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.
He begins as a young member of the “Progressive Element” among his university faculty, who believe their oh so clever schemes to out-maneuver their concerned “reactionary” colleagues with clever rhetoric and bureaucratic manipulation have secured the N.I.C.E.’s blessings of rich funding and international status. These they do not receive.
Mark’s own motivations for joining the institute, when asked, are basically the simplistic cant of longtermist Effective Altruism (although that particular iteration of the cult hadn’t been invented yet): “Oh, I haven’t any doubt which is my side… Hang it all – the preservation of the human race – it’s a pretty rock-bottom obligation.” He believes the accelerated scientific and social progress offered by the N.I.C.E. is necessary to ensure human adaptation and survival, justifying any short-term collateral damage.
His motivations are the more mild and less honest echo of another, more ambitious member of the N.I.C.E., Dr. Edward Weston, a physicist and aerospace engineer who sees humanity’s destiny, under the tutelage of the N.I.C.E., as the conquest of the stars: “to march on, step by step, superseding, where necessary, the lower forms of life that we find, claiming planet after planet, system after system, till our posterity – whatever strange form and yet unguessed mentality they might have assumed – dwell in the universe wherever the universe is habitable.” For him it is only in evolutionary life itself that a vitalist force of energy and meaning resides: “She has ruthlessly broken down all obstacles and liquidated all failures and to-day in her highest form – civilised man – and in me as his representative, she presses forward to that interplanetary leap which will, perhaps, place her forever beyond the reach of death.” In his own way, Elon... er, Edward Weston embodies the Faustian self-belief characteristic of Western Man since the days of Virgil’s Rome:
On them I set no limits, space or time:
I have granted them power, empire without end.
As Mark advances closer to the center of the N.I.C.E. the motivations he encounters continue to grow progressively more twisted. There is the preening and politically-connected Lord Feverstone, who, as described above, sees the majority of mankind as natural slaves to the brilliant and powerful, fit only to be cleverly bred and conditioned as required by their betters in the N.I.C.E. But he, it turns out, does not have the high leadership position in the organization that he thinks he has – there are still darker motivations at work.
The inner ring of men at the N.I.C.E. are a tiny group of scientists working on a project that none of the others know about. One of them is an Italian, Dr. Filostrato, who eventually brings Mark into his confidence.
When Mark meets him one day, Filostrato has tellingly “just given orders for the cutting down of some fine beech trees in the grounds,” and reveals he dreams of replacing them with a “perfected” version, “Light, made of aluminium. So natural, it would even deceive.” When it is suggested that these “would hardly be the same as a real tree,” he argues that’s exactly right:
"But consider the advantages! You get tired of him in one place: two workmen carry him somewhere else: wherever you please. It never dies. No leaves to fall, no twigs, no birds building nests, no muck and mess."
"I suppose one or two, as curiosities, might be rather amusing."
"Why one or two? At present, I allow, we must have forest for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet."
"Do you mean," put in a man called Gould, "that we are to have no vegetation at all?"
"Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet."
"I wonder what the birds will make of it?"
"I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt."
"It sounds," said Mark, "like abolishing pretty well all organic life."
"And why not? It is simple hygiene. Listen, my friends. If you pick up some rotten thing and find this organic life crawling over it, do you not say, 'Oh, the horrid thing. It is alive,' and then drop it?"
Filostrato’s disgust with the disorder of organic being surpasses even Sauron’s. When asked what this sentiment is supposed to mean for mankind, given that, “After all we are organisms ourselves,” his reply is that:
“That is the point. In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it. We do not want the world any longer furred over with organic life, like what you call the blue mould – all sprouting and budding and breeding and decaying. We must get rid of it. By little and little, of course; slowly we learn how. Learn to make our brains live with less and less body: learn to build our bodies directly with chemicals, no longer have to stuff them full of dead brutes and weeds. Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation.”
He then tells Mark a story about an alien species living hidden on the moon, the strength and beauty of which he says is that:
“They do not need to be born and breed and die; only their common people, their canaglia do that. The Masters live on. They retain their intelligence: they can keep it artificially alive after the organic body has been dispensed with – a miracle of applied biochemistry. They do not need organic food. You understand? They are almost free of Nature, attached to her only by the thinnest, finest cord.”
To make sure Mark understands, he assures him that:
“I speak only to inspire you. I speak that you may know what can be done: what shall be done here. This Institute – Dio meo, it is for something better than housing and vaccinations and faster trains and curing the people of cancer. It is for the conquest of death: or for the conquest of organic life, if you prefer. They are the same thing. It is to bring out of that cocoon of organic life which sheltered the babyhood of Mind the New Man, the man who will not die, the artificial man, free from Nature. Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by, now we kick her away.”
Filostrato is what we would now call a transhumanist. He is not, like Feverstone, satisfied with merely breeding and conditioning a new man – he intends to build one.
But even this, it turns out, is still only half the story of what he and his colleagues are up to. When Mark is finally inducted into the innermost sanctum of the N.I.C.E. (a laboratory clean room, naturally), he is introduced to the Head of the institute – literally a decapitated head, swollen to monstrous proportions with extra brain matter and kept alive by a series of tubes and mechanical devices. In a rasping and tortured voice, it delivers inscrutable commandments to its devoted minions. Apparently, the new, artificial man has already been constructed, and has been set as the idol at the pinnacle of the organization.
Now knowing what their higher object is, Mark asks the head scientists, Filostrato and – appropriately – an ex-priest named the Reverend Straik, who it is that will be granted this power over death.
"At first, of course," said Filostrato, "the power will be confined to a number – a small number – of individual men. Those who are selected for eternal life."
"And you mean," said Mark, "it will then be extended to all men?"
"No," said Filostrato. "I mean it will then be reduced to one man”… “It is not Man who will be omnipotent, it is some one man, some immortal man. Alcasan, our Head, is the first sketch of it. The completed product may be someone else. It may be you. It may be me."
Still, Mark does not fully understand. So they explain:
"But it is very easy," said Filostrato. "We have found how to make a dead man live. He was a wise man even in his natural life. He live now forever: he get wiser. Later, we make them live better – for at present, one must concede, this second life is probably not very agreeable to him who has it. You see? Later we make it pleasant for some – perhaps not so pleasant for others. For we can make the dead live whether they wish it or not. He who shall be finally king of the universe can give this life to whom he pleases. They cannot refuse the little present."
"And so," said Straik, "the lessons you learned at your mother's knee return. God will have power to give eternal reward and eternal punishment."
"God?" said Mark. "How does He come into it? I don't believe in God."
"But, my friend," said Filostrato, "does it follow that because there was no God in the past that there will be no God also in the future?"
"Don't you see," said Straik, "that we are offering you the unspeakable glory of being present at the creation of God Almighty? Here, in this house, you shall meet the first draught of the real God. It is a man – or a being made by man – who will finally ascend the throne of the universe. And rule forever."
