A Prophecy of Evil: Tolkien, Lewis, and Technocratic Nihilism
Our most farsighted seers knew the war for humanity had begun
If I’ve been quiet for a good while, it’s mainly because I was pouring almost everything into writing this. It is, I confess, a bit long (though nowhere near as long as that one time…), so click on the title to go to the web version, or read it in the Substack App, if your email client cuts it off. It’s also something a bit different. In fact, despite all attempts at re-writing, I haven’t found any way to put this that isn’t likely make me come off as at least slightly mad. Well, so be it; I think this one is important. You can let me know what you think.
Audio voiceover is located down below the paywall.
Which dystopian writer saw it all coming? Of all the famous authors of the 20th century who crafted worlds meant as warnings, who has proved most prophetic about the afflictions of the 21st? George Orwell? Aldous Huxley? Kurt Vonnegut? Ray Bradbury? Each of these, among others, have proved far too disturbingly prescient about many aspects of our present, as far as I’m concerned. But it could be that none of them were quite as far-sighted as the fairytale spinners.
C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, fast friends and fellow members of the Inklings – the famous club of pioneering fantasy writers at Oxford in the 1930s and 40s – are not typically thought of as “dystopian” authors. They certainly never claimed the title. After all, they wrote tales of fantastical adventure, heroism, and mythology that have delighted children and adults ever since, not prophecies of boots stamping on human faces forever. And yet, their stories and non-fiction essays contain warnings that might have struck more surely to the heart of our emerging 21st century dystopia than any other.
The disenchantment and demoralization of a world produced by the foolishly blinkered “debunkers” of the intelligentsia; the catastrophic corruption of genuine education; the inevitable collapse of dominating ideologies of pure materialist rationalism and progress into pure subjectivity and nihilism; the inherent connection between the loss of any objective value and the emergence of a perverse techno-state obsessively seeking first total control over humanity and then in the end the final abolition of humanity itself… Tolkien and Lewis foresaw all of the darkest winds that now gather in growing intensity today.
But ultimately the shared strength of both authors may have also been something even more straightforward: a willingness to speak plainly and openly about the existence and nature of evil. Mankind, they saw, could not resist opening the door to the dark, even with the best of intentions. And so they offered up a way to resist it.
Subjectivism’s Insidious Seeds
“The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.”
When Lewis delivered this line in a series of February 1943 lectures that would later be published as his short book The Abolition of Man, it must have sounded rather ridiculous. Britain was literally in a war for its survival, its cities being bombed and its soldiers killed in a great struggle with Hitler’s Germany, and Lewis was trying to sound the air-raid siren over an education textbook.
But Lewis was urgent about the danger coming down the road, a menace he saw as just as threatening as Nazism, and in fact deeply intertwined with it, give that:
The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientists in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany. Traditional values are to be ‘debunked’ and mankind to be cut into some fresh shape at will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people…
Unfortunately, as Lewis would later lament, Abolition was “almost totally ignored by the public” at the time. But now that our society seems to be truly well along in the process of self-destruction kicked off by “education in the spirit of The Green Book,” it might be about time we all grasped what he was trying to warn us about.
This “Green Book” that Lewis viewed as such a symbol of menace was his polite pseudonym for a fashionable contemporary English textbook actually titled The Control of Language. This textbook was itself a popularization for children of the trendy new post-modern philosophy of Logical Positivism, as advanced in another book, I.A. Richards’ Principles of Literary Criticism. Logical Positivism saw itself as championing purely objective scientific knowledge, and was determined to prove that all metaphysical priors were not only false but wholly meaningless. In truth, however, it was as Lewis quickly realized actually a philosophy of pure subjectivism – and thus, as we shall see, a sure path straight out into “the complete void.”
In Abolition, Lewis zeros in on one seemingly innocuous passage in The Control of Language to begin illustrating this point. It relates a story told by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which two tourists visit a majestic waterfall. Gazing upon it, one calls it “sublime.” The other says, “Yes, it is pretty.” Coleridge is disgusted by the latter. But, as Lewis recounts, of this story the authors of the textbook merely conclude:
When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… Actually… he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word ‘sublime’, or shortly, I have sublime feelings… This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.
For Lewis, this “momentous little paragraph” contains all the seeds necessary for the destruction of humanity.
“No schoolboy,” Lewis writes, “will be able to resist the suggestion brought to bear upon him by that word only…” He “thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology and politics are all at stake.” For while the authors may “hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him,” in fact, they have put into his mind “an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.”
That controversy is the reality of any objective value independent of the self.
