A contact sheet showing English novelist and scholar C. S. Lewis (1898 - 1963), a fellow and tutor of Magdalen College, Oxford, in his college rooms, November 1950. Original publication: Picture Post - 5159 - Eternal Oxford - pub. 25th November 1950 (Photo by John Chillingworth/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Lewis the prophet

The Narnia author deserves to be remembered as a seer and a sage


This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

On 22 november 1963 — a Friday — John F. Kennedy, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis all died within hours of each other. Sixty years on, it is surely Kennedy and Huxley who are most remembered as men who saw the bend of history’s arc: JFK the radical reformer, whose visionary civil rights legislation anticipated the colourblind American future; Huxley the dystopian mystic who foresaw the West’s descent into slavish hedonism in Brave New World. 

Lewis, by contrast, seemed a relic of eras that were bygone even by the time of his death

Lewis, by contrast, seemed a relic of eras that were bygone even by the time of his death. Despite being best known as a children’s author and Christian apologist, his day job was as a scholar in medieval and renaissance literature at both Oxford and Cambridge — hardly the best way to keep abreast of the cultural ructions of the inter-war and post-war years. Alongside J.R.R Tolkien, he was still contending, in the 1940s, for the Oxford English undergrad syllabus to stop in 1832. 

Today, his well-known classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe feels dated to many readers, a once national favourite seemingly doomed to irrelevance by its preponderance of well-groomed Caucasian children saying “Well, that’s a rum thing” and being (to quote a Mitchell and Webb sketch on the topic) “a bit … Christian”.

It is an assessment that does not do Lewis justice. Alongside the children’s author, Christian apologist and literary scholar, there is a fourth Lewis. This one is entirely absent from any popular image of the man, and even largely ignored by his Christian admirers: that of Lewis the prophet. Consulting his oracles in 2023, one finds that, far from being a sorry throwback, Clive Staples Lewis had a vision so profound in depth and incisive in detail that it outstripped that of Kennedy, Huxley, or indeed any of his contemporaries.

Lewis the prophet emerges most clearly in his 1945 novel That Hideous Strength and his closely related lectures in The Abolition of Man, published in 1943. The former is really a fictional outworking of the ideas of the latter, to the extent that lines from the lectures appear verbatim in the mouths of characters from the novel (and Lewis says as much in the novel’s preface). 

At the close of the Second World War, Lewis was one of a number of Christian intellectuals (alongside Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil, W.H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot) who had begun to consider what world the Allied powers would now make for themselves. Lewis saw a future in which the rejection of transcendent values would allow a technologised elite to re-make nature as they saw fit, ultimately overthrowing human nature itself — a process made possible through the ideological capture of education.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis speaks of “the Tao” (pronounced “dao”). He borrows the succinct term from the Chinese, but thinks of it as akin to what Hindus call “the Rta”, what Plato calls “the Good”, and what centuries of Western and Christian thought has called “natural law”. 

It means both the way things are and the way one therefore ought to feel and act: “It 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.” The Tao, albeit culturally inflected, had laid the foundation of all preceding human society (and thus, education) through the acknowledgement that certain transcendent values — truth, goodness, beauty, justice, piety, and so on — demanded certain responses of both feeling and action. 

Yet lewis detected, even in the midst of the Second World War, an assault upon the Tao within Western life. He generously conceded that this assault was not always intentional, but it was nonetheless real, and its primary battleground was in education. This latter aspect is no great surprise if one has read The Chronicles of Narnia attentively: schools there get a very bad rap. 

The Pevensie children blame the treacherous Edmund’s faults on his new school; when the children come to rule Narnia, they liberate young satyrs and fauns from compulsory education. Accordingly, the subtitle of Abolition is “Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools”, the lectures having been prompted by Lewis’s encounter with an unnamed school English textbook, nicknamed “The Green Book”. 

Lewis began his first lecture, “Men Without Chests”, by taking issue with The Green Book’s treatment of a famed story in which Coleridge overheard one man call a waterfall “pretty” and another call it “sublime”. Coleridge rejected the first judgement and endorsed the second. In Lewis’s terms, “pretty” departs from the Tao — it is, quite simply, the wrong word to use. The waterfall truly was sublime, and demanded recognition as such. 

But The Green Book rejected Coleridge’s reading, saying “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.” Lewis here detected both the wolf of a grand metaphysical upheaval, the audacious sheep’s clothing in which it tried to disguise itself, and the educational carnage which would result from its entry into the flock. 

The Green Book promoted a cloven reality, with a radical divorce between facts and feelings. Whereas many teachers felt that the problem most students have is an overabundance of sentiment (concerned by the very real threat of emotional propaganda), Lewis found the opposite to be true. The issue was not an excess of emotion, but a lack of properly trained emotion: 

“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 task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts … The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.” 

The rejection of this traditional view, Lewis argued, left education with two alternatives: to debunk all sentiment, or to condition it in pupils anyway by means of cynical propaganda because it yields certain pragmatic benefits. The anonymous authors of The Green Book opted for the former, and such a debunking of sentiment outright has characterised most education since Lewis’s day. Latterly, we have shifted into Lewis’s second alternative, but in either course, Lewis foresaw the result to be similarly disastrous.

