Nov. 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of three highly influential people: Aldous Huxley, John F. Kennedy and C.S. Lewis. Although Kennedy in his life and especially in his death is the most famous of the trio, all three had an impressive impact during their lives and in the decades since.
Kennedy was a war hero whose family connections, wealth and political aspirations led to holding office in the U.S. House, the Senate and the White House. His assassination at age 46 is considered one of the most memorable moments in 20th century American history. Huxley and Lewis lived into their 60s, didn’t have memorable deaths, and are not as well-known but have arguably had a bigger influence on the world.
Huxley was an author whose most famous novel, “Brave New World,” is routinely rated in the Top 100 of all time. “Brave New World” covers topics from eugenics to euthanasia and a state-enforced class system. George Orwell (“Animal Farm” and “1984”) and Huxley have served as prophets of a technological, totalitarian and bureaucratic society. The thoughts behind these books have influenced generations of readers in a way that is difficult to measure.
Lewis was a literature professor whose prolific writing ranged from academic to popular. He used a wide variety of genres: children’s literature, science fiction, allegory, poetry and non-fiction Christian “apologetics.” His “Chronicles of Narnia” – a seven-book series that combines a children’s story with strong Christian references – has been a staple of family reading for decades, selling more than 100 million copies.
His books on apologetics are more popular than ever. From the “modern” logical approach of “Mere Christianity” to the “post-modern” narrative approach of “The Great Divorce,” Lewis showed remarkable literary range as he tried to make the Christian faith reasonable and compelling for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Lewis’ emphasis on “mere” Christianity is also important focusing on the “mere” essentials of the faith, with its resulting pluralism and strong but broadly defined unity.
As for Kennedy, beyond his status as a historical figure and a cultural touchstone, his political impact was also significant. From one angle, we can see echoes of Kennedy in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Both were effective with television and popular with the general public. And Kennedy’s muscular (if not always effective) anti-communist foreign policy and “supply-side” economics served as precursors to Reagan’s policies.
Kennedy reduced corporate income tax rates and cut personal income tax rates dramatically across the board. (Kennedy reduced the top tax bracket from 91 percent to 70 percent; Reagan then reduced it from 70 percent to 28 percent.) As Reagan, Kennedy noted that in the presence of high tax rates, “the soundest way to raise revenue in the long term is to lower rates.”
Likewise, Kennedy’s most famous inaugural address line – “ask not what your country can do for you” – points to fiscal conservatism and relatively small government, at least by today’s standards. Tellingly, in a December 1958 TV interview, Eleanor Roosevelt said she would do all she could do to prevent a “conservative like Kennedy” from being the party’s nominee.
In these arenas, Kennedy’s distance from the bulk of today’s Democratic Party is noteworthy.
But in other ways, Kennedy was a precursor for those who led the charge for larger government and greater executive branch power. Using techniques made famous by subsequent presidents, JFK (allegedly) got the IRS and the FBI to target and wiretap groups that were hostile to his administration’s goals.
This Nov. 22 we should give consideration to the work of all three men. Kennedy’s short presidency left a mixed legacy. But the lives of Huxley and Lewis have a more enduring legacy that should receive more attention.
Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., is an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast.