Lewis vs Haldane (rerun)

(I cross-posted my 2014 review of C S Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength over at Richochet, where a good comment thread has developed. Some of the comments reminded me of the extremely negative review of the book written by JBS Haldane in 1946, and Lewis’s response thereto.)

Haldane was an eminent British scientist (population genetics) and a Marxist. C S Lewis was…well, you probably already know who C S Lewis was.

Haldane’s critique was directed at the series of novels by 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 Lewis responded in a letter which remained unpublished for many of years.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 esoteric, but I believe the Lewis/Haldane controversy is very relevant to our current political and philosophical landscape.

To briefly summarize That Hideous Strength: 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? This lesson has remained with me all my life. That is one of the reasons why I cannot share Professor Haldanes exaltation at the banishment of Mammon from ‘a sixth of our planet’s surface’. I have already lived in a world from which Mammon was banished: it was the most wicked and miserable I have yet known. If Mammon were the only devil, it would be another matter. But where Mammon vacates the throne, how if Moloch takes his
place? As Aristotle said, ‘Men do not become tyrants in order to keep warm’. All men, of course, desire pleasure and safety. But all men also desire power and all men desire the mere sense of being ‘in the know’ or the ‘inner ring’, of not being ‘outsiders’: a passion insufficiently studied and the chief theme of my story. When the state of society is such that money is the passport to all these prizes, then of course money will be the prime temptation. But when the passport changes, the desires will remain.


2)Centralized scientific planning.

Haldane: “Mr. Lewis’s idea is clear enough. The application of science to human affairs can only lead to hell.” While denying that this is a correct statement of his views, Lewis goes on to say:

Every tyrant must begin by claiming to have what his victims respect and to give what they want. The majority in most modern countries respect science and want to be planned. And, therefore, almost by definition, if any man or group wishes to enslave us it will of course describe itself as ‘scientific planned democracy’.


My fears of such a tyranny will seem to the Professor either insincere or pusillanimous. For him the danger is all in the opposite direction, in the chaotic selfishness of individualism. I must try to explain why I fear more the disciplined cruelty of some ideological oligarchy. The Professor has his own explanation of this; he thinks I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I ‘stand to lose by social change’. And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp. I might add that it would be likewise easy for the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing _ad nauseam_, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits.

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. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme -— whose highest real claim is to reasonable prudence -— the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication.

This false certainty comes out in Professor Haldane’s article. He simply cannot believe that a man could really be in doubt about usury. I have no objection to his thinking me wrong. What shocks me is his instantaneous assumption that the question is so simple that there could be no real hesitation about it. It is breaking Aristotle’s canon—to demand in every enquiry that degree of certainty which the subject matter allows. And not **on your life** to pretend that you see further than you do.

Being a democrat, I am opposed to all very drastic and sudden changes of society (in whatever direction) because they never in fact take place except by a particular technique. That technique involves the seizure of power by a small, highly disciplined group of people; the terror and the secret police follow, it would seem, automatically. I do not think any group good enough to have such power. They are men of like passions with ourselves. The secrecy and discipline of their organisation will have already inflamed in them that passion for the inner ring which I think at least as corrupting as avarice; and their high ideological pretensions will have lent all their passions the dangerous prestige of the Cause. Hence, in whatever direction the change is made, it is for me damned by its _modus operandi_. The worst of all public dangers is the committee of public safety.  The character in _That Hideous Strength_ whom the Professor never mentions is Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the secret police. She is the common factor in all revolutions; and, as she says, you won’t get anyone to do her job well unless they get some kick out of it.

Professor Haldane’s article can be found here.

Lewis’s response appears in the essay collection Of Other Worlds;, edited by Walter Hooper; excerpts are on-line at this site. There’s also a Wikipedia article on Haldane.

18 thoughts on “Lewis vs Haldane (rerun)”

  1. To clarify: when I said that some of the comments reminded me of Haldane’s extremely negative review, I didn’t mean that the comments themselves were negative, rather, that they touched on the issues raised in the Lewis/Haldane controversy.

  2. Indeed, it seems to sum up the gulf between libertarianism – or maybe better, classical liberalism – and the modern left perfectly. Especially the idea Marxism and environmentalism in its current Gaia-worship incarnation are indistinguishable from religion.

    >>Every tyrant must begin by claiming to have what his victims respect and to give what they want.
    That applies to every charlatan and virtually politician as well.

