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C. S. Lewis and J. R.R. Tolkien on science and authoritarianism

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MichaelKugler From Mike Kugler in Northwestern Review:

Long before Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings and Lewis converted to “mere Christianity,” their suspicions of modern science, the heart of the modern worldview, and anxiety about Europe’s future were latent. The Great War illustrated terribly how well-grounded were their concerns. Later, in the 1930s, Europeans watched creeping authoritarian and fascist movements, further illustrating the danger from the Europe-wide threat of totalitarianism.

Through the 1940s Lewis’ association of Darwinian evolution and science augmenting human power and arrogance deepened. His greatest concern was not evolution alone; I don’t know of evidence that Lewis dismissed Darwin’s argument or conclusions. Lewis’ concern, I think, was that the Darwinian account afforded rational permission to “Progressives” to oppose the Christian faith, its rich history and tradition, including the medieval and renaissance account of nature and humanity. H.R. Haldane, Julian Huxley (Aldous’ brother), Bertrand Russell, and others saw science as the only source of truth; further, they argued it was a source of power to improve human life.29 They gave real credibility to the social science reform speculations of Comte, Marx, and by the 20th century, many others. Such social sciences promised to transform the human condition, achieved through eugenics and euthanasia. For Lewis this led directly to the race wars and the extermination of unwanted populations first tested on late imperial populations and culminating in the Nazi’s Final Solution.30

Article here (public access).
More.

The suspicion was, of course, of naturalism, and it was well justified. Naturalism is degenerating into a post-modern war on evidence and when evidence cannot be accepted, authority is all that is left (authoritarianism). For Lewis’s views on such matters, see Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength (both online). See also: Jay Richards and Jonathan Witt, The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot.

Note: Actually Lewis did end up doubting and hating Darwinism:

September 13, 1951: I have read nearly the whole of Evolution [probably Acworth’s unpublished “The Lie of Evolution”] and am glad you sent it. I must confess it has shaken me: not in my belief in evolution, which was of the vaguest and most intermittent kind, but in my belief that the question was wholly unimportant. I wish I were younger. What inclines me now to think that you may be right in regarding it as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders. The section on Anthropology was especially good. … The point that the whole economy of nature demands simultaneity of at least a v. great many species is a v. sticky one.

But it is almost impossible nowadays to inject fact into a post-modern stream of Darwin consciousness so one should not be too hard on people carried along in the stream who do not know this.

See also: How naturalism rots science from the head down

Can science survive long in a post-modern world? It’s not clear.

and

Americans don’t fear the discovery of alien life. So why do some commentators insist they do? The only puzzle is why various figures who cluster around NASA invent and circulate the idea that religious people, in particular, are likely to have a problem with the idea that we are not alone in the universe. That’s never been true. … The notion of a vast, pitiless void is actually modern.

20 Replies to “C. S. Lewis and J. R.R. Tolkien on science and authoritarianism

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    Didn’t they both serve?

  2. 2
    Seversky says:

    Yes, both served in the British Army in WW1

  3. 3
    News says:

    kairosfocus at 1 and Seversky at 2, WWI defined so many things – in an odd way, deeper things than WWII.

    WWII, after all, was a bit of a no-brainer.

    A relative of mine once said, while disentangling some Veterans’ Affairs issue for my dad (WWII vet), “If it weren’t for guys like him we’d all be Nazis now.” Which almost nobody wanted.

    That is to say, for most of the Anglosphere, it wasn’t a big learning curve. So many of the things it changed were technologies, not fundamental beliefs.

    So I suspect that WWI was more of an intellectual watershed.

  4. 4
    Seversky says:

    I tend to think of the Second World War as Round Two of the First. The old imperial monarchies had gone – apart from the British – but the old ambitions remained. They just re-surfaced under the leadership of populist demagogues.

    The British still clung to the notion of empire but the reality was that it was breaking up around them. Even without WWII it was only a matter of time before India and the African colonies were granted full independence. All that was left after that was the Commonwealth which was little more than an ex-colonials club.

    I think the period of of relative peace, stability and prosperity after 1945 came about in part because people had had a belly-full of war, They knew first hand what it meant and didn’t want any more of it. There was also a generation of political leaders who had served in the armed forces or in wartime administrations. That experience bred discipline and organizational skills that you don’t get in peacetime.

    But they have mostly gone. What you have now are generations who take all that relative peace and stability for granted. That’s all they’ve grown up with. The only knowledge they have of war comes from Hollywood movies and video games where the Good Guys mow down The Bad Guys in large numbers and then they all get up and do it all over again. Small wonder the White House is occupied by an administration where SNAFU is the order of the day and headed by a real estate developer and TV reality show host.

  5. 5
    kairosfocus says:

    Seversky,

    I agree, this was the new 30 years war, with new management for several key players and some side-swapping. Italy and Japan were allies on the first round. Adventurism in Ethiopia and China, I suppose.

    I am not so sure the cold war era was anything but a slow-burn WW III, threatening to go white hot several times. Two German grabs for domination of Mackinder’s Heartland followed by a Russian one.

