Humans walk a fine line between sanity and blasphemy when we aim to improve our world. We would be fools not to produce shelter, food, water, and warmth for ourselves, just as we would be idiots to continue to live in a stage of anarchy where any wandering band can conquer us.
We go too far when we try to improve on the conditions of life itself. Conservatives do not believe in Utopia, therefore we have no use for equality or socialism, because these attempt to change what life eternally is and what it, mathematically and logically, must be.
The struggle of life goes on eternal. Some gain wisdom and rise above; others reject it and pass on in obscurity. Most human events, especially the most celebrated, are revealed as meaningless over time. The constants of life — sanity, family, the search for meaning — remain.
“Progress” on the other hand claims to replace all of that with science and humanism, essentially denying nature and reality in favor of what is popular among the human group. Literature chronicles the struggle for what is real over what is popular, trendy, and new.
Perhaps the origin of this genre can be found in the trials of Ulysses, who in a war to defend his race, became so invested in the outcome that he angered the gods with his arrogance at engineering human history, and was condemned to wander until he got his head right.
In this way his tale parallels that of the Ring of the Lydian from Plato, where a shepherd finds a ring that turns him invisible. Such a ring, Plato tells us, reveals who is good and who is bad: the good hide their good deeds, and the bad hide their bad deeds, so good appears bad and bad, good.
We see a hint here from The Odyssey: when men pursue power over reality itself, they become twisted and inverted, so that they confuse good and bad, and until they get their heads straight, they become inclined toward evils.
Following that, the Bible offers us the Garden of Eden and the Tower of Babel. In the garden, in order to gain supposed wisdom, humans defy the will of God and nature, and are exiled; the Tower of Babel on the other hand is constructed for the goals of peace and diversity to advance the power of its owners.
In modern times, perhaps the greatest writers on this topic can be found in Mary Shelley, Hermann Melville, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis.
Shelley wrote of a doctor who used his power to create human life that is superior to humans, producing a lonely creature which eventually becomes destructive out of desperation at his loneliness and inability to have a family like himself.
Melville gave us perhaps the greatest metaphor, that of a ship captain who hunted whales but became obsessed with the White Whale that defied his command. Man raged at nature, and although Ahab wins in the end, the cost and collateral damage are great.
Huxley gave us Brave New World, a book in which he posited that the totalitarian regime of the future would not look totalitarian, nor would it be externally imposed. The bourgeois demands of the populace would lead them into a “scientific management” regime that is wealthy but soulless.
Coming on the heels of these, C.S. Lewis offered a simple theory: humankind had abolished itself with the worship of science, and in doing so, ignored the qualitative experience of life and the possibility of transcendence and connection to the metaphysical within it.
In Lewis’ view, without God life is meaningless and can have no purpose, therefore a humanity dedicated to materialism and humanism has abolished itself in the pursuit of cementing its dominion over not just nature but the rules of nature.
As some readers have observed, Lewis believed that materialism was merely a way to enslave the good by using science and human rights as a justification:
One of these writings is The Abolition of Man, which includes a statement that is found verbatim in That Hideous Strength. “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.”
After the publication of That Hideous Strength in 1945, critics claimed Lewis was being anti-science, a charge often leveled in our own day against anyone raising questions about the promotion of new technologies. Lewis routinely denied this charge, explaining how he did not oppose science but rather “Scientism,” the unchecked belief in Progress which allows for no “wholesome doubt,” as he phrased it in his essay, “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” in Of Other Worlds.
In both The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength, Lewis illuminated connections between an emerging relativistic philosophy in academic settings that disregarded the role of moral values inherent to all human cultures and the rise of Scientism (justifying social control in the name of ideological progress). The Abolition of Man is a treatise on how society could ‘progress’ according to a new set of values, dehumanizing as they are, which enabled technocratic control with no constraints. That Hideous Strength is simply a fictional account of seeding this trajectory in western society.
Lewis ably describes the mentality of the modern person: they seek to perfect humanity by changing it all at once, instead of sorting the good from the bad and letting the good predominate. He misses the reason why they do this and why this is bad.
For Lewis, that life without God would be meaningless and have no morality or purpose is taken as sacrament, but nothing of the sort seems to be true. People without God can be as ethical as the religious and will end up at roughly the same conclusions because morality is commonsense adaptation.
