C.S. Lewis on Threats to Freedom in Modern Society

EDWARD J. LARSON AND STEVEN LAYWARD

C.S. Lewis expressed concern about how the modern state could undermine human freedom and dignity if policymakers adopted the approach of modern social science. At the same time, Lewis also doubted the ability of any government to permanently reshape and subordinate a nationís citizenry. Here then is what Lewis viewed as the major threats to human freedom in modern society.

Science as a Threat to Freedom in Modern Society

Edward J. Larson, University of Georgia and Discovery Institute

Among other things, C. S. Lewis considered modern science a threat to freedom in modern society. In order to understand how modern sciences is a threat to freedom, we have to consider Lewis' view of modern science. Lewis lived at a time when science was emerging as the dominate system of thought in the Western world, when the technological spin-offs of that intellectual activity were fundamentally transforming every aspect of life. Lewis reflected on this in his 1954 inaugural lecture at Cambridge University, when he declared: "The sciences long remained like a lion-cub whose gambols delighted its master in private; it had not yet tasted man's blood. All through the eighteenth century, . . . science was not the business of Man because Man had not yet become the business of science. It dealt chiefly with the inanimate; and it threw off few technological byproducts. When Watt makes his engine, Darwin starts monkeying with the ancestry of Man, and Freud with his soul, then indeed the lion will have got out of its cage."

As we know from the Narnia tales, a free lion does not pose a threat so long as it is true — like Aslan. But Lewis did not view science as a source of neutral truths about nature. For example, in The Discarded Image, Lewis wrote about the differences between the medieval and modern model of nature.

The most spectacular differences between the Medieval Model and our own concern astronomy and biology. In both fields the New Model is supported by a wealth of empirical evidence. But we should misrepresent the historical process if we said that the irruption of new facts was the sole cause of the alteration. The old astronomy was not, in any exact sense, 'refuted' by the telescope. . . . The new astronomy triumphed not because the cause for the old became desperate, but because the new was a better tool. But the change of Models did not involve astronomy alone. It involved also, in biology, the change — arguably more important — from a devolutionary to an evolutionary scheme. . . This revolution was certainly not brought about by the discovery of new facts. . . .The demand for a developing world — a demand obviously in harmony both with the revolutionary and the romantic temper — grows up first; when it is full grown the scientists go to work and discover the evidence on which our belief in that sort of universe would now be held to rest. . . . I do not at all mean that these new phenomena are illusory. Nature has all sorts of phenomena in stock and can suit many different tastes.

Lewis made similar comments about the development of Darwinian evolution in Christian Reflections, where he concluded, "every age gets, within certain limits, the science it desires."

Viewing modern science as a reflection of its age, rather than a method for finding truth, does not necessarily transform it into a threat to freedom. But Lewis' dark foreboding about the direction of modern civilization inevitably cast a shadow over the sciences, which represent our civilization's defining achievement. At least three bases for this concern run through Lewis' writings.

First, Lewis feared that the reductionist tendency of modern science undermined moral reasoning, human dignity, and religious faith. In a sweeping statement from his academic masterwork, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis declared that modern science "substituted a mechanical for a genial or animistic conception of the universe. The world was emptied, first of her indwelling spirits, then of her occult sympathies and antipathies, finally of her colours, smells and tastes." Focusing on the biological and social sciences in Christian Reflections, Lewis added that the modern theory of evolution "asks me to believe that reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended byproduct of a mindless process at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming." Reason is thus viewed as a product of non-rational nature. This undermines moral reasoning because our moral judgments depend on our reasoning, and if our reasoning is not grounded in the rational, then neither are our moral judgments. Moral reasoning is stripped of any claims to be truth, in the rational sense. Accordingly, the scientific naturalist must say, as Lewis put it in Miracles, "there is no such thing as wrong and right, I admit that no moral judgment can be 'true' or 'correct' and, consequently, that no one system of morality can be better or worse than another."