    As for the Commonwealth, my early Passports specified Commonwealth Citizen. I suspect, it was intended to be stronger than it turned out to be. As at now, IIRC Commonwealth and Irish citizens can serve in the UK Parliament. The Privy Council is still a reality, issuing Orders in Council, and it has a Judicial section that is a final court of appeal.

    Brexit may make for interesting developments.

    On the US political scene, I suggest the key corrosive force has been the warping required to underwrite 45 years of abortion holocaust and what 60 millions dead. Never underestimate the corrosive power of mass blood guilt.

    KF

  6. 6
    JDH says:

    Seversky @4 I really think comments like this:

    “Small wonder the White House is occupied by an administration where SNAFU is the order of the day and headed by a real estate developer and TV reality show host.” should be avoided.

    The problem with your comment is its presumption of the agreement of others. It is stated not as your opinion, but as a fact. It appears you think everyone on this thread should agree that the Trump presidency is a disaster. Personally, although against Trump during the nomination process, I have been very pleased with his administration and his governance of the country. Making comments like the above is not necessary. It did not add at all to your point you were making and merely offended others.

  7. 7
    tribune7 says:

    Sev and JDH

    Small wonder the White House is occupied by an administration where SNAFU is the order of the day and headed by a real estate developer and TV reality show host.

    JDH is absolutely right. What you did was a drive-by snark that limits debate and leads to return fire ad hominem, which is not a good thing.

    To say that Trump is just a reality star or Reagan was just an actor or Kennedy was just a playboy or Truman was just a haberdasher is fine at a political rally but just derails things at a forum like this.

  8. 8
    Seversky says:

    kairosfocus @ 5

    Brexit may make for interesting developments.

    Interesting, certainly. Disastrous, possibly. I follow commentary on Brexit in the Financial Times by David Allen Green, an English lawyer and law blogger. I don’t always agree with him but he is informative and fair in my view.

  9. 9
    Seversky says:

    JDH @ 6

    The problem with your comment is its presumption of the agreement of others. It is stated not as your opinion, but as a fact. It appears you think everyone on this thread should agree that the Trump presidency is a disaster. Personally, although against Trump during the nomination process, I have been very pleased with his administration and his governance of the country. Making comments like the above is not necessary. It did not add at all to your point you were making and merely offended others.

    As far as I am concerned, I was stating my opinion, nothing more, and I was not assuming others agreed with me. In fact, I suspect there are more Trump supporters here than critics so I am not surprised that some found my comments offensive. But that is inevitable in these discussions.

    The OP referred to Lewis and Tolkien on science and authoritarianism. What deeply concerns me is the rise to power of populist demagogues in many countries around the world. In my view, they are the twenty-first century successors to the dictators of the previous century. Their only interest in democracy is as a path to power. Once in power, they regard the checks and balances of a democracy as barriers to their rightful exercise of absolute power, barriers they will ultimately remove as soon as they are able. I see Trump in that mold and we are fortunate indeed to have constitutional checks and balances to hold him in check because I fear his authoritarian instincts and those of his supporters. Remember that, as a businessman he has almost always run private companies where what he says goes. He has not had to answer to a board of directors and shareholders. Within his own sphere he is effectively a dictator and that is not a good grounding for running a constitutional democracy.

  10. 10
    Molson Bleu says:

    WWI was, without a doubt, a completely pointless and ego driven war WWII was little better and was the result of a very poorly thought out treaty to end WWI. We often read that WWII was a “just” war, but this is a qualifier that was assigned after the fact. We didn’t enter the war because of what Hitler was doing to the Jews. And, sadly, if we knew the extent of it at the time, that probably wouldn’t have been enough to get us in.

  11. 11
    kairosfocus says:

    MB, WW2 was a war that was the consequence of almost a decade of failure to stand up to growing aggression; it is not oh the Versailles treaty was utterly awful — it was much milder than what Germany imposed on Russia at Brest-Litovsk for instance. Reasonable rehabilitation of Germany was in hand in the 20 years, if there had been a willingness to change mindset. I also suggest that the hyperinflation was largely self-induced; that destabilised economy and politics alike. With the forced incorporation of Austria then Czechoslovakia, Hitler was in a position to dominate E Europe, the heartland in Mackinder’s Geopolitical thesis. The protection of Poland (and with it, of France once their Eastern protective partnership had been broken by Hitler) was a proper move by the UK and renewed war was inevitable once Hitler got enough power. If you are talking about the USA, France and Britain were the protectors of the US’ peace and safety, guardians of the Atlantic and its coastline. Once France fell and the UK was severely threatened, the US was in the war already, like it or not. That is why steps short of open belligerency were taken, lest the US find itself in an untenable, irretrievable position. For example, a major concern was the eastern bulge of Brazil, at Natal. The attack at Pearl Harbour and the declaration of war against the USA by Germany four days later leading to submarine attacks simply brought the US into full belligerency. Also, by then it was realised that rocketry and aircraft could go very far and that nuclear weapons were a serious prospect. WW2 was fought under the secret shadow of the timeline to develop nukes and the means to deliver same at long range. These were more than sufficient justification to act promptly. KF

  12. 12
    tribune7 says:

    MB

    –We didn’t enter the war because of what Hitler was doing to the Jews.–

    Little known very painful fact: Hitler didn’t start the Final Solution until after we entered the war: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_Solution

    Not that we had a choice as it was Hitler who declare war on us.