Here then is the dream of “total objectivity” crystalized in full bloom: to build an all-calculating, all-knowing, all-powerful god from the material of man, freed by Promethean power from all mortal limits… Not for nothing is the title of That Hideous Strength taken from lines of the Renaissance poet David Lyndsay that describe “The shadow of that hyddeous strength” the Tower of Babel.
Yet even now Mark has not reached the true “inner circle” of the N.I.C.E. For these mortal fools who think themselves to be as gods are merely “dupes” who know not what they do.
Into the Complete Void
Again: what can possibly drive the Conditioners once they have stepped at last completely outside of the Tao? If they have no fixed values, what is to impel them to care at all about the future of humanity, or even themselves?
True, “For a time, perhaps by survivals, within their own minds, of the old ‘natural’ Tao,” they may continue on much as before, Lewis mused. “Thus at first they may look upon themselves as servants and guardians of humanity and conceive that they have a ‘duty’ to do it ‘good’.” But, “it is only by confusion that they can remain in this state.”
“Their duty? But that is only the Tao, which they may decide to impose on us, but which cannot be valid for them… The preservation of the species? But why should the species be preserved?”
No, there is no rational cause for them to act one way or another. Indeed:
However far they go back, or down, they can find no ground to stand on… It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void.
The Conditioners (and thus the conditioned) have left behind all that makes us uniquely human, and so: “Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”
Yet even in this state – even in the void – “the Conditioners will act,” Lewis writes, for:
When I said just now that all motives fail them, I should have said all motives except one. All motives that claim any validity other than that of their felt emotional weight at a given moment have failed them. Everything except the sic volo, sic jubeo [thus I will, thus I command] has been explained away. But what never claimed objectivity cannot be destroyed by subjectivism… When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.
Unlike the reason of the mind or a belief in objective value, the force of mere appetite “cannot be exploded or ‘seen through’ because it never had any pretentions.” The Conditioners will therefore “come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure.” Ultimately, “those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.” And so, “Their extreme rationalism, by ‘seeing through’ all ‘rational’ motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behaviour.”
Here then is one of the most brilliant and important points that Lewis produced: starting from the insistent attempt at pure objectivism we arrive at pure subjectivism. From Modernity, we derive Post-Modernity. From the Goddess of Reason we receive the Marquis de Sade.
In That Hideous Strength this paradox is vividly embodied by the only two characters actually “initiated” into the real inner circle of the N.I.C.E., Drs. Wither and Frost.
Wither, a true subjectivist, is a “shapeless ruin” of a man whose mind never seems to be all there. No information good or bad seems to really move him. In fact, we find out, “It could not, because he had long ceased to believe in knowledge itself.” Unable to accept the suffering or messiness of the world, “He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth,” and succeeded.
What had been in his far-off youth a merely aesthetic repugnance to realities that were crude or vulgar, had deepened and darkened, year after year, into a fixed refusal of everything that was in any degree other than himself. He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void…
But Frost, “a hard, bright, little needle” who strives for pure, emotionless objectivity, fares no better. Having reasoned his way to the conclusion that men are mere machines, he wrestles with the mystery of consciousness and meaning, and finally concludes that it is only a false projection – and a torment:
For many years he had theoretically believed that all which appears in the mind as motive or intention is merely a by-product of what the body is doing. But for the last year or so – since he had been initiated – he had begun to taste as fact what he had long held as theory. Increasingly, his actions had been without motive. He did this and that, he said thus and thus, and did not know why. His mind was a mere spectator. He could not understand why that spectator should exist at all. He resented its existence, even while assuring himself that resentment also was merely a chemical phenomenon. The nearest thing to a human passion which still existed in him was a sort of cold fury against all who believed in the mind. There was no tolerating such an illusion! There were not, and must not be, such things as men.
Each had inexorably reached the same end of their two different roads: pure nihilism.
In the plot of the novel, both men did find something in the void: they had surrendered to what is most simply described as demonic possession, and are now tools in a cosmic war that even the senior officers of the N.I.C.E. do not know of and would not be capable of understanding if they did. (Even Filostrato is shocked to eventually discover that the Head is animated not by his chemicals and wires, but by something else entirely.) The real goals of the N.I.C.E.’s leaders are in the end far more genocidally destructive than even they can conceive.
This plot point of possession is in part a metaphor for the surrender of reason to the irrationality of the appetites that Lewis predicts. But of course in part it also isn’t a metaphor at all. Lewis – and Tolkien – are emphatic about the nature of evil, and its deep connection to nihilism.
Frost’s resentment of existence, his “cold fury” that there “were not, and must not be, such things as men,” partly reflects Lewis’ expectation that without any values the Conditioners would be trapped in the torment of a meaningless existence. The ability of men to, by free will, choose virtue and embrace meaning in life would only infuriate them. And, “Though regarding as an illusion the artificial conscience which they [aim to] produce in us their subjects, they will yet perceive that [even] it creates in us an illusion of meaning for our lives which compares favourably with the futility of their own: and they will envy us as eunuchs envy men.”
“I am inclined to think,” Lewis warns, “that the Conditioners will hate the conditioned.”
But Frost’s anti-human resentment also represents a fall into the abyss of an even deeper hatred that lurks behind and beyond the conscious ambitions of the Conditioners. As perhaps best expressed in the work of Tolkien (though Lewis shared the view), the endpoint for the subjectivism of a true nihilist is a hatred of all creation. Conditioning life becomes insufficient. Being itself becomes an affront. Nothingness becomes justice.
In Tolkien’s telling, Melkor (the master of that other dupe, Sauron) desired control over not only the actions of living beings, but over the power of creation itself, which he lacked. Out of envy for this power, at the moment of the creation of the world he rebelled against God (or rather Eru Ilúvatar), the only one to possess the “Flame Imperishable,” or the ability to create genuine life and reality. Although he attempted to create things of his own, he could not; he could only corrupt that which had already been created. “Evil is fissiparous. But itself barren. Melkor could not beget,” Tolkien explained, reflecting the theological definition of evil that he and Lewis drew from Augustine: that evil is not quite a thing in and of itself, but an absence of or falling away from the goodness of creation (as made possible by free will). Evil by nature cannot create, only pervert, damage, or destroy.
So it is by the corrupting disorder willed by Melkor that “evil things appeared in Arda [the world]” during its creation, but they “did not descend from any direct plan or vision of Melkor: they were not his children; and therefore, since all evil hates, hated him too.” His desire to be a Gnostic-style demiurge unfulfilled, in defiance he set out to foil all that Eru and his Valar created; wheresoever they threw up mountains, he willed them thrown down again; where they created sentient life, he corrupted it – out of the elves, he twisted life into orcs; out of ents, trolls. But ultimately he could never be satisfied: his evil could never master the universe; the very matter of reality could only ever be the product of Eru’s creation. So Melkor’s hatred came to extend to all existence – he became negation, pure nihilism, a symbol of evil in its rawest form.