This line of thinking inevitably results in moral relativism, which diminishes human distinctiveness by asserting that human values, theories, and even religious beliefs are subjective rather than objective. As Lewis expressed it in The Discarded Image, "Always century by century, item after item is transferred from the object's side of the account to the subject's. And now, in some extreme forms of behaviourism, the subject himself is discounted as merely subjective; we can only think that we think. Having eaten up everything else, he eats himself up too. And where we 'go from that' is a dark question."

Brooding on this dark question in Present Concerns, Lewis wrote of scientific reductionism,

"While we were reducing the world to almost nothing we deceived ourselves with the fancy that all its lost qualities were being kept safe (if in a somewhat humbled condition) as 'things in our own mind'." But he added, "just as we have been broken of our bad habit of personifying trees, so [modern sciences says] we must now be broken of our bad habit of personifying men. . . . The subject is as empty as the object." Religious faith is the ultimate victim of this way of thinking, as expressed in the words of Lewis's scientific protagonist in God in the Dock: "'Miracles,' said my friend, 'Oh, come. Sciences has knocked the bottom out of all that. We know that Nature is governed by fixed laws. . . . I mean, the laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them. . . . The whole picture of the universe which science has given us makes it such rot to believe that the Power at the back of it all could be interested in us tiny little creatures crawling on an unimportant planet!"

Second, science leads to technology, which Lewis believed would be utilized regardless of its detrimental impact on humans. In general, Lewis was neutral toward the so-called "advance" of modern technology which logically followed from his view, expressed in The World's Last Night, that, "In my opinion, the modern concept of Progress . . . is simply a myth, supported by no evidence whatsoever." So, in answer to the question, "Is Progress Possible?" he wrote about technology: "We shall grow able to cure, and to produce, more diseases — bacterial war, not bombs, might ring down the curtain — to alleviate, and to inflict, more pains, to husband, or to waste, the resources of the planet more extensively. We can become neither more beneficent or more mischievous. My guess is we shall do both; mending one thing and marring another, removing old miseries and producing new ones, safeguarding ourselves here and endangering ourselves there."

Lewis does acknowledge that, for good or for ill, technology gives humans more power over nature. In That Hideous Strength, he portrayed a brave new high-tech world where something ought to be done simply because it can be done. Thus, at one point, the science professor explains that a particular activity "is justified by the fact that it is occurring, and ought to be increased because an increase is taking place." When Lewis's hero questions the moral implications of the activity, the professor replies,"The judgment you are trying to make turns out on inspection to be simply an expression of emotion." So viewed, technology is not answerable to any higher standard. Its sole parameter is the possible.

Third, Lewis was convinced that scientific authority would be used to justify and facilitate political oppression. Also in That Hideous Strength, Lewis observed, "The physical sciences, good and innocent in themselves, hard already . . . begun to be warped, and been subtly maneuvered 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." For Lewis, the threat here is quite real. Commenting on this book, which is so damning of modern science, Lewis later wrote, "'Scientists' as such are not the target . . . What we are obviously up against throughout the story is not scientists but officials." This is an important distinction for Lewis. Scientific planning is not necessarily evil, "but 'Under modern conditions any effective invitation to Hell will certainly appear in the guise of scientific planning' — as Hitler's regime in fact did." Elaborating on this theme in God in the Dock, Lewis concluded,

"Again, the new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim of knowledge. . . . This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists. . . . Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about science. But government involves questions about the good of man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man's opinion no added value. . . . On just the same ground I dread government in the name of science. That is how tyrannies come in. In every age the men who want us under their thumb, if they have any sense, will put forward the particular pretension which the hopes and fears of that age render most potent. They 'cash in'. It has been magic, it has been Christianity. Now it will certainly be science."

In this sense, Lewis perceived science as the ultimate threat to freedom in modern society.

