Monday, April 4, 2016

The Fatal Charm of National Repentance

Men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable.  But what actually the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that.  England is not a natural agent, but a civil society.  When we speak of England's actions we mean the actions of the British Government.  The young man who is called upon to repent of England's foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbour; for a Foreign Secretary or a Cabinet Minister is certainly a neighbour.  And repentance presupposes condemnation.  The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing--but, first, of denouncing--the conduct of others.  If it were clear to the young penitent that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity.  Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature.  By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not 'they' but 'we'.  And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, a Government which is called 'we' is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice.  You can say anything you please about it.  You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practicing contrition.  ~C.S. Lewis, "Dangers of National Repentance"  


  1. Thank you for an excellent passage from Lewis that I had not encountered before. Yet another reason (if I needed one!) why I will remain of the opinion that the British Empire was - overall - a qualified force for good.

  2. "It is with deep grief I watch the clattering down of the British Empire with all its glories and all the services it has rendered to mankind."

    "If the British Empire is fated to pass from life into history, we must hope it will not be by the slow process of dispersion and decay, but in some supreme exertion for freedom, for right and for truth." Winston Churchill