In classical and medieval thought, man was divided into the head (reason), the chest (sentiment), and the belly (appetite). Reason is meant to rule appetite through stable sentiments — the emotions are “the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man”. To deny the existence of transcendent values which demand certain emotional responses, and to educate without or against them, would create “men without chests” — men unable to discern what truly merits love or hatred, directed only by ravenous appetite and calculating reason and unable to stop themselves indulging either.

Men (and one woman) without chests dominate That Hideous Strength — living deserts in need of irrigation, with names like Frost, Wither, Stone, Hardcastle. The novel’s plot and themes are hard to summarise. It is the third in Lewis’s sci-fi “Cosmic Trilogy” (“the Ransom Trilogy”, to its devotees), following Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, but can be read on its own. 

It is set in a world in which Christian theology and the Arthurian legends are true, yet extraterrestrial life also exists, and each planet retains its ancient and medieval character and influence — masculine and warlike Mars, feminine and romantic Venus, etc — due to being governed by angelic beings who possess those qualities. In the small university town of Edgestow, the nefarious N.I.C.E (National Institute of Coordinated Experiments) sets up shop. 

N.I.C.E’s exact nature is often unclear, but it is committed to “man’s conquest over nature” — a quest which must ultimately terminate in the conquest of human nature itself. As Filostrato, one of their scientists, puts it, this means:

“The conquest of death: or 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.” 

The aim is human beings who can live “with less and less body”. Devoid of sentiment, n.i.c.e. sets about various abhorrent schemes, principally the reanimation of a decapitated human head — the supposed forerunner of a future new humanity. Yet in doing so, both N.I.C.E and its experimental subjects cease to be human in any real sense: thus, the abolition of man. Eventually, the institute is revealed to be the work of actual demons. The New Man is just the Old Enemy. 

With N.I.C.E, Lewis anticipated our contemporary technocracy. “Progress” is our unquestionable sacred cow, and its faithful handmaiden is technology. Whether we are tearing up areas of ancient natural beauty in order to build infrastructure supposedly intended to help protect the environment, prescribing new cross-sex hormones and surgery to enable greater self-realisation, or developing artificial wombs which we unconvincingly insist will only ever be used for the care of premature infants, there is now no technological innovation that we will deny ourselves today if it supposedly contributes to the nebulous “future good of humanity”.

It is only Green Book education which makes N.I.C.E possible. If truth, goodness, beauty, and so on are merely relative then there is nothing to rein in man’s “conquest of nature”. His scruples are mere hang-ups to be educated out. He will be driven by pure reason or pure appetite, with no sentiment to regulate their respective metrics of efficiency or pleasure. 

Perhaps the most unsettling portion of That Hideous Strength is Lewis’s portrayal of what a Green Book education truly involves. The novel’s male protagonist, Mark Studdock, is a young sociology lecturer, enticed by entering N.I.C.E’s “inner ring”, despite his growing disgust at its mission and methods. The product of a Tao-less education himself, Mark possesses no rationale for objecting to the unquestionable pursuit of “progress”. Eventually, he is given “a systematic training in objectivity … [a] process whereby all specifically human reactions [are] killed in a man”. 

He is first placed in a cell designed to unseat all natural senses of what is true, good, or beautiful — its proportions are off, its lines askew; it is decorated with obscene or frustrating artwork, and he is made to perform various pointless exercises there. Everything about it is “crooked”. Yet, contrary to his captor’s expectations, Mark revolts inwardly with a growing sense of “the Straight” or “the Normal” — that is, the Tao. Then, he is moved to “the Objective Room”, containing a large crucifix, “ghastly and realistic”, and instructed to stamp on and insult it. Mark is no Christian, but refuses — yet not due to any latent piety or even due to his growing sense of the Normal, but because of his sense of something beyond even that. 

Mark Studdock, in the end, escapes his Green Book education. We have not been so lucky. Any assumption of transcendent natural law, “the Normal”, the Tao, let alone something beyond it, has been expunged from our schooling, especially at the university level. Those “specifically human reactions” of sublimity and wonder, of sensing an inherent order in things are reduced to chemical reactions in our brains; nothing to do with the order of the universe itself. 

This is true whether we are subject to a hard-edged education in scientific reductionism, or brainwashed in emotive ideas about “social justice” and “equity”. The New Atheists dismissed natural law and Christian devotion as base superstition; the Woke Left problematise them as colonial and patriarchal oppression. But in the end, both frogmarch you into the Objective Room.

A final key point to note is Lewis’s visionary clarity about what “man’s conquest over nature” would mean in practice: “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”. By this, Lewis did not mean (necessarily) rounding up the masses and shoving them into Matrix-pods. 

Rather, he meant that those few men in our time who are able to overthrow human nature by tinkering with our biology and educating the Tao out of us will exert disproportionate influence over future generations.The forward march of “progress” is not something asked for by most people (even though they may happily acquiesce to it), but something foisted upon them by a small elite. 

Lewis skewers these elites throughout That Hideous Strength with every character from n.i.c.e.’s various wings — scientific, sociological, policing — insisting that they are the true “inner ring” around which the work really revolves. Once more, Lewis anticipated the internal politics of any number of modern institutions convinced they are the key to humanity’s future. 

This autumn’s sixtieth anniversary of Lewis’s death presents an opportunity to give him fresh consideration in making sense of our technocratic age. Far from being some outdated anachronism, it is precisely his grounding in an older world which makes him a fit guide for our contemporary ills. The time has come for Lewis the Prophet to emerge from the shadows.

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