Contemporary Threats to Freedom: C. S. Lewis as Prophet of Post-Modernism

Steven Hayward, Heritage Foundation

"Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed."
- The Magician's Nephew

"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. . .
The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man, goes an apace
among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists."
- The Abolition of Man

First the good news. Orwell — or at least his admirers who warned that technological advance promised an increasingly "Orwellian" world — was wrong. Far from buttressing the power of tyrants, the advance of technology has turned out to be powerfully subversive of totalitarian regimes. (1) As George Gilder has celebrated better than anyone, the advance of computer and communications technology holds the promise of further liberation for individuals and their families. Technology is changing the conservative public policy agenda by diminishing the monopoly power of bureaucracies. For example while privatizing the postal service and adopting school choice are both still worthy policy goals, technology is making these changes less imperative (and, paradoxically, more likely to happen). The latest postal rate increase will simply mean that more correspondence will be sent by FAX or E-mail, while the expansion of computer networks will provide more parents the choice as well as the means to home-school their children.

On the surface, then, one might argue that the portrait of behaviorist science-cum bureaucracy depicted in That Hideous Strength is overdrawn and therefore that the book, in the parlance of literary critics, "doesn't quite work anymore." But while Orwell's suggestive parody of the Soviet Union as it then existed excited the imagination about the tyrannical potential for advancing bureaucracy and technology, That Hideous Strength was intended more to excite the imagination about the consequences of moral relativism born of metaphysical confusion. This is why discriminating readers have always regarded That Hideous Strength as the best of the genre of so-called "anti-utopian" novels, even though, with its deeper target understood, it really doesn't belong in that genre. For what makes the novel today even more remarkable, and ultimately enduring is its anticipation of (at that time) incipient doctrines of what we no call "post-modernism."

To be sure, the most obvious or visible threats to freedom come in the practical form of scientific or pseudo-scientific bureaucracy. But Lewis makes clear throughout his writing that it is not science or technology or even bureaucracy that are responsible for a loss of freedom, but rather our moral condition, born of metaphysical confusion. This metaphysical confusion, he realized far ahead of the fact, would infect what we today call our "mediating" institutions — especially schools and churches and "cultural" organs — and in turn transmit its poison chiefly through education, both formal education and the "popular" education of the broader populace that comes from the constant hum of mass media, art, and entertainment. The result is the kind of education and character formation that Lewis describes for Mark Studdock:

It must be remembered that in Mark's mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or Pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical — merely 'Modern.' The severities of both abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by; and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honour to help him. (2)

Indeed, even before the reader reaches the scene with the "Objective Room" late in the novel — a scene which resembles nothing so much as one of today's "sensitivity training sessions" that so many students and even professional people are required to endure these days — the contemporary reader begins to recognize all the signs of a Politically Correct education.

I have always thought remarkable the way in which Lewis, writing The Abolition of Man at a time when our inherited moral order was still reasonably robust, was able to see so clearly what the seeds of moral relativism would grow into. It is even more remarkable at 50 years remove, how Lewis could see that moral relativism was itself, to borrow the up-to-date language of the environmentalists, "unsustainable." The relativists, as Lewis noted in several passages about the self-refuting character of modern thought, would end up sawing off the branch they were sitting on by radicalizing relativism. (3) It would decay into nihilismon account of what Lewis in The Abolition of Man recognized as the "fatal serialism of the modern imagination." (4) The declension of this "fatal serialism" is usefully summarized in a single descriptive sentence about the obsequious Deputy Director Wither in That Hideous Strength: "he had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatisim, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void." (5)

Today the complete void is upon us; its popular form is found in "Political Correctnes," but its philosophical form comes to sight in the overused and often ill-defined term "postmodernism." I dislike the term myself, but use it because it is the most accessible form in the glossallalia of the modern academy to describe the rejection of the very idea of reason and objectivity. Lewis provisionally called it "Bulverism," after his imaginary character Ezekiel Bulver, who witnessed what is now commonplace in our higher discourse: the dismissal of an opinion because of the sex, or class, or race of the person expressing the opinion. "Oh you say that because you are a man." Lewis's fictional Bulver overhears.

"At that moment," E. Bulver assures us, "there flashed across my mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that his wrong or right, or (worse still) try to find out whether he is right or wrong, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall!" (6)

Lewis notes that he "finds the fruits of his discovery" almost everywhere," and especially "at work in every political argument." And until this degradation is crushed, Lewis recognized, "reason can play no effective part in human affairs." This trend really can be said to represent, to paraphrase the narrative of The Magician's Nephew, the successful attempt to make ourselves stupider than we already are.

