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”)
“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.