He blames “relativism” and “subjectivism” for what are essentially errors of solipsism, or the human mind thinking that it can replace the mechanisms of nature with something like the human ego. This misses the point that human solipsism impedes accepting both Reality and any gods within it.
As others have noted, Lewis simply assigns all human evils to diabolical demons and skips out on the hard questions:
In the story, Lewis brilliantly describes all of the evils of That Hideous Strength—that is, the grip of the devil, earth’s guardian angel gone rogue—with each new evil progressively revealed to be worse than the previous one. Bureaucratic tyranny, subjectivism, social gospelism, scientism, puritanism, Gnosticism, fascism, and communism each appear in varied form during the story. “That Hideous Strength holds all this Earth in its fist to squeeze as it wishes,” Ransom explains. Yet, no matter how much the devil might be involved, humans have freely chosen the paths by which evil has made itself known.
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. There was now at last a real chance for fallen Man to shake off that limitation of his powers which mercy had imposed upon him as a protection from the full results of his fall. If this succeeded, Hell would be at last incarnate. Bad men, while still in the body, still crawling on this little globe, would enter that state which, heretofore, they had entered only after death, would have the diuturnity and power of evil spirits. Nature, all over the globe of Tellus, would become their slave; and of that dominion no end, before the end of time itself, could be certainly foreseen.
The devil might be the most powerful of angels, but he can only manipulate, not make; only distort, not create. Thus, through a perversion of the gift of free will, men have become fallen, worshipping themselves and their works, thus remaking the world not in God’s image, but in Satan’s.
If we view the world from the religious perspective that holds that an absolutely moral God rules over us all, then any evils in the world must come from a shadow side to God that is called Satan. However, this lets humanity off the hook for its own behavior.
A saner view holds that realistic people choose functional options for their own behavior and receive good results (generally) in response, but people with low intelligence, bad character, or other biological defects pursue bad decisions in order to feel “good” for a moment, and get bad results.
Human history shows us rising above our problems by learning in parallel how the world works and how our own minds work. We are not bouncing between God and Satan but between ignorance and knowledge, with those who refuse to accept knowledge becoming insane.
Lewis was onto something when he described “Scientism,” which is a replacement for religion that idolizes not science but some science, meaning the cherry-picked parts of science that support the human desire for total domination.
Materialists are materialist mostly to deny anything beyond their control. They are not materialists because they are atheists, but atheists because are materialist. They do not suffer from a lack of God; they would reject him even if he were standing before them. They want to be God.
They use science and anything else to rationalize and justify this end. They do not care what is real; they only care what sounds good enough to them and their social group to justify their exercise of their power, which they only feel when they are crushing someone or something (nature, culture) else.
Perhaps Lewis is at his best when he describes the Utopian mentality as a belief that individuals adopt in order to feel powerful and important, as he describes in That Hideous Strength:
It sounds rather in Busby’s style to say that humanity is at the cross-roads. But 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 recondition it; make man a really efficient animal. If it doesn’t — well, we’re done.
He opens the book with a quotation about the Tower of Babel, a parable like Frankenstein about how when humanity seeks to reject the order of nature, it becomes as horribly lost as Ulysses and as narcissistic and manic as Ahab.
Like the Garden of Eden parable which preceded it, this story shows humans deciding that improving on life is not enough; they must replace the order of nature with an order of human intentions and feelings, so that the humans involve feel more significant than life itself.
Comparable to so many human urges, this one seems to be a defiance against death and obscurity, and rejects the notion that humans fit within an order and hierarchy of nature, instead seeking to rule that order through things that appeal to the human mind that are not found in nature, like equality.
The problem in this view is not subjectivism but objectivism, since through it humanity claims to define truth so that they can later edit it and control it. Truth is not reality, but a human notion which in theory represents reality, but by its nature can never fully represent it.
Human minds are simpler than reality. Our symbols for reality, called “truths,” tell us human conclusions about how the world works and leave out most of the complexity, therefore are always subject to one detail presumed to be a detail that turns out to be structurally important.
The term “progress” came about because it can reasonably be used to rationalize anything. The human desire for power and importance hides behind all sorts of rationalizations, whether religious or secular, and all of them are as Lewis notes, an attempt to exercise power over others.
In my view, Lewis should have made a more coherent argument: the problem with humanity is solipsism, or denial of reality and the God/gods it includes, and that science can help us out of this if done well. Poorly-done science, like anything else inverted, is destructive, but not all science is this way.
