J B S 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. In 1946, Haldane published an article critiquing a 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 Lewis responded in a letter which remained unpublished for many of years.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 estoteric, but I believe the Lewis/Haldane controversy is very relevant to our current political and philosophical landscape.
In That Hideous Strength–my review is here–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. In the novel, NICE turns out to be a conspiracy devoted to very diabolical purposes, as Mark gradually discovers. See the review for more detail
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 Haldanes 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.
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.
16 thoughts on “Summer Rerun: Lewis vs Haldane”
I have a copy of Pelican Book A84, The Scientific Attitude, by C H Waddington in 1941, which quotes Haldane with approval, disparages Fascism and praises Communism while stepping back from its political ideas. Waddington’s book may well have contributed to inspiring That Hideous Strength. Here’s a quote, which I could imagine inspiring Lewis to project Waddington’s vision of what well-funded experts allowed free rein might achieve: The NICE/
I always found the term rather creepy.
I always found the term rather creepy.
I suspect he was referring to the primitive form of polling at the time.
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.
Hence we find what is true of Yale and I suspect many “elite” colleges.
Haldane is now known to have been a communist spy. I don’t think that is tangential to the discussion. https://www.amazon.com/Comrade-Haldane-Too-Busy-Holiday/dp/1594039836
The quote “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.” – ties in with my essay on 25%.
Re Haldane’s Communist affiliations–I think Lewis’s point: ” 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”…has a lot to do with the motivations of a high % of Leftists of the academic flavor.
I read the “Ransom” trilogy for the first time recently (unaware that Lewis had written any Science Fiction until I watched an interview of Walter Hooper by Eric Metaxas).
All three books are very good “classic style science fiction”, and I recommend them. The third in the series, That Hideous Strength, contained a stunning revelation for me.
I consider myself a student of human motivations and attitudes. But, I had not appreciated the level of motivational force that is exerted by the simple desire to be on “the inside”.
“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.”
I see the hushed whispers and knowing looks of the characters in the book, everywhere around me.
Especially in the current crop of “reformers” that wish to use the force of government to make us conform to their vague, unconsidered, utopian urges.
What we describe as “the left” was previously recognized as a form of religion.
My biography of Robespierre is titled, “Fatal Purity.”
One quote from the book,
“The more godlike I prove Robespierre’s conduct to have been, the greater will be the horror in which his memory will be held by the upper and middle classes.”
They see themselves as pure and above reproach. If you reproach them, even mildly, you are evil.
That is a religion.
I’ll have to add it to the list of books I’d find enjoyable and worth reading. Unfortunately, this list keeps getting longer, never shorter, and would probably reach to the Moon or beyond.
I find it interestingly prophetic that Lewis chose a woman for his villain. Women were hardly well represented in the upper reaches of power at the time. We see Merkel and May, however much they might disagree, in complete agreement on the need to quash dissent and extend their personal power. Not that this is an exclusively feminine preoccupation.
Haldane represents the perfect example of the danger of blindly following scientists out of their field. Whatever his accomplishments, and they were many and substantial, he would have made the perfect commissar and would have been both bewildered and indignant when he found himself inevitably in front of a firing squad. Khrushchev was probably only marginally literate but he survived countless intellectuals to die in bed, and probably signed the death warrants of many.
I’m heading into a monster biography of De Gaulle and will emerge in a couple of weeks. All I know just now is that he loved Edmund Rostand, and knew “Cyrano de Bergerac, by heart as a young man.
Maybe I should work on my very rudimentary French to read it.
@ Mike K “The Fantasticks” was based on a play by Rostand.
@ Victor Lewis has an essay “The Inner Ring” that explores the theme in detail https://www.scribd.com/document/24204419/C-S-Lewis-The-Inner-Ring
He did not like school. I too was sent off into that environment. A lot of people become conservative in orientation, just because of their bad experience with others, when they were growing up.
I somehow escaped that fate. I have already made my view of his writing plain I believe.
And (with apologies to a Star Trek: Voyager script writer), any human who worships themself has a petaQ for a god.
AVI, here is a link to that essay which may be easier to read than a pdf:
“Haldane is now known to have been a communist spy. I don’t think that is tangential to the discussion.”
I also think it is not tangential to hostility to Lewis’ arguments—especially to hostility expressed in pseudo-psychological “explanations” of why Lewis opposed tyranny by bien pensants.
Anon 1123am…”He did not like school. I too was sent off into that environment. A lot of people become conservative in orientation, just because of their bad experience with others, when they were growing up.”
George Orwell really hated school, too. Do you consider him to have been a conservative?
@ Anon. I don’t know of evidence linking attendance at boys public schools with conservatism. Perhaps wealthier students from old money were more likely to be so, but I doubt even that. And Lewis was not from that class.
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