It’s an evil that doesn’t stay confined to fairytales.
Before he walked into an elementary school and shot 20 children and 6 adults (and then himself) to death on December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza explained his motivating philosophy in a series of YouTube videos on “antinatalism.” In them he described having developed “an immense hatred for culture” and its values. He had discovered, he said, that “absolutely everything about those things that appealed to me was entirely a consequence of my cultural infection. Formerly, I had rejected some aspects of culture while accepting other ones and merely not calling them ‘cultural’, as if those values were somehow transcendent and mine.”
And from this he eventually concluded “that there is no such thing as an inner self. Any sense of self is a delusional cultural construct.” While at first he had thought that perhaps “happiness could be attained if culture could theoretically be eradicated and if anarcho-primitivism were to take hold,” in time he came to believe that, “Happiness is merely the fulfillment of value. I recognized that if cultural values were eliminated, the happiness which results from their fulfillment would not be needed.” Soon, he said:
I realized that I could eliminate non-base values and have no need for the happiness which resulted from their fulfillment, I could eliminate base values and have no need for the happiness which resulted from their fulfillment. It was not only the disease of culture that had been plaguing me all along. It was the disease of life itself.
And yet he insisted that he was “not in some existential crisis,” since he had “never had the slightest problem with the obvious non-existence of free will, objective purposes, and all that. I have always been entirely psychologically capable of accepting my own subjective values and goals, even though I know that they are consummately inconsequential.” Rather, he claimed:
The problem is not that I seek meaning and cannot find it. The problem is that I do feel immense meaning, and so does everyone else who is alive. Meaning is an abstract interpretation of value, which exists only because of life. Just as I sought to eradicate the delusional values which culture infected me with, the final solution is the termination of my life, to rid myself of all value… Life is what originally caused me to have value, and changing my life will never do anything but create different delusions than the ones I already have. Unfortunately, as of right now I lack the discipline to commit suicide, and to rid myself of the values which delude me, even though I recognize the solution to life is death. But I do commend others who commit suicide. They have freed themselves from culture, life and all value. They have freed themselves from themselves.
Adam Lanza did not slaughter children because he was the straightforwardly raging lunatic he was often subsequently portrayed to be in news reports. He killed them because he had, like Frost, coldly reasoned his way into a furious hatred and resentment of all inherent value and meaning, believing it was a subjective illusion, and from there to a hatred of all sentient human life born into the universe. He had stepped outside of the Tao and into the complete void. In other words he was – like almost every school shooter – possessed by the evil of nihilism.
But killers like Lanza represent only the most extreme, concentrated form of the anti-humanism now seeping through our society today. Such is the inevitable end result of subjectivism. Our humanity is inseparable from objective value. It is only, as Lewis put it, “In the Tao itself, as long as we remain within it, [that] we find the concrete reality in which to participate is to be truly human.”
In our hearts, we know this implicitly. To believe otherwise requires the acceptance of a lie.
The Normal and the Lie
Mark first embarks on a redemptive awakening during an N.I.C.E. business trip to a pleasant little English country village. A dam must be built, a river diverted, the village destroyed; hence a report must be written, a “fact-finding” mission dispatched to turn up evidence that the place is “insanitary” and filled with “undesirable elements” like the English farmer (“The Institute doesn’t approve of him. He’s a very recalcitrant element in a planned community, and he’s always backward. We’re not going in for English agriculture.”)
But on his road trip Mark finds himself having the odd experience of enjoying it:
‘How nice it is!’ said Mark to himself next morning as the car left the main road at Duke’s Eaton and began descending the bumpy little lane into the long valley where [the village of] Cure Hardy lay. Mark was not as a rule very sensitive to beauty, but Jane and his love for Jane had already awakened him a little in this respect. Perhaps the winter morning sunlight affected him all the more because he had never been taught to regard it as specially beautiful and it therefore worked on his senses without interference. The earth and sky had the look of things recently washed. The brown fields looked as if they would be good to eat, and those in grass set off the curves of the little hills as close-clipped hair sets off the body of a horse. The sky looked further away than usual, but also clearer, so that the long slender streaks of cloud (dark slate colour against the pale blue) had edges as clear as if they were cut out of cardboard. Every little copse was black and bristling as a hairbrush, and when the car stopped in Cure Hardy itself the silence that followed the turning off of the engine was filled with the noise of rooks that seemed to be calling, ‘Wake! Wake!’
‘Bloody awful noise those birds make,’ said [his partner] Cosser. ‘Got your map? Now…’ He plunged at once into business. They walked about that village for two hours and saw with their own eyes all the abuses and anachronisms they came to destroy… [But] It did not quite escape him that the face of the backward labourer was rather more interesting than Cosser’s and his voice a great deal more pleasing to the ear.
“All this did not in the least influence his sociological convictions,” for the time being, however, as:
Even if he had been free from [the N.I.C.E] and wholly unambitious, it could not have done so, for his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman or farmer’s boy, was the shadow. Though he had never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as ‘man’ or ‘woman’. He preferred to write about ‘vocational groups’, ‘elements’, ‘classes’ and ‘populations’: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen. And yet, he could not help rather liking this village.
It is Mark’s first fleeting experience since his youth of feeling an appreciation for the commonly human, the natural, the Normal.
If there is any Tao (objective values or base truths that do not change based on our feelings and opinions) then there must be a Normal, a proper and right ordering of things. Indeed the Normal and the Tao are the same thing. To be able to discern this Normal is to be able to exercise what we call “common sense,” or what the Greeks called phronesis, or practical wisdom: to be able to know and choose – or at least be drawn toward – the good, the true, and the beautiful by experienced instinct. And to be able to recognize through the same cultivated moral instinct when someone or something has departed from the Tao.
Therefore the first step to degrade the Tao must be to sever man from his common sense by undermining the very idea of the Normal – or, even better, to successfully deny its existence entirely. To do this (to break the human moral and aesthetic instinct) requires a form of re-education or conditioning: a perversion. Originally meaning an “action of turning aside from truth,” or a “corruption [or] distortion,” the word “perversion” derives from the Latin perversionem, “a turning about.” It is an intentional inversion of the Normal.
When Melkor twisted the Elves into Orcs – doing so because, as Frodo memorably put it in The Lord of the Rings, “The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own” – it was as a deliberate perversion, from nobility to savagery.