  3. The funny(?) thing is that the British government actually has a thing called NICE. It is the bureaucracy charged with telling sick and older people that their lives are not worth saving, sort of like Obamacare’s death panels.

  4. Actually the job of NICE is to find out whether medicines and other treatments are good or lousy value for money, and thereby determine whether the NHS in England should supply them. If you disagree with their findings you are at liberty to pay for the treatment yourself.

    You know the sort of thing: treatment X costs a million bucks and gives you an expected extra lifespan of a fortnight, all of it sunk deep in dementia. Then the NHS won’t fund it. If Medicaid and Medicare and so on don’t have such an explicit system then they must presumably have an implicit one. Personally I think explicit better – that way the conclusions can be challenged. US insurers presumably have something similar else they’d go bust. Since the like is unavoidable, the only interesting questions are whether it’s explicit and challengeable, whether it’s honest and largely competent, and whether its decisions are timely and arrived at at reasonable cost.

    If you don’t want that sort of thing, then all medicine must be practised as patient-pays, so that he can do his own equivalent.

  5. NICE in the NHS has a thumb on the scale of efficacy. It is similar to the one planned by IPRB here. So far, the Democrats have shrunk from implementation. I suspect they know it is an election killer, like the Employer mandate which has yet to appear.

    We live in a Theocracy although the religion is a form of godless Calvinism. Good intentions seem to take the place of god. I myself am agnostic but have not enough certainty in my own virtue or wisdom to declare there is no god.

  6. >>I myself am agnostic but have not enough certainty in my own virtue or wisdom to declare there is no god.

    I was raised Catholic, choir boy and all that, but long ago rejected religious orthodoxy. I do however believe in God. Otherwise, life and the universe have no meaning. I believe we exist to experience, and from experience learn. I believe all this has meaning and a purpose.

    On another note, science – of which I am generally a believer – cannot begin to explain how the universe came into being. Neither can science explain how life came into being, how inanimate matter became alive.

  7. Interesting that you posted this today, as I have been having a discussion about tyranny, healthcare, and Obama with very bright people of the next generation who have some familiarity with Lewis, but likely not this. I was thinking of this very topic the whole last 24 hours.

  8. The key to the ongoing debate about the proper scope and nature of political power is, as Lewis says, how close the various theories of government approach theocratic rule, regardless of whether or not an actual deity is involved.

    It is not an accident that the most gruesome tyrannies in human history have been theocracies, and there is very little difference between the human sacrifice of the Central American empires, among others, and the recent totalitarian regimes who have demanded the lives of millions for having the wrong religion, race, political beliefs, or, in Cambodia’s grotesque experience, spectacles.

    The current theocratic monstrosity in the west is the arrogant progressivism, coupled with, and subsuming, environmentalism, whose advocates assert the right by credentialed superiority to manage any and all human activities, even including deciding who is allowed to shower in which locker room.

    Of course, the obvious theocratic tyranny rampaging without apology across the globe is islamofascism. In this bizarre case, it is the elites in the west who unceasingly apologize for the actions of ISIS et al, while the beheaders and bombers exult in their cruelty and barbarism.

    As in all human affairs, there will come a day of reckoning. We will see it first in Europe, as they come to grips with the islamic invasion, and then across the world.

    I don’t think that world will be the magical land of rainbows and unicorns the progs are dreaming about…

  9. “Of course, the obvious theocratic tyranny rampaging without apology across the globe is islamofascism. In this bizarre case, it is the elites in the west who unceasingly apologize for the actions of ISIS et al, while the beheaders and bombers exult in their cruelty and barbarism.”


    I monitor some rather leftish media and I have never heard any such apologies. There’s a lot of media out there, so I’m sure it’s possible, but “unceasing”?

  10. I note, Mike K, you’ve not told me how the various American systems ration health care. But they must do it, short of discovering a magic money tree.

  11. Come to think of it, Mike, your opposition to the idea is bizarre. You (and I) oppose The Left because it almost always deals in a fantasy world, unrooted in reality. How, then, can you adopt the fantastic notion that health care should not be rationed (in any system where the patient doesn’t pay for his own treatment)? It would be a recipe for infinite budgets. Citizen A will always be happy to splurge Citizen B’s wealth on Citizen A’s health care.

  12. “Haldane accuses Lewis of being anti-democracy”

    An odd accusation, considering that Haldane deeplyl admired Stalin.

    It’s also instructive that Haldane was praising the “democratic” Soviet Union in 1946, at which time its evil nature had long been demonstrated.