Deploring postmodernism and all its permutations yet again is surely unnecessary or redundant for this audience. I develop this line of argument about Lewis's prescience for two reasons: first, the real threat to freedom in modern times is less from outright despotism — even Tocqueville's "soft despotism" that can be seen at work in countless ways today — than it is from self-enslavement through modern forms of thought. The ultimate result of modern thought is the stifling of imagination, "a lowering of metaphysical energy" as Lewis called it, (7) that is the very essence of what it means to be free. Second, I think there is to be distilled from Lewis a distinction between freedom and liberty, of which Christians should be more concerned about the former than the latter.

Isaiah Berlin funded his Individual Retirement Account by popularizing the somewhat tedious distinction between "negative freedom" — the "freedom from" — and "positive freedom" — the "freedom to." A more intelligent distinction is between liberty, meaning the absence of restraint, and freedom, meaning a quality of individual character and soul, what Lewis meant when he referred to "the freeborn mind." While liberal democracy is associated in our common mind with freedom, strictly speaking liberal democracy is organized around the principle of liberty.

It is not my purpose here to attack liberal democracy for supposedly being built upon the "low but solid ground" of individual rights. That is an argument for another day. Rather, I think it is worth noting that Lewis's discussion of the threats to freedom posed by elitist nihilism proceeds for the most part without regard to constitutional form. (8) To be sure, Lewis observes how the threat arises to acute form when a government founded to secure rights devolves into the nanny state. But when Lewis writes about the "freeborn mind" his prose suggests that he had in mind not any mere or idiosyncratic idea of happiness as the object of freedom, but happiness "in a richer way."(9) Perhaps the best way to cut to the heart of the matter is to answer this simple question: who is the genuinely free man: Solzhenitsyn writing clandestinely in the Gulag, or Noam Chomsky blathering in Harvard yard?

This kind of comparison can easily be stretched too far, of course, but it highlights I think the deficiency in much of the contemporary rhetoric of the defenders of freedom. For instance, our discussions of the way in which the Fifth Amendment's "takings clause" is no longer enforced as was intended by its authors usually is based on the fact the current interpretation of the law unjustly deprives people of the value of their property. While the appeal to justice is necessary and good, the argument would be completed by an appeal to the reason why economic liberty is the pre-condition for the cultivation of those qualities of character and soul that Lewis means when he speaks of "the freeborn mind." To couch the argument in terms of the contemporary debate over property, it is not the economic value of property per se that is important, but rather the freedom that property confers, without which man cannot in fact cultivate a proper regard for nature or communal well-being whose protection property restrictions are intended to serve.

While this dimension of the subject would be a worth addition to the political rhetoric of freedom, it does not get at the heart of the matter; namely, the metaphysical confusion underlying the attack on freedom today. Were Lewis alive today to see the full flowering of "deconstructionism" or "postmodernism," he would no doubt relish the irony that reason and scientific objectivity, which the Enlightenment philosophies thought would be the death knell of religious faith, have come to be regarded as the mortal enemies of the Modern Project, and hence the erstwhile allies of religious faith. Even more so than in 1947 might Lewis have thought that" from science herself the cure might come." (10) since the so-called "hard" sciences are the only part of modern thought that clings to the idea of reason and objective reality (and which, consequently, are the final target of the postmodern, political correctness critique). (11)

Reviving critical imagination upon which freedom rests is the most needful thing in our time, and also the most difficult to accomplish. Most difficult because of "the isolation of the mind in its own age" that modern categories of thought have achieved. This isolation makes difficult appeals to reason or tradition that once worked effectively. "Even where Christian belief was rejected," Lewis noted, "there was still a standard against which contemporary ideals could be judged." (12) Hence Lewis wondered "whether we shall not have to re-convert men to real Paganism as a preliminary to converting them to Christianity."(13) This theme reminds of nothing so much as Walter Percy's travail about the difficulty of attempting Christian literature in the modern age, in which modern man "could not take account of God, the devil, and the angels if they were standing before him, because he has already people his universe with his own hierarchies."(14) The "secular dilemma" of the American Christian novelist today, Percy thought, is that "the old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips and a certain devaluation has occurred, like a poker chip after it is cashed in." (15)

