Friday, September 25, 2009

There is nothing new under the sun: The Lewis/Haldane controversy

David Foster posts (via Alex Tabarrok):

In 1946, J.B.S.* Haldane published an article critiquing a series of novels by C.S.** Lewis known as the Ransom Trilogy, and particularly the last book of the series, That Hideous Strength. Lewis responded in a letter which remained unpublished for many of years. All this may sound ancient and estoteric, but I believe the Lewis/Haldane controversy is very relevant to our current political and philosophical landscape.

To briefly summarize That Hideous Strength, which is the only book of the trilogy that I’ve read: Mark, a young sociologist, is hired by a government agency called NICE–the National Institute for Coordinated Experimentation–having as its stated mission the application of science to social problems. (Unbelievably, today the real-life British agency which establishes rationing policies for healthcare is also called NICE.) In the novel, NICE turns out to be a conspiracy devoted to very diabolical purposes, as Mark gradually discovers. It also turns out that the main reason NICE wanted to hire Mark is to get control of his wife, Jane (maiden name: Tudor) who has clairvoyant powers. The NICE officials want to use Jane’s abilities to get in touch with the magician Merlin and to effect a junction between modern scientific power and the ancient powers of magic, thereby bringing about the enslavement of mankind and worse. Jane, though, becomes involved with a group which represents the polar opposite of NICE, led by a philology professor named Ransom, who is clearly intended as a Christ-figure. The conflict between NICE and the Ransom group will determine the future of humanity.

A brilliantly written and thought-provoking book, which I highly recommend, even if, like me, you’re not generally a fan of fantasy novels.

With context established, here are some of the highlights of the Lewis/Haldane controversy:

1)Money and Power. In his article, Haldane attacks Lewis for the latter’s refusal to absolutely condemn usury, and celebrates the fact that “Mammon has been cleared off a sixth of our planet’s surface”…clearly referring to the Soviet Union. Here’s part of Lewis’s response:

The difference between us is that the Professor sees the ‘World’ purely in terms of those threats and those allurements which depend on money. I do not. The most ‘worldly’ society I have ever lived in is that of schoolboys: most worldly in the cruelty and arrogance of the strong, the toadyism and mutual treachery of the weak, and the unqualified snobbery of both. Nothing was so base that most members of the school proletariat would not do it, or suffer it, to win the favour of the school aristocracy: hardly any injustice too bad for the aristocracy to practise. But the class system did not in the least depend on the amount of pocket money. Who needs to care about money if most of the things he wants will be offered by cringing servility and the remainder can be taken by force?

3)Democracy and conservatism. Haldane accuses Lewis of being anti-democracy, which accusation Lewis denies. He expands on his views:

I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations.

*John Burdon Sanderson
** Clive Staples

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