    It’s also curious that Haldane would solve the problem of “usury” with universal slavery.

  13. “you’ve not told me how the various American systems ration health care.”

    “Come to think of it, Mike, your opposition to the idea is bizarre.”

    The “idea” being rationing ?

    The free market allows people to choose what they will spend limited resources on. I guess you could call that “rationing” but I think it is freedom. Private property is rationing ownership to those who paid for it or inherited it.

    I have various forms of insurance. Fire insurance, car insurance, life insurance. Why ?

    The principle of insurance, at least in this country, goes back to around 1750 when Ben Franklin, one of the smartest men I have ever studied, began the concept of fire insurance in the colonies. I don’t know the history of insurance in England.

    The logical next step was to form a fire insurance company. In 1751, Franklin and members of his Union Fire Company met with firefighters from other brigades for such a purpose. Over several meetings, insurance articles were discussed, drawn up, and presented publicly. All interested in subscribing to the project were told to sign a Deed of Settlement. The first to sign, Governor James Hamilton, was the son of famed “Philadelphia lawyer” Andrew Hamilton (see Independence Hall). Directly below Hamilton’s signature are those of Benjamin Franklin and Philip Syng. Initially, over 70 prominent Philadelphia citizens became subscribers. On April 13, 1752, these men came together to elect a Board of Directors and Treasurer, who met for the first time on May 11, 1752.

    At that meeting it was affirmed that those subscribed had agreed to establish an insurance company by the name of The Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insuring of Houses from Loss by Fire, and “to be and continue to be Contributors unto and equal Sharers in the losses as well as the gains.” A dozen Directors were elected to the board. Franklin’s name headed the list, followed by Philip Syng.

    How were “gains” to be accomplished? People posted sums of money which we now call “Premiums” and invested the corpus of premium funds.

    Over time The Contributionship’s assets grew and they invested their money in various ways. They wrote mortgages and invested in stocks and bonds. They donated money to the volunteer fire companies who responded to structures insured by The Contributionship.

    If sums paid out in damages exceeded premiums, the fund lost money and would soon disappear. We all know this is true.

    How is health insurance different ? It didn’t used to be. You “insure” for unlikely events. Read that article about fire insurance. They had requirements for insurability, like no wooden structures or too high a structure. When I began in practice in 1972 we were at the end of the era of “indemnity style” health insurance. If you had a heart attack, you collected a sum to pay the bill. Nobody insured routine care.

    I don’t want to make this as long as the chapter on economics in my History of Medicine book, but it is all there.

    Rationing, real rationing, resulted from promising more than could be delivered in an economic system.

  14. “the history of insurance in England.”

    The name escapes me but it was a mathematically inclined, canny, Scott. It was a life insurance plan, designed for the benefit of the families of deceased clergy, which set the prime example for all types of insurance that followed … a system favored by free men and free enterprise for some 300 years. (Except, lately, of course, in the case of the hyperbolic, so-called, health-“insurance” plan that is Obamacare; actuarial table don’t enter into it.)

  15. When there are as many votes from the west for sanctions against any islamic state or group as there have been against Israel, get back to me about the western elites.

  16. pst314 @November 7th, 2015 at 11:26 am says:

    “Haldane accuses Lewis of being anti-democracy”

    An odd accusation, considering that Haldane deeply admired Stalin.

    It’s also instructive that Haldane was praising the “democratic” Soviet Union in 1946, at which time its evil nature had long been demonstrated.

    Unlike Nazi Germany, the USSR had not been conquered and its crimes exposed in complete and damning detail. In fact that never happened. And in 1946 the evidence was extremely incomplete. A considerable body of opinion on the Left ignored it – still does.

    In 1946, Haldane, like many others, believed the USSR’s public professions of democracy. For instance, the Rev. Hewlett Johnson (the Red Dean of Canterbury), wrote of “the essential democracy of the Stalin Constitution”. Johnson is a perfect example of how the benevolent professions of Communism absolutely blinded many liberals to the realities of Communist practice.

  17. But Mike, your fire insurer surely doesn’t offer to pay you an unrestricted amount when you claim? It rations the payout in some way – perhaps to a nominated sum, perhaps to an independent valuation of the losses suffered.

    Similarly with health insurance I assume: they’ll pay for certain treatments and not for others. How could it be otherwise?

    “The free market allows people to choose what they will spend limited resources on.” Indeed; but health insurance means that risks are pooled, and therefore opens you to the possibility that A is spending B’s money. Hence the need for rationing.

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