As Lewis argues, the assertion that the waterfall only produces subjective and arbitrary feelings in the viewer is a revolutionary one, because, “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it – believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.” That is, feelings were a response (a fitting or ill-fitting response) to an objective or transcendent reality. To feel awe at something is to recognize the independent existence of a magnificence beyond the subjective interpretation of one’s own head:
The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feelings but feelings of veneration. If This is sublime is to be reduced at all to a statement about the speaker’s feelings, the proper translation would be I have humble feelings… To say that the cataract is sublime means saying that our emotion of humility is appropriate or ordinate to the reality, and thus to speak of something else besides the emotion; just as to say that a shoe fits is to speak not only of shoes but of feet.
This “something else” that exists as a reality independent from and prior to the subjective is what Lewis – drawing deliberately on a non-Christian tradition to point to its universality – labels as the Tao (or “the Way”). The Tao represents an independent reality of values just as concrete as the independent reality of objects.
Much as Alexander Hamilton argued in 1775 that “the sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records,” but “are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the Hand of Divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power,” Lewis is adamant that at least the outlines of the Tao are observable by all those capable of paying attention.
Marshalling an extensive appendix of common traditional moral injunctions from religions and cultures across the world, he argues that it is this reality to which all human morality and ethics, with greater or lesser success, conform. For while the value systems of human societies – or at least, those inherited from before our modern age – might have many outward differences, “what is common to them all is… the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is, and the kind of things we are.”
To rebel against the doctrine of objective value and suggest – as Nietzsche had – that man could piece together or devise his own values from nothing was not only pure arrogance, but in the end impossible:
This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world.
What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess… The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour…
Yet Lewis was indeed concerned that the rebels were in fact near to succeeding, that an idea “swollen to madness” in isolation from the Tao was on the verge of destroying not only itself but the whole of mankind.
When Lewis made a second go at explaining this evil, however, this time in his powerful science fiction novel That Hideous Strength – which he described as “a ‘tall tale’ about devilry” with “a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man” – he chose a different approach. The plot, which involves the inhuman schemes of a shadowy global organization of scientists and bureaucrats called the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), pointedly focuses on the dangers not of radical subjectivism, but of its seeming opposite: the thirst for “pure objectivity” and orderliness. Why? What does this have to do with post-modern subjectivism?
The answer to that reflects Lewis’ true genius. And Tolkien’s.
The Conditioners: Total Objectivity and the Dream of Perfect Order
The character of Sauron, the great villain of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, can seem rather simplistic to the
insufficiently nerdy uninitiated, or at least those who only watch the movies: he’s big and bad, seems to like the color black, and is determined to conquer and do evil stuff for reasons unclear. But in fact Sauron’s motives were deeply thought through by Tolkien (like every aspect of his cosmology), and are significantly more complex than might commonly be assumed.
In the beginning, Sauron was one of the Maiar (angels), and a servant of Aulë, the Valar (demigod or arch-angel) of craftsmanship (similar to the Greek god Hephaestus). Sauron was also a craftsman, whose specialty was knowledge and technics, and for this won great honor and acclaim. But, above all, Tolkien recorded in his notes, “he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction.”
It’s this that drew him to the great Enemy of heaven, the fallen arch-angel Melkor (or Morgoth), whose “will and power… to effect his designs quickly and masterfully” proved irresistible to Sauron. This led to his fall, and his service as Melkor’s greatest lieutenant, assisting his master with all the “deceits of his cunning.”
But even once his master was defeated (captured by the Valar and “cast into the void” beyond the world), leaving Sauron to his own designs, his motives for conquest and domination were, as far as he was concerned, wholly rational. Indeed, he still desired order above all things. “His original desire for order had really envisaged the good estate (especially physical well-being) of his subjects,” and all his “ordering and planning and organization was [intended for] the good of all.” Thus, “He had gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of Earth.” Inevitably, however, in time “his plans, the idea coming from his own isolated mind, became the sole object of his will, and an end, the End, in itself.”
In his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism, the Belgian clinical psychologist Mattias Desmet breaks down how generalized anxiety, often produced in part by overly mechanistic thinking, can lead to a (narcissistic) psychological need to exert more and more control over the external world – and ultimately to the delusional need to control all of reality itself. An individual or society’s “flight into [this delusion’s] false security is a logical consequence of the psychological inability to deal with uncertainty and risk.”
For Sauron, the “confusion” and “friction” he could not tolerate was the product of the unpredictability of the free will of other living beings, and so it was all “the creatures of earth, in their minds and wills, that he desired to dominate.” This led him to forge his own technological devices of total control: the rings of power and the “One Ring to rule them all.” His single-minded need for order – “swollen to madness” in its isolation – had cut him off from humanity, and from the Tao.