In Mark’s case, however, it is his latent sense of the Normal compared to the perverted that helps save him from the N.I.C.E. in the end. As Frost and Wither attempt to “initiate” him into their inner circle, Mark is – in a particularly striking chapter – locked inside a bizarre little room that Frost says is part of a process to train him in “total objectivity.” Soon he notices that there seems to be something wrong about the room. It is too narrow and tall. The angles are not even. “A man of trained sensibility would have seen at once that the room was ill proportioned, not grotesquely so but sufficiently to produce dislike.” He finds odd details. The door in lopsided, its arch off- center. The ceiling is painted with markings that appear on first glance to be in a pattern, but on closer inspection are not quite right. “The [whole] thing was near enough to the true to deceive you for a moment and to go on teasing the mind even after the deception had been unmasked. Involuntarily one kept on shifting the head to find positions from which it would look right after all.”
The walls are covered with paintings. At first they all appear ordinary. But on closer inspection there is something wrong in each of them:
There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skilfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel that hair; indeed you could not avoid feeling it however hard you tried. There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly coloured sea beneath a summer sunset. But most of the pictures were not of this kind. At first sight most of them seemed rather ordinary, though Mark was a little surprised at the predominance of scriptural themes. It was only at the second or third glance that one discovered certain unaccountable details – something odd about the positions of the figures' feet or the arrangement of their fingers or the grouping. And who was the person standing between the Christ and the Lazarus? And why were there so many beetles under the table in the Last Supper? What was the curious trick of lighting that made each picture look like something seen in delirium? When once these questions had been raised the apparent ordinariness of the pictures became their supreme menace – like the ominous surface innocence at the beginning of certain dreams. Every fold of drapery, every piece of architecture, had a meaning one could not grasp but which withered the mind. Compared with these the other, surrealistic, pictures were mere foolery. Long ago Mark had read somewhere of "things of that extreme evil which seems innocent to the uninitiate," and had wondered what sort of things they might be. Now he felt he knew.
He realizes what they are trying to do to him: “Frost was not trying to make him insane; at least not in the sense Mark had hitherto given to the word ‘insanity.’ Frost had meant what he said. To sit in the room was the first step towards what Frost called objectivity – the process whereby all specifically human reactions were killed… Higher degrees in the asceticism of anti-nature would doubtless follow: the eating of abominable food, the dabbling in dirt and blood, the ritual performances of calculated obscenities. They were, in a sense, playing quite fair with him – offering him the very same initiation through which they themselves had passed and which had divided them from humanity.”
But, “after an hour or so this long, high coffin of a room began to produce on Mark an effect which his instructor had probably not anticipated”:
The built and painted perversity of this room had the effect of making him aware, as he had never been aware before, of this room's opposite. As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight. Something else – something he vaguely called the "Normal" – apparently existed. He had never thought about it before. But there it was – solid, massive, with a shape of its own, almost like something you could touch, or eat, or fall in love with. It was all mixed up with Jane and fried eggs and soap and sunlight and the rooks cawing at Cure Hardy and the thought that, somewhere outside, daylight was going on at that moment. He was not thinking in moral terms at all; or else (what is much the same thing) he was having his first deeply moral experience. He was choosing a side: the Normal.
Of course it isn’t weirdly proportioned rooms and occult induction rituals that are typically used to pervert an understanding of the Normal. There is a much more convenient avenue available: language. Not only is language – the Word, logos – core to what makes us uniquely human, but it is our foremost means to discern truth. If language is corrupted, then our ability to discern reality, and the Normal, becomes impossible. It is therefore unsurprising that it is language that has in every age been the foremost and most natural target for perversion by the forces of subjectivism.
As Lewis and Tolkien’s friend and fellow Inkling Owen Barfield observed in 1928 (nearly two decades before Orwell made a similar argument):
Of all devices for dragooning the human spirit, the least clumsy is to procure its abortion in the womb of language; and we should recognize, I think that those – and their number is increasing – who are driven by the impulse to reduce the specifically human to a mechanical or animal regularity, will continue to be increasingly irritated by the nature of the mother tongue and make it their point of attack.
As indeed they have.
Confucius (c. 551-479 BC), would certainly have understood this. Asked at one point in the Analects what he would do as his first and most urgent task if appointed governor, he replies that it would be to “rectify names” of things to correspond to reality. Asked how this could possibly be the most important priority during a period of war and famine, he stresses that, “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things,” and, “If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, [any] affairs cannot be carried on to success.” The mythical first sage kings of China were said to have selected names (名) of things that directly corresponded to actuality (實), but over time these names had been replaced or perverted to such a degree that this was no longer the case, and so people could no longer distinguish true from false or right from wrong; the natural results were alternatively chaos or arbitrary tyranny.
Confucius’ contemporary, the classical Greek historian Thucydides, would also have understood. He pointedly described the period of chaotic revolution and bloody conflict he chronicled, and by which eventually “the whole Hellenic world was convulsed,” as characterized by being a time when “Words had to change their ordinary meaning to take that which was now given them” as the men of Greece came to make “[factional] party caprice of the moment their only standard” of truth and honor.
Not coincidentally, the actual role Mark is hired to fill for the N.I.C.E. is not academic sociologist, but propagandist. His job is to write articles selling the public on the institute and its work by systematically changing the meaning of words and events. (“Only for the present, of course,” notes Feverstone. “Once the thing gets doing we shan’t have to bother about the great heart of the British public.”) Appropriation of land is progress; an anti-N.I.C.E protest turned violent (as engineered by the N.I.C.E.) is a dangerous threat to safety and national security; unlimited police powers for the N.I.C.E. are criminal justice reform, etc. As Feverstone explains:
“It does make a difference how things are put. For instance, if it were even whispered that the N.I.C.E. wanted powers to experiment on criminals, you’d have all the old women of both sexes up in arms and yapping about humanity. Call it re-education of the mal-adjusted, and you have them all slobbering with delight that the brutal era of retributive punishment has at last come to an end. Odd thing it is – the word ‘experiment’ is unpopular, but not the word ‘experimental.’ You musn’t experiment on children; but offer the dear little kiddies free education in an experimental school attached to the N.I.C.E. and it’s all correct!”
Tolkien’s villains also, perhaps to an even greater degree, tend to operate by means of lies, distortions, and the manipulation of language, corrupting the spirits of their enemies long before resorting to force. Melkor succeeded in turning the elves to evil through falsehood, earning himself the sobriquet “Master of Lies.” For he had “sent out his spies, and they were clad in false forms and deceit was in their speech; they made lying promises of reward, and with cunning words sought to arouse fear and jealousy among the peoples, accusing their kings and chieftains of greed, and of treachery one to another.” Of these devious agents, it was Sauron who was “the greatest and most trusted of the servants of the Enemy, and the most perilous, for he could assume many forms, and for long if he willed he could still appear noble and beautiful, so as to deceive all but the most wary.”