Taking that further, he could have argued that a diligent scientist will discover the lacunae in our observations and analysis that indicates the possibility of God, and being agnostics because this is the actual scientific position, will explore it further.
Humanity needs no further mysticism. Huxley explained the disorder better than Lewis: the denial of God comes from the denial of reality that is required by human solipsism, not the other way around. Humans are by nature solipsistic until they desire to learn enough to escape that state.
The “progress” that Lewis described was both industrial and political. The two were combined, applying the factory model to humanity, mostly to make reality seem like something tangible to the human mind so that it could feel it could control it and be in power.
Advocates of that early form of progress — let us call it “Progress 1.0” versus the mostly-ideological “Progress 2.0” of today — would be called technocrats today, which also misses the point:
We live in modernity. That means 1.) inaction by the individual is preferred by society, 2.) efficiency is given demigod status, 3.) fitting an individual into a predictable box will provide the greatest efficiency, 4.) fitting an individual into a box with dimensions so perfect and predictable that the individual can be effectively deemed a “commodity” is an ideal, 5.) the priests of efficiency are the technocrats, 6.) if an individual can be commoditized and inactive, devoid of all internal stimulus to act, the priestly class of efficiency has done a great service to society in the name of efficiency.
That’s not how reality works though, a detail that is lost on many technocrats. To their credit, many technocrats do not stop trying. Tenacity can be an important quality. There is a limit, however, to how much credit such a person deserves. One who tries bad things against fellow humans repeatedly that leads to considerable harm and pain for that human and does so with tenacity is a sociopath.
It is not coincidental that so many of the mass murderers of the past century, the Century of the Great State (1917-2016), have been either members of the technocratic class or proto-technocrats operating for the good of efficiency or other utilitarian ends of questionable moral value.
Technology is not the source of their motivation; they are motivated by solipsism, and choose technology because like mysticism, love, compassion, empathy, art, and science it is adopted by every schizophrenic and psychopath as a way to justify his control over others.
The kings ruled without a need to see their power flexed; they knew it was there, and realized that the only way for them to retire into history as heroes was to rule well, which ironically meant that the best of them passed into the textbooks as having uneventful tenures.
Often an uneventful term of office for a leader simply means that problems were anticipated and solved indirectly and informally without trying to recreate humanity through social engineering and progress. They accepted the world as it was and chose the best options, avoiding the chaos of progress.
If we are honest about these progressives, we will simply say that they are peasants pretending to be kings, and in order to do that, they need some pretense of higher truth like dualistic religion or science in order to make their rule seem legitimate.
As Lewis aptly describes, these types also like to portray their progress as “freedom,” something Huxley also touches on. The human desire to be free of reality leads him into ever more manipulative systems and eventually enslaves him to the pretenses and illusions he has become dependent on.
Frazier took time to reorganize his behavior. He looked steadily toward the window, against which the rain was beating heavily. “Now that we know how positive reinforcement works and why negative doesn’t,” he said at last, “we can be more deliberate, and hence more successful, in our cultural design. We can achieve a sortof control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That’s the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement – there’s no restraint and no revolt. By a careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave – the motives, the desires, the wishes.” – B.F. Skinner, Walden Two, pp. 215-216
Human arrogance takes the form of asserting that we are the universe, and all things exist in us; that nature adapts to us, not us to it. We pretend not to be God but to be everything, a condition called solipsism which is inherent to those who navigate the world through their minds.
As Art Schopenhauer pointed out, we know the world through thoughts, and often confuse those thoughts for reality. When this happens enough, we mistake the source of those thoughts, ourselves, with the force creating the world they are thinking about.
Your standard human enjoys control because it allows him to feel his power. To do that, he must be the cudgel that crushes another or destroys something like an acre of forest that can become a profitable and egalitarian fast food joint instead of those unruly trees.
Nature is more complex than humanity. It has been here far longer than us and is much bigger. Its order does not fit into the neat matrices of orderly boxes that humans use to think, such as categories and symbols, nor our view of the world as something inside of our brains.
Consequently, people drift toward power because it lets them achieve the individualistic triad:
If we look at the broader spectrum of literature, we see how solipsism versus realism lurks at the core of all human interactions and, like Ulysses, we only grow by having experiences that force us to change our actions, therefore changing our thinking to disabuse ourselves of illusion.