Sauron is of course hardly the only one, including in our own world, tempted by the Faustian dream of perfect order and control. Lewis had a name for these would-be Saurons: “The Conditioners.”
To Lewis, the Conditioners are the inevitable product of the ideology of “pure objectivity” promoted by the likes of the authors of the Green Book: the belief – absent the existence of the true objective value of the Tao – that any moral feelings or pangs of conscience are merely subjective experiences and what would today be called “social constructs,” while the real world is purely material, and therefore purely mechanistic. To be “purely objective” is therefore, in this view, to focus only on the material, and dismiss the rest as non-existent.
“For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue,” Lewis writes. “For magic and [today’s] applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious…”
But because in this “objective” view there is nothing whatsoever to separate man from the material of the natural world – nothing that man permanently is – man himself becomes material available to be manipulated and reshaped at will, just as the natural world can be manipulated and reshaped. And while it “is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will,” Lewis warns that indeed, “if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be…”
In such a world, in which techniques of technological control must come to be applied to man just as they are applied to tree or iron, it is not “Mankind” as a whole that will gain such power. Rather, inevitably, “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases” means in truth “the power of some men to make other men what they please.”
And if, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument,” then ultimately:
Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundred men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.
How these “few hundred men” might behave is the subject at the heart of Lewis’ vastly underrated novel That Hideous Strength, which revolves around the National Institute of Co-Ordinated Experiments – essentially a huge NGO of scientists, sociologists, and other assorted “expert planners” that has managed to secure near total freedom of operations in Britain by arguing that the advancement of national and human progress and wellbeing require it be granted complete license to conduct “efficient” scientific research and experiments in social engineering and technocratic governance.
The novel follows the story’s protagonist, Mark, as he is drawn deeper and deeper into the N.I.C.E. after it arrives to take over his little English college town and build a giant modernist headquarters on top of it. (Simultaneously his wife Jane more wisely embarks on a path in the opposite direction.) Mark is recruited into the N.I.C.E. in part because, as a sociologist, he – unlike the rest of his fellow progressive academics who have campaigned to bring the scientific institution to town – is able to quickly begin to grasp the real implications of the N.I.C.E. Asked what he thinks the organization’s purpose is, he replies that the important thing is not the big research grants or fancy new equipment, but the fact that “it would have its own legal staff and its own police… The real thing is that this time we’re going to get science applied to social problems and backed by the whole force of the state.”
His recruiter, one Lord Feverstone, excitably explains that this is quite right.
“It is the main question at the moment: which side one’s on – obscurantism or Order. It does really look as if we now had the power to dig ourselves in as a species for a pretty staggering period, to take control of our own destiny. IF Science is really given a free hand it can now take over the human race and re-condition it: make man a really efficient animal.”
And this means that, as he points out to Mark in a particularly telling exchange:
“Man has got to take charge of Man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest – which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of. Quite.”
“What sort of thing have you in mind?”
“Quite simple and obvious things, at first – sterilization of the unfit, liquidation of backwards races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education. By real education I mean one that has no ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ nonsense. A real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it. Of course, it’ll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we’ll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain…”
“But this is stupendous, Feverstone.”
“It’s the real thing at last. A new type of man: and it’s people like you who’ve got to begin to make him.”
This passage hints at Lewis’ greatest fear. So far human nature had proved itself impervious to change, no matter how strenuous the attempts at new “education,” thus making complete conditioning impossible (and so eventually bringing down every totalitarian scheme attempted). But as he writes in Abolition, in the future, with sufficient force and cunning, the power of technological control might conquer even this last fortress of humanity:
Hitherto the plans of the educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted… But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.
If the Conditioners can succeed in this, there is no doubt they would then seek to “optimize” not only the physical nature of man, but his values – to craft a simulacrum of “better,” artificial ones for the new man, beyond the Tao. At this point, why shouldn’t they attempt to do so?
Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education. The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given. They have surrendered – like electricity: it is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above. For we are assuming the last stage of Man’s struggle with Nature...
But one great question yet remains: from what source will these new values come? The Conditioners will have freed themselves from the confines of the Tao; but, unconstrained and untethered from any lodestar of fixed value, what then will be their purpose? What will motivate them? Will they even know? “Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man,” Lewis predicted. “The battle will then be won… But who, precisely, will have won it?”
Man and God at the N.I.C.E.
One powerful literary device of That Hideous Strength is that Mark’s journey takes him, a bit like Dante, through circle after circle of what he falsely believes, each time, to be the true inner circle of the N.I.C.E., each time moving one layer closer to the horrible truth (or anti-truth) of its real motives.
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