Later it was again Sauron who brought down the great Atlantis-like kingdom of Númenor, which he infiltrated and corrupted from within as a false prophet. Its people had, in their decadence, become “besotted by the fear of Death,” and were easy prey for his promises of the “everlasting life” they would attain if they wrested it from the hands of the elves and the Valar. This brought about their near total destruction by the Valar, and gained Sauron his former boss’ title of “Master of Lies” from those that remained.
But in The Lord of the Rings itself it is the traitorous wizard Saruman who (along with his slippery servant Wormtongue) best represents the power of words to deceive, seduce, and command. “His knowledge was deep, his thought subtle, and his hands marvelously skilled; and he had a power over the minds of others. The wise he could persuade, and the smaller folk he could daunt.” Saruman’s is a voice described as “low and melodious, its very sound an enchantment.”
Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves. When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast; and if they gainsaid the voice, anger was kindled in the hearts of those under the spell… none were unmoved; none rejected its pleas and its commands without an effort of mind and will, so long as its master had control of it.
Only his fellow wizard Gandalf is able to resist. More than once he must turn down Saruman’s entreaties to consider that there was “Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world.” (“Deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends.”) But even though Gandalf resists all of Saruman’s offers to join his Oligarchic Wizard Technocracy, he admits that it was only because he was long “lulled by the words of Saruman the Wise” that the deceiver’s plots came near to succeeding.
Ultimately Saruman (himself twisted by Sauron) represents the insidiously corrupting forces of chaos and desire that exercise power over men through temptation and lies.
“For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!” ‘I [Gandalf] looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.’
“I like white better,” I said.
“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”
“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
Tolkien and Lewis alike both strongly emphasize the direct connection between the Good and the True. This is of course an old idea. But it interests me, at least, that this is a very old idea indeed – quite possibly one of the oldest ideas recorded by humanity, in fact.
There is of course the Christian conception expressed in the New Testament that Satan is the “father of lies,” while “Belial” (the “Lord of Lies”) and his “sons” repeatedly play havoc on the Israelites throughout the Old Testament by fostering deception, false witness, and betrayal. But the idea may be even older, part of the Chaoskampf – the “struggle against chaos” – that shows up again and again as a near universal feature in human mythology. The god of ancient Persian dualistic theology, Ahura Mazda (the “Lord of Wisdom”), for instance, protects Arta (simultaneously the Truth and the reality of the Universe itself) against not “evil,” per se, but the greatest Enemy of all creation: Drauga, “The Lie” – the force of pure, corrosive chaos that dissolves the world. For a Persian citizen to lie was therefore the most profane of crimes, punishable by death.
Again and again it is the Lie, the Dragon of Chaos, which turns up as the enemy of Man. I suspect Lewis would doubtless explain that the reason this idea is something of a universal in the traditional human experience is straightforward: any conceivable ordered reality – physical or rational or moral – is only possible through unchanging laws; that which is good must conform to this Tao, and so that which is good must by definition first be that which is true. To pervert or obscure the truth of words, or anything which is true, is to attack the Truth writ large, i.e. the Tao, and thus to begin to melt away all solid ground from which any stand at all can be mounted against the encroach of total meaninglessness and total disorder. In the end, no conception of human value – or any fixed truth – can then withstand this assault, and so we abolish ourselves along with our perception of reality, inhumanity triumphs over man, and the void devours.
At the climax of That Hideous Strength, Lewis lets us know us that the masters of the N.I.C.E. had long bided their time, waiting for the moment the perversion of the Lie had succeeded by clever sleight of hand in producing the necessary nihilism out of Reason:
The physical sciences, good and innocent in themselves, had already… begun to be warped, had been subtly manoeuvred in a certain direction. Despair of objective truth had been increasingly insinuated into the scientists; indifference to it, and a concentration upon mere power, had been the result... Dreams of the far future destiny of man were dragging up from its shallow and unquiet grave the old dream of Man as God. The very experiences of the dissecting-room and the pathological laboratory were breeding a conviction that the stifling of all deep-set repugnances was the first essential for progress. And now all this had reached the stage at which its dark contrivers thought they could safely begin to bend it back so that it would meet that other and earlier kind of power. Indeed, they were choosing the first moment at which this could have been done. You could not have done it with nineteenth-century scientists. Their firm objective materialism would have excluded it from their minds; and even if they could have been made to believe, their inherited morality would have kept them from touching dirt… It was different now… What should they find incredible, since they believed no longer in a rational universe? What should they regard as too obscene, since they held that all morality was a mere subjective by-product of the physical and economic situations of men? The time was ripe. From the point of view which is accepted in hell, the whole history of our Earth had led up to this moment.
“We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways. To lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it,” Lewis writes in Abolition after considering the implications of man treating himself, along with all the rest of reality, as raw material to be played with and reshaped at will by those who necessarily can “have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses.” In truth, “It is impossible,” he concludes. There can be only one defense for Man from darkness and domination:
“A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”
Men with Chests
Writing a review of The Lord of the Rings (“here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart”), Lewis sought to defend his friend’s work against “the complaint that the characters are all either black or white.” He pointed out that it should be obvious to any serious reader that, to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, the line between good and evil runs through every hobbit’s heart. And yet it was true that this didn’t mean that black and white were up for subjective interpretation: “‘How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’ asks someone in Volume II. ‘As he ever has judged’, comes the reply. ‘Good and ill have not changed…nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarfs and another among Men.’ This is the basis of the whole Tolkienian world.”
But even if we accept the necessity and continuity of objective values, how are Tolkien’s heroes, or us, to then come to know what those values are? How can we learn to stand within the Tao and thereby uphold humanity and civilization? The answer, for Lewis, comes back again to the essential role of education.
Why did Mark have “his first deeply moral experience” when he was “not thinking in moral terms at all”? Precisely because he was not thinking. The values of the Tao cannot be determined by pure reason alone, and so cannot be discovered merely inside one’s own head. The reason of the intellect cannot by itself produce and provide for virtuous behavior, as:
[N]o justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not [logical] syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest Sentimentalism… about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.
But nor can the Tao be derived from the constantly shifting base emotional appetites of the ‘stomach’. What then can fulfill this role and allow us to judge and act rightly?
We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat… of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.
It is the ‘chest’ (or the heart) that – with the aid of the mind’s reason and the guts’ natural instincts – serves as the metaphorical organ capable of intuiting, resonating with, understanding, and adhering to the Tao. It therefore serves as the necessary intermediary “between cerebral man and visceral man,” and the bulwark against either the cold tyranny of mechanistic rationalism or slavery to the raw emotional chaos of unrestrained desire. Indeed, as far as Lewis is concerned, “It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.”
But, crucially, Lewis argues the chest must be trained, exercised through by right guidance and repeated experience to grow and strengthen in its capacity. Mark, in his near total inexperience, got lucky in recognizing the Normal only through its absence. At its default the chest’s powers of discernment and judgement are typically weak. It must be trained to recognize and practice what “St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris [ordered love], the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it.”
