’, ‘charentes’, or ‘venustiores’. I like your tying in of Pineau des Charentes!* I take it you derive ‘venustiores’ from ‘venustas’, which the first good Latin dictionary I tried gave a range including charm, attractiveness, lovableness, refinement, and refined humorousness. Looking around in the first good Greek dictionary I tried, ‘chareis’ seemed to overlap with a lot of this, and ‘charientos’ [with omega] with some, too. ‘charizdomai’ [with zeta] is worth a look, too – as are ‘charientizdomai’ [with zeta] and ‘charientismos’: these last two seem narrowed to being (finely) humorous, funny, jokey – and mocking! Having seen those definitions, Dick Devine springs to mind – I think, not inappropriately (though he does not exhaust possible examples). That also makes me think of Lewis’s attention to the attraction of ‘inner rings’.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      *Has a typo crept in, here, though? In the two versions I have, Greek letters are used, and the word includes an iota (with, indeed, an acute accent on it): ‘charientes’.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    From discussing “Theocracy” Lewis moves (as you quote) to “Anything transcendental or spiritual, or even anything very strongly ethical”, and before introducing the term “Charientocracy”, speaks of it as “intolerable in almost the same way” as “Theocracy”. And, when, near the end, he refers to “the point where my objections to Theocracy and Charientocracy are almost identical” he speaks again in terms of high “pretensions”.

    There is an interesting 20th-c. discussion (which I do not sufficiently know my way around) about ‘ersatz religion’ and ‘religion ersatz’, which I do not recall Lewis addressing explicitly. But he does seem attentive to things functioning much like ‘religions’, and having formal features resembling those of religions. (Interestingly, the recent ‘Paris Statement’ with a master imagery that reminds me of the discussion of ‘hauntings’ in chapter 17.4 of That Hideous Strength, includes, “The universalist and universalizing pretensions of the false Europe reveal it to be an ersatz religious enterprise, complete with strong creedal commitments—and anathemas.”)

    But “contemporary post-religious society” is also confronted with technologized self-conscious (competing) ‘theocracies’ (avid for more (weapons) technologies). Lewis imagined something somewhat analogous as having developed in Narnia, most notably in The Last Battle, though there, those ‘at the top’ are cynics using the faith of their populations ‘theocratically’.


    • Can we butcher Anglicized Greek by spelling it theoicracy–pluralizing the “god” rather the rule, emphasizing the disparate kinds of ruling forces we are faced with?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        That’s a good, thought-provoking question! A quick search returns results for ‘polytheocracy’ and ‘monotheocracy’, but (curiously, once you start to think of possibilities?) not ‘henotheocracy’; ‘pseudotheocracy’ seems widely (and variously) represented!

        Your ‘theoicracy’ gets me thinking of Plato’s imagery in The Laws of the ‘divine puppet’ drawn by various and competing chords, including the possibility of following the pull of the ‘golden chord’ (aside: need to reread Bede Griffiths’ The Golden String to see where it may fit in!). This might suggest a ‘theoimachy’ for the ‘-cracy’, but also in practice – even, inescapable – a ‘-cracy’, meanwhile. Lots of interesting Williams thoughts spring to mind here, re. The Place of the Lion, and zodiacal imagery in the Arthurian poetry… But I am drawn by the ‘time-to-cook-dinner’ chord (or ‘godling’?)…


        • With Williams we were close to anarchy under a archetypocracy, I suppose. I had Griffiths out of the library but didn’t get to, and for some reason can’t remember the Plato reference. Probably the -acracies are endless, which is why Lewis equates all of them with theocracy. Later, Foucault will want to use a different term, discourse, talking about how power operates and circulate. His interest isn’t the power at the top, but the millions of little -acracies we create to control everyday life.


  4. wanderwolf says:

    I’m currently teaching a class on mass media and British politics, and your post fits in nicely somewhere in there. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. jubilare says:

    Lewis was nothing if not insightful. Perhaps, sometimes, even prophetic.


  6. L.A. Smith says:

    Fantastic. There is much to ponder here. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    Liked by 1 person

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