Friday, November 22, 2013

In memory of C.S Lewis and Aldous Huxley 22 Nov 1963

To mark the 50th anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley (they died the same day as John F. Kennedy) it seemed apt to ask what we understand of their views of technology and Christianity.

A bunch of resources are useful for thinking about these two men.

CBC on Lewis 1:
CBC on Lewis 2:

BBC on Brave New World

I have never seen or heard these two books compared with one another but as I read Brave New World I could not help but see the Abolition of Man in it.

C.S. Lewis

Some context for the life of Lewis and Tolkien is important. Both served in World War 1 and that conflict with nerve gas and trench warfare would be enough to turn anybody against technology and build a desire for the peace of a rural setting Oxford library..

There are many insights into man and technology sprinkled across Lewis' work but perhaps the best source is The Abolition of Man. The book is a work of non-fiction matters in the context of the current blog and was written in response to a school book that Lewis calls the "The Green Book'.

Chapter 3 is called the Abolition of Man and includes the following text.

Man's conquest of Nature' is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science. `Man has Nature whacked,' said someone to a friend of mine not long ago. In their context the words had a certain tragic beauty, for the speaker was dying of tuberculosis. `No matter' he said, `I know I'm one of the casualties. Of course there are casualties on the winning as well as on the losing side. But that doesn't alter the fact that it is winning.' I have chosen this story as my point of departure in order to make it clear that I do not wish to disparage all that is really beneficial in the process described as `Man's conquest', much less all the real devotion and self-sacrifice that has gone to make it possible. But having done so I must proceed to analyse this conception a little more closely. In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?

Let us consider three typical examples: the aeroplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In a civilized community, in peace-time, anyone who can pay for them may use these things. But it cannot strictly be said that when he does so he is exercising his own proper or individual power over Nature. If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man. Any or all of the three things I have mentioned can be withheld from some men by other men—by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources of production, or those who make the goods. What we call Man's power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, 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.

It is, of course, a commonplace to complain that men have hitherto used badly, and against their fellows, the powers that science has given them, But that is not the point I am trying to make. I am not speaking of particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure: I am considering what the thing called `Man's power over Nature' must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scientific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people. And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.

The latter point is not always sufficiently emphasized, because those who write on social matters have not yet learned to imitate the physicists by always including Time among the dimensions. In order to understand fully what Man's power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them. And if, as is almost certain, the age which had thus attained maximum power over posterity were also the age most emancipated from tradition, it would be engaged in reducing the power of its predecessors almost as drastically as that of its successors. And we must also remember that, quite apart from this, the later a generation comes—the nearer it lives to that date at which the species becomes extinct—the less power it will have in the forward direction, because its subjects will be so few. There is therefore no question of a power vested in the race as a whole steadily growing as long as the race survives. The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future.

The real picture is that of one dominant age—let us suppose the hundredth century A.D.—which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species. But then within this master generation (itself an infinitesimal minority of the species) the power will be exercised by a minority smaller still. Man's conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of 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. Each advance leaves him weaker as well aas stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

I am not yet considering whether the total result of such ambivalent victories is a good thing or a bad. I am only making clear what Man's conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Humannature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have `taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho' and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them—how Plato would have every infant "a bastard nursed in a bureau", and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women,1 and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry2—we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses. 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.

I understand the concepts of power and direction as Lewis writes of them. Each age by choosing a direction cuts off possible futures from successive generations. That is simply true. However, Lewis give this great gravitas but I am uncertain about it because every choice does this. The choice to develop planes empowers some and puts some in a weaker position relative to those that have built and fly the planes. But not building the planes does exactly the same thing. One group has a certain type of power, it is just potentially a different group and power they have is different.

The choice not to use contraceptives creates one world, the choice to use them creates a different world. But they power have trajectories, they both have impacts.

Auldous Huxley

Huxley was a descendant of a line of famous scientists and atheists. His best know work is Brave New World. I decided to start reading BNW again with this blog and the anniversary in view. I read the book like many people across the world in early high school  somewhere around 33 years ago. Obviously what sticks in the memory over that time is some sense that it involved genetic engineering, which reading it again fills the the early chapters. But other than that I could remember nothing.

In contrast to The Abolition of Man this a work of fiction and therefore it is character driven and not necessarily reflective of Huxley's views. Or at least a work of fiction allows and author to play with the complexities of realities rather be offering a 'position'.

For those that similarly don't remember the plot. The one world state now controls the economy, population and takes responsibility for the birth rate through it 'Hatcheries' where children without parents are breed and brought up. There are five types of humans all breed for particular levels of jobs. Monogamist relationships are frowned up as potentially unstable. Nothing is really owned or wanted for. Finally, the taking of drugs (Soma) is essentially essential. The calendar was restarted after a particularly bad war at the date that the first Model T Ford emerged and with it mass production and consumption. The ideologies of Ford, Freud and to a lesser extent Marxism prevail.

What struck me in the reading was the emphasis of the names on socialists (Marx, Lenin etc)) and the economics of mass consumption. There are powerful echoes of 21st century lifestyle. Chapter 3 provides a number of the State's aphorisms:

  • ending is better than mending
  • I love new clothes
  • etc
In general Christianity is largely treated as an ancient forgotten religion which has been done away with but here and there are interesting quotes (p52 in my verison):

"there was a thing, as I've said before, called Christianity. ... The ethics and philosophy of under-consumption ... So essential when there was under-production, but in an age of machines and the fixation of nitrogen - positively a crime against society. ... All crosses had their tops cut and became T's." [a reference to Model Ts]

Churches have been replaced with community sings - an echo the recent developments in England of having atheist churches encouraged by some writings of Alain de Botton.


There are many echoes of our current times although obviously the book does not map onto the future. there is enough to make you think.

The BBC radio documentary linked above has a fascinating discussion of the degree to which the book is somewhat utopian of Huxley rather that the dystopia that we naturally read in. Huxley seems both attracted to and repulsed by total State control. But whatever mixed intentions Huxley had in mind we read from the technological vantage point that quickly gaining on 100 years hence.  

A future without courage

What is perhaps most striking to me an utterly surprising is the similarity of vision. Both works write of a future when conditioning has removed courage from men and women.

Lewis: And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive', or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity'. 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: 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.

Huxley's book is essentially a book about the man moulders and the scientific technique. Of Soma bliss rather than facing the tedium of work, of people like Bernard Marx who know the lies but has no courage to stand against them.

As we develop ever more technological helps how do we encourage Christian virtues in the knowledge that they ARE difficult?

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