For Lewis, this, more than training the mind’s ability to weigh material facts and calculate data, is the true purpose of education – or as “Aristotle says… the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.”
And in this old way of education the virtues that teachers sought to inculcate in their pupils were derived from the hard won experience of wisdom accumulated by their tradition. They were “prescribed by the Tao” – a “norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart.” They did not try to “cut men to some pattern they had chosen.” Instead they “handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which overarched him and them alike.”
But the “modern” educationalists of Lewis’ day had been busily doing the precise opposite. Seeing “the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda” and believing “all sentiments [to be] equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects,” they had aimed to deconstruct in its entirety all sense and ordinancy of sentiment, and then to tutor in ‘facts’ alone. In this view, “the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world feelings, without one trace of falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible.”
Thus, “The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce Men without Chests.”
Lewis believed this was a huge mistake: “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity… The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”
And of course the propagandist soon did come, in the form of the educators themselves. And so:
Where the old [education] initiated, the new merely ‘conditions’. The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds – making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation – men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.
This turn by society’s teachers was a betrayal of immense magnitude, committed as it was by those whose role was among the most vital to human civilization.
It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment that [they] could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.
This is of course why the N.I.C.E. is symbolically led by a disembodied head. And perhaps why, at the end of the novel, it and the inner circle of the institute are destroyed in an act of divine justice by the forces of nature (in much the same way that Saruman in his wizard’s tower is overthrown by the Ents and the trees). But tellingly, in That Hideous Strength the greatest wrath – a fiery, Sodom and Gomora like destruction – is ultimately reserved not for the N.I.C.E. and its monsters, but for the university and its academics.
When asked if this was not a little “well, wholesale,” if the university really deserved to be destroyed, it is answered that while one might feel a bit sorry for the likes of one Dr. Churchwood – an “old dear” whose lectures were all “devoted to proving the impossibility of ethics, though in private life he'd have walked ten miles rather than leave a penny debt unpaid” – too much sympathy was inappropriate:
“Was there a single doctrine practised at [the N.I.C.E.] which hadn't been preached by some lecturer at Edgestow [College]? Oh, of course, they never thought anyone would act on their theories! No one was more astonished than they when what they'd been talking of for years suddenly took on reality. But it was their own child coming back to them: grown up and unrecognisable, but their own.”
Ideas have consequences. It was the intelligentsia who had opened the door to the abyss and betrayed their charges, and the intelligentsia who justly deserved to pay the price. For their crime was great, and the results dire. And in the real world of a “Men without Chests” that they had created, times seemed doomed to only grow darker as the part of Man capable of spirted resistance to the Wrong and the Lie only grew ever more withered. Or as Lewis wrote in one of his most famous lines:
And all the time [now] – such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible… In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
Lewis’ concern about the proliferation of “Men without chests” isn’t literally referring only to men or masculine virtues, of course. It applies just the same to women. But his warning isn’t entirely not about the typically manly virtues either. There are consequences to gelding.
It’s certainly not a coincidence that the acronym for Lewis’ evil institute spells out the word “nice.” For Lewis, love and kindness are among the highest of virtues. Niceness is not. These are not remotely the same things. Niceness is a perverted inversion of real kindness, in that it is fundamentally self-centered. The objective of niceness is to be liked. True kindness or loving compassion means wanting what is genuinely best for others – not what they necessarily say or even think they want. Niceness is saying what they want to hear, even if it isn’t true; giving them what they demand, even if it’s harmful for themselves or for others.
True kindness must often necessitate saying “no.” It therefore requires a willingness to accept conflict. Niceness avoids conflict in order to continue being liked, always taking what seems like the safest or most socially beneficial course available. Niceness thus often functions as an excuse for moral or physical cowardice.
Niceness cannot therefore be or provide for goodness. Goodness requires resistance to or even conflict with the bad. To not stand up in opposition to the wrong out of a desire to remain safe or liked is not a virtue but a moral failure. And to demand that others “be kind” or nice by saying “yes,” that they not rock the boat and keep things peaceable and accepting, isn’t a sign of virtue, but an exercise of power to intended enforce conformity to a lie.
It is the weakness of Mark’s simpering niceness, more than anything else, that leads him to be drawn into the N.I.C.E. He thirsts for approval and lacks the backbone to ever say no to doing things that deep down he knows to be wrong.
Mark liked to be liked. A snub sent him away dreaming of not revenge but of brilliant jokes or achievements which would one day conquer the good will of the man who had snubbed him. If he were ever cruel it would be downwards, to inferiors and outsiders who solicited his regard, not upwards to those who rejected it. There was a good deal of the spaniel in him.
The N.I.C.E. is able to play him with ease as he is induced to cross one line after another without resistance, until there is no way back out. As one of the heroic figures in the novel, who leaves the institute as soon as he realizes what they’re up to, advises Mark early in the tale: it’s better to be mocked or charged with stubborn unsociability than to always go along to get along. Such a charge, “Doesn’t matter for an old fellow like me… but they could play the devil with you,” he warns. And they do. It is only when Mark faces and accepts what seems likely to be his imminent death that he finally finds the resolve to take a stand.
Sometimes upholding the truth of objective value must bring not peace, but a sword. Saying “no” in defense of the good and the true takes men with chests – and not just in the sense of having the intuition of right and wrong, either. It takes the kind of spirited assertiveness and willingness to upset others that is not associated with geldings. Soft men cannot long walk with the Tao.
This is a core theme found across Lewis’ works. When in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, young Lucy travels to Narnia and first hears about Aslan the lion (and Christ-figure), and asks if, being a lion, he is “quite safe?” the sensibly baffled response she gets is “Safe?... Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Aslan is an embodiment of ultimate virtue. That includes love, but also righteous anger – of Aquinas’ anger in service of proper justice, or Aristotle’s anger “at the right things and towards the right people, and also in the right way, at the right time, and for the right length of time” – and he never hides his powerful capacity for it, or indeed for violence. That he nonetheless consistently chooses to act with mercy and kindness is then a choice made only greater, and truer, by this fact.
‘Terrible paws,’ thought Lucy, ‘if he didn’t know how to velvet them!’
Lacking the strength to ever display forcefulness, even when it is justified or, worse, necessary, is in no way inherent evidence of goodness. It only recalls Nietzsche’s amused quip: “Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.”
Warm and eager was his spirit… for he was the Enemy of Sauron, opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress; but his joy, and his swift wrath, were veiled in garments grey as ash, so that only those that knew him well glimpsed the flame that was within.
Such is the character of Tolkien’s Gandalf, whom he once described as an “angel incarnate,” sent to help the peoples of Middle Earth in their struggle against evil. He bears in secret one of the great rings of power, Narya, the Ring of Fire, the Flame of Anor, made to inspire in others the hope and the will to resist tyranny, domination, and despair, and given to him by an elf-lord so that “with it you may rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill.”