  13. 13
    Molson Bleu says:

    “it is not oh the Versailles treaty was utterly awful…”

    I realize that. But if the treaty had been resolved on more agreeable terms, the war may have been avoided. Hitler would still have existed but I would like to think that he would not have received the support that he did. But any talk like this is purely speculation.

  14. 14
    JDH says:

    Sever sky @9

    I was about to type a long response to your response when I came across this reasoning of yours…

    What deeply concerns me is the rise to power of populist demagogues in many countries around the world…Once in power, they regard the checks and balances of a democracy as barriers to their rightful exercise of absolute power…I see Trump in that mold

    For quite a while I have been trying to understand what it is about Donald Trump that really brings out irrational reasoning in others. I have seen two recent debates amongst supposed intellectuals ( one of them involving Stephen Pinker’s wife Rebecca Goldstein ) where in the midst of an argument about esoteric things like values, morality, and metaphysical truth, the more liberal of the debaters will suddenly launch into a personal invective against the 45th President of the United States. His name is bought up in the most obscure unrelated circumstances for some reason.

    Your accusation is on the surface unfounded. In my opinion, an objective analysis of the Trump administration has to be that NOTHING has been ACTUALLY DONE by this President to warrant such accusations against him. Again, I am not talking about what fantasies abound about what Donald Trump MIGHT have done, I am talking about HOW he has actually governed. NOTHING done by this administration has been dictatorial. As a matter of fact, much of what this President HAS DONE is reversing dictatorial executive order of the past administration. Donald Trump seems to continually ask for CONGRESS to act. WHY DO YOU RESPOND TO HIM WITH SUCH IRRATIONAL HATRED? I would really like to know.

  15. 15
    Seversky says:

    JDH @ 14

    For quite a while I have been trying to understand what it is about Donald Trump that really brings out irrational reasoning in others.

    How about on 23 January 2016 when he said during a campaign rally in Iowa:

    I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.

    And he was right. For his hardcore base supporters there is virtually nothing he could do or say that they wouldn’t cheer rather than condemn. Pure demagogue.

    Or how about Obama’s birth certificate? On August 6 2012 he tweeted:

    An ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.

    Obama is the only US President who was compelled to release his birth certificate. Obama is the first and, so far, the only colored US president. No connection? The hell there isn’t!

    Or how about Obamacare? Being a Republican while Obama was president was easy. All you had to know was that anything Obama was for, you were against. Trump loathes Obama so naturally Obamacare had to be repealed. Never mind that in 2013 in the richest country in the world 44 million people lacked coverage. Never mind that figure dropped to around 27 million by 2016. Never mind that number increased by 3.2 million during Trump’s first year in office. He doesn’t care. Why should he? There hasn’t been a day in his life when he’s had to choose between paying for health insurance or putting food on the table.

    In 2015 he said in an interview on CBS News:

    Everybody’s got to be covered. This is an un-Republican thing for me to say, I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.

    Republicans control the White House, Senate and the House. We still don’t have the Obamacare replacement he promised and I bet we never do. The last time Republicans did anything effective about improving healthcare was “Romneycare” in Massachusetts which, strangely enough, had a lot in common with the ACA.

    Actually, I don’t know why I bother. Nothing I say will have any effect whatsoever on Trump’s base. Roll on the mid-terms.

  16. 16
    tribune7 says:

    –I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.–

    That certainly is expert trolling.

    Why does that bother you more than when Obama said he was “really good at killing people”? http://www.businessinsider.com.....le-2013-11

    Or when Hillary cackled “We came, we saw, he died”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fgcd1ghag5Y

    At least with Trump you cam assume he wasn’t serious. The other two, well, their actions speak for themselves.

  17. 17
    rvb8 says:

    What many people forget in discussions about Tolkien and Lewis is that they fell out with each other. Tolkien converted to his mother’s Catholocism and was ostricised for it, and he could not stomach Lewis’s Protestant zeal; not to mention his Narnia series, which Tolkien thought of as the throwing together of Germanic, Greek, and Roman legends.

    To understand Tolkien best, (and he is infinately more nuanced and complex than Lewis), read “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.” You’ll soon understand his respect for science, and his loathing of modernism.

  18. 18
    tribune7 says:

    rvb @17, I’m sure they had fights and disagreements https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/column/c-s-lewis-and-the-catholic-church-3085

    But by all accounts they were friends to the end.

    You can be a Christian without embracing literalism or rejecting science.

  19. 19
    EricMH says:

    @t7, friends till the end (though somewhat estranged) seems confirmed by this comment thread:

    https://www.sf-fandom.com/vbulletin/showthread.php?16707-Tolkien-and-the-Death-of-C.S.-Lewis

    Looks like Tolkien did not approve of CS Lewis marrying a divorcee, but still wrote affectionately of him after CS Lewis’ death.

  20. 20

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