But if those who toil among the intellectual vineyards tend to despair about turning around the intellectual climate of our time, perhaps Lewis provides the proper perspective. As he notes in That Hideous Strength and in "Private Bates," most ordinary folk don't read the leading articles and intellectual journals; they read the sports pages, which are mostly true. While clear thinking about the metaphysical basis of our freedom is vitally important to civilization, freedom's best safeguard is to be found in the common sense of people, and upon common sense sound metaphysical foundations can be rebuilt. That is why perhaps the most instructive bit of narrative in That Hideous Strength comes near the end, while Mark Studdock is virtually incarcerated and undergoing extreme pressures and evil temptations. In the midst of this, Lewis narrates, "Often Mark felt that one good roar of coarse laughter would have blown away the whole atmosphere of the thing." Sound advice for the network news or the New York Times editorial page.

Endnotes:

  1. Historians may some day point to the famous Apple Computer TV ad from the 1984 Super Bowl on "Why 1984 won't be like 1984." The ad only ran once.
  2. That Hideous Strength p. 186.
  3. "'Bulverism', Or, The Foundations of 20th Century Thought," God in the Dock. p. 272.
  4. The Abolition of Man, p. 90.
  5. That Hideous Strength, p. 353. From Hegel to Hume, of course, is backwards; either a minor slip-up or a clever joke.
  6. "Bulverism," God in the Dock. p. 273.
  7. "Modern Man and His Categories of Thought,"Present Concerns. p. 65.
  8. Ernest Fortin warns against the temptation to claim a biblical sanction for liberal democracy or otherwise politicizing Christian faith: "It is one thing to defend liberal democracy as compatible with Christianity and quite another to claim a biblical warrant for it."The Bill of Rights is undoubtedly a good idea. It has served us well over the years and we can be thankful that, after much debate, it was adopted by the Founding Fathers. But to say that it or its equivalent is "theologically imperative" is as implausible as it is useless. The New Testament approaches the problem from another angle altogether; it is completely silent on the subject of right and, like the Hebrew scriptures, prefers to remind people of their duties toward God and their neighbor. For better or for worse, its perspective is notably different from, though not necessarily irreconcilable with, the one that we moderns find most congenial." Ernest Fortin, "Christianity and Democracy: A Symposium," Center Journal, Vol.1, No. 3, Summer, 1982. pp. 38-39.
  9. "Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State," God in the Dock. p. 314.
  10. The Abolition of Man, p. 87.
  11. See Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. (John Hopkins University Press, 1994) for an illuminating account of this development.
  12. "Modern Man and His Categories of Thought," Present Concerns, p. 62.
  13. Ibid. p. 66
  14. Walker Percy, "Notes for a Novel about the End of the World," The Message in the Bottle. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), p. 113. There are certain continuities between Lewis's imaginary fiction and Percy's novels. I have often wondered whether Lewis's invention of "pragnatometry" and "pragnatometers" in the early pages of That Hideous Strength provided part of the inspiration for Percy's "ontological lapsometer" in Love in the Ruins.
  15. Ibid. p. 116.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Larson and Steven Hayward. "Lewis and Public Life." Chapter 4 in What are the Threats to Freedom in Modern Society? Discovery Institute (1998).

This chapter is reprinted with permission of the Discovery Institute.

The book originated with a Discovery Institute conference held on January14, 1995 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Seattle. Fieldstead and Company made the conference and the book possible.

Discovery Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan, public policy think tank headquartered in Seattle dealing with national and international affairs. The Institute is dedicated to exploring and promoting public policies that advance representative democracy, free enterprise and individual liberty. For more information e-mail views@discovery.org or browse Discovery's website below.

Copyright © 1998 Discovery Institute


Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.