Gandalf’s mission is to overcome Sauron’s technocratic tyranny by cultivating Men with Chests to take up the fight. Above all, he helps even the least of Tolkien’s everyday heroes learn to act with courage. For without such courage there cannot long remain any good of any kind. “Courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues,” as Samuel Johnson once put it, precisely “because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other.”
It is ever thus. In his counter-totalitarian manual Live Not by Lies, the author Rod Dreher recounts the experience of Czech and other Eastern European dissidents who lived under Communist rule and told him that they quickly came to esteem above all others those among their fellow men and women who possessed genuine courage. No other virtue was more valuable in the fight against the regime of lies they faced, nor more rare. No matter their nationality, religion, political leanings, or personal failings, all those who demonstrated real courage were a fellowship of priceless worth.
“I will take the ring,” says Frodo the hobbit to a room full of the mighty, despite “a great dread” and an “overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace.” In order to protect the home he loves, he does not hesitate to accept this duty when it comes to him. And after he and his friends have resolutely borne it to the end, they are not the same in stature when they return.
“I am not coming to the Shire,” Gandalf informs the hobbits as they journey home to with the grim task of “scouring” the touch of evil from the Shire, in what Tolkien considered perhaps the most important chapter of the book.
“You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.”
He is of course correct in his assessment. They find their home beset by a tyrant of its own, who has implemented a regime of fear and paranoia, locked up all the local leaders, and “closed all the inns; and everything except Rules got shorter and shorter, unless one could hide a bit of one’s own when the ruffians went round gathering stuff up ‘for fair distribution’.”
But unlike the ruling-following citizens of the shire, Frodo’s companions are no longer the sort to just be nice and conform:
On every wall there was a notice and a list of Rules. Pippin tore them down.
And when the forces of the law come to arrest them (apologetically: “I am sorry, Mr. Merry, but we have orders”), they have no patience with these subservient agents of the regime:
‘But you can give it up, stop Shirriffing, if it has stopped being a respectable job,’ said Sam.
‘We’re not allowed to,’ said Robin.
‘If I hear not allowed much oftener,’ said Sam, ‘I’m going to get angry.’
And when it is suggested that they just come quietly, “To the discomfiture of the Shirriffs Frodo and his companions all roared with laughter. ‘Don’t be absurd!’ said Frodo. ‘I am going where I please, and in my own time…’”
With the inspiring light of their courage, they free their home in short order. The regime proves no match for hobbits with stout chests, unafraid to boldly fight the unavoidable battles of their time.
The War in Our Time
In September, President Biden signed an executive order committing $2 billion of U.S. government money to help “achieve our societal goals” by funding “high risk, high reward” biotech research to “develop genetic engineering technologies and techniques to be able to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers.”
To program nature as machine. It was only the latest – and indeed not even especially out of the ordinary – step on the long road we’ve all walked since Lewis’ mid-war warning about this coming world of “conditioned human material, the world of post-humanity which, some knowingly and some unknowingly, nearly all men in all nations are at present labouring to produce.”
The would be-Saurons’ old dream of a new, more rational and orderly world, populated by a New Man, has never died – only grown to a strength of more hideous proportions. In her haunting 2021 essay “Everything Is Broken,” Alana Newhouse aptly described our world as one assaulted by an overwhelming flatness, crushed relentlessly and remorselessly into sameness by the gears of globalization, digital technology, and a techno-cultural structure that is constantly “demanding more efficiency and more speed and more boundarylessness, and demanding it everywhere.” The result is a “whole new aesthetic that has come to dominate every aspect of our lives,” characterized by “frictionlessness; surveilled conformism; the allergy to excellence,” seemingly no matter where we seek to flee from it. Already, the happy fields of the Shire seem very far away.
And no longer do the Conditioners feel much need to hide their ambitions, or to shroud them in high ideals. This is the age of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” which, as the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab tells us, will “finally” change “not only what we do but also who we are.” Everything about us, “our sense of privacy, our notions of ownership, our consumption patterns,” is now said to be up for grabs. And this is to put the case in its most mild form.
Top Schwab advisor and Davos-set darling Yuval Noah Harari has been far more direct. He affirms for us that everything we see brewing now, including the “mass surveillance systems established even in democratic countries which previously rejected them”; the governments who want to know “not just where we go, or who we meet,” but “what is happening under our skin”; the “health” justifications that have “convince[d] people to accept, to legitimise, total biometric surveillance” as a part of daily life – all of it is only prelude. “We are basically learning to produce bodies and minds,” he says. “Bodies and minds are going to be, I think the two main products of the next wave of all these changes.”
“Humans are now hackable animals; you know the whole idea that humans have, you know, this… soul or spirit and they have free will and nobody knows what’s happening inside me, so ‘whatever I choose, whether in the election or whether in the supermarket, this is my free will’ – that’s over.”
This is a brave new world which, he is not shy to say, will mean the abolition of Man:
We are probably one of the last generations of homo sapiens, because in the coming generations, we will learn how to engineer bodies and brains and minds. Now how exactly will the future masters of the planet look like? This will be decided by the people who own the data. Science is replacing evolution by natural selection, with evolution by intelligent design. Not the intelligent design of some God above the clouds, but our intelligent design, and the intelligent design of our clouds, the IBM cloud, the Microsoft cloud, these are the new driving forces of evolution. And at the same time, science may enable life, after being confined for 4 billion years to the limited realm of organic compounds, science may enable life to break out into the inorganic realm.
Somewhere in the realm of myth and story, Filostrato weeps sanitized tears of joy.
And while in Lewis’ time it took a possessed Dr. Frost to whisper to Mark that “every advance in industry and agriculture reduces the number of work-people who are required,” and so the world’s “large, unintelligent population is now becoming a dead-weight,” today Harari can muse on stage that “the biggest question in… the coming decades will be what to do with all these useless people?... what to do with them and how will they find some sense of meaning in life, when they are basically meaningless, worthless?”
For Frost and the N.I.C.E. the great unspoken advantage of famines, and plagues, and “scientific war” was “that [only the] scientists have to be reserved,” while the causalities tend to be the likes of “superstitious Bavarian peasants and low-grade Russian agricultural workers.” And if the effect was therefore simply to “eliminate retrogressive types, while sparing the technocracy and increasing its hold upon public affairs,” then there was no reason not to ensure much more of a good thing. So perhaps we should be thankful that Harari’s answer is that “at present” the best solution to the problem of the “useless class” is merely “a combination of drugs and computer games.” Perhaps in their great mercy the Conditioners still yet retain some traces of the Tao.
But then we are only getting started on our journey to Order. “Humans are developing even bigger powers than ever before,” Harari informs us. “We are really acquiring divine powers of creation and destruction. We are really upgrading humans into gods. We are acquiring for instance the power to reengineer life…” Harari, who has created his own “strictly functional” new religion, called Dataism, doesn’t need to specify like Lewis that “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases” really means “the power of some men to make other men what they please,” but only because he hardly needs to anymore. And in any case he’s quite sure that he doesn’t “think that the masses, even if they somehow organise themselves, stand much of a chance,” anyway, since “we are not in Russia of 1917, or in 19th century Europe.” After all, “Once you’re superfluous, you don’t have power.”
Meanwhile, Harari is hardly the only one already eagerly seeking to build new gods. Among the many billionaires funding the gospel of transgenderism today, Martine (formerly Martin) Rothblatt is especially eloquent about the movement’s higher good. In From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto On the Freedom Of Form, Rothblatt points out the obvious: the technology-enabled transformation of the human body by transgenderism is simply “the onramp to transhumanism.”
But even transhumanism is not, cannot be, the logical end of this road. Rothblatt is the enthusiastic evangelist for a new kind of faith: a “transreligion” called Terasem, which “believes we can live joyfully forever” if only we sacrifice our bodies for a digital consciousness – a consciousness that will in time “ultimately connect all consciousness and control the cosmos” for ages unto ages. “We are making God as we are implementing technology that is ever more all-knowing, ever-present, all-powerful and beneficent.”
But one can sense something else lurking behind all such twisted efforts at creation: a great howling sadness, echoing in the icy emptiness of an encroaching void; an anguished cry to a god that no longer seems to be there, a prayer to finally bring and end to the suffering of Man.
Recently, the well-known transhumanist Zoltan Istvan spoke directly to the author Paul Kingsnorth and offered him this message:
I'd like to bring your attention to the issue with nature and biology that transhumanists have: that it's fundamentally flawed, and likely even immoral to perpetuate, given its tendency to predation, disease, and death. Simply said, all nature and biology, from plants, to wildlife, to people, are something to be overcome and totally replaced with the synthetic. No one with even the slightest bit of compassion would ever create a world like ours, filled with so much suffering. It must all be undone, and remade with technology, justice, and equality.
Justice in negation; eradication as compassion. Out of suffering, here is the anti-human nihilism, that cold fury at reality, which more than anything seems to increasingly mark the post-modern spirit of our age.
And here too is a cruel irony. In their autistic obsession with control in the name of liberation, these sufferers have in their pain and confusion insisted fervently on a path in the opposite direction of any possible relief.
“We will constantly build out networks and use of the quantum world outward,” asserts Istvan about the bright hope of the future. “This will increase our intelligence all the time, every moment. That is the real goal of this new world – as much power and intelligence as possible. We must conquer the universe.”
“The next organ on our list for enhancement is the heart, which, while an intricate and impressive machine, has a number of severe problems,” predicts the legendary transhumanist Ray Kurzweil. “It is subject to a myriad of failure modes and represents a fundamental weakness in our potential longevity... Although artificial hearts are beginning to be feasible replacements, a more effective approach will be to get rid of the heart altogether.”
“In the new age, what has hitherto been merely the intellectual nucleus of the race is to become, by gradual stages, the race itself,” Frost says to Mark in the bowels of the N.I.C.E. “The old complex organs and the large body which contained them are no longer necessary… The individual is to become all head. The human race is to become all technocracy.”
To become Men without chests at all: in that direction lies first only the ever tightening iron cage, and then in the end the complete void of pure nihilistic emptiness.
And there is no purer grade of objectivity, no more determined adherence to scientific method, no restoration of Enlightenment rationalism that can ever stall this process. “Totalitarianism is not a historical coincidence,” Desmet, the psychologist, concludes. “In the final analysis, it is the logical consequence of mechanistic thinking and the delusional belief in the omnipotence of human rationality. As such, totalitarianism is the defining feature of the Enlightenment tradition.”
I do not think Lewis or Tolkien would have disagreed. They had already seen this first hand. “I am not a 'democrat',” Tolkien once reflected in a letter to a friend, “only because 'humility' and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power – and then we get and are getting slavery.”
Today, as ever, only Lewis’ “dogmatic belief in objective value” stands in the way of that slavery.
Nothing could prevent some people from describing his work as an “attack on science,” Lewis predicted. Yet this was a false charge: “real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao are cut.” Yet even so, the obvious truth about scientific ‘progress’ had to be said: “Its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.”
But, “Perhaps I am asking impossibilities,” Lewis worried: “Perhaps, in the nature of things, analytical understanding must always be a basilisk which kills what it sees and only sees by killing. But if the scientists themselves cannot arrest this process before it reaches the common Reason and kills that too, then someone else must arrest it.”
“What I most fear is the reply that I am ‘only one more’ obscurantist,” Lewis admitted at the end of The Abolition of Man. “That this barrier,” the Tao, the nature of Man, “like all previous barriers set up against the advance of science, can be safely passed.”
It cannot be. This would, as ever, be only the worst kind of human pride and folly.
Mark was told in That Hideous Strength that “the main question at the moment” was “which side one’s on – obscurantism or Order.” Is it? No I think not. But what is the main question for us now – what are the sides today, really?
“A conflict of who merges with AI and who doesn’t is coming,” Istvan the transhumanist confidently predicts:
It will likely be a civil war of sorts. Ultimately, people won’t be able to stop progress, and most humans will upload themselves into new worlds where they don’t die, don’t have to work, or live as biological beings who suffer… [So] a great transhumanist war will occur between those who embrace radical technology in their bodies and those who don’t. Many will be affected by this time, and some will call it the end times. Those that side with technology and AI will win.
I suspect the great god Artificial Intelligence probably isn’t arriving anytime soon, and neither will his heaven. But it seems to me that in a way Istvan is right: a war is indeed coming… A war to defend the Normal from the Lie. A war for the freedom to remain human. A war that can and will be won only by Men with Chests. This and no other is the true great war in our time – and indeed it is already here. We have no choice but to muster our courage and fight it, or perish.
‘Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.’
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that given us. And already, Frodo, our time is beginning to look black. The Enemy is fast becoming very strong.’
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 Which are the only dramatizations that exist. Any mention of The TV Show That Shall Not be Named – that twisted spawn of the Enemy – and you will be cast out into the complete void for eternity. You have been warned.
 Weston is actually a character featured in the first and second books of Lewis’ “Space Trilogy,” of which That Hideous Strength is a standalone third volume. He is noted as a member of N.I.C.E. in the latter. This quote is from book one of the trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet.
 Potentially one could today reasonably argue this organ of the ‘Chest’ is actually the neglected right hemisphere of the brain, as Iain McGilchrist basically wrote a whole book about in The Master and His Emissary.