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  • Lewis vs Haldane

    Posted by David Foster on September 16th, 2009 (All posts by )

    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 Lewis responded in a letter which remained unpublished for many of years.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.

    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? 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

    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.

    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.


    11 Responses to “Lewis vs Haldane”

    1. renminbi Says:

      It is interesting that Lewis continues to hold up very well, while more “relevent” books become quickly dated.Thanks for the posting.
      By the way, I am agnostic.

    2. Jay Manifold Says:

      “That Hideous Strength,” notwithstanding its Charles Williams-influenced bits, which are much better in concept than execution, remains my favorite Lewis book.

      I especially note, in the passages quoted above: “A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right.” Lewis was a second-born, three years younger than his brother. Later-borns are famously more accepting of probabilistic worldviews. Haldane was a firstborn who clung to Communism long after the democides in the Soviet Union became public knowledge in the West.

    3. david foster Says:

      JayM…”Later-borns are famously more accepting of probabilistic worldviews.” That is really interesting. Is there research on this available?

    4. alanstorm Says:

      “I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of
      men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over

      “Being a democrat, I am opposed to all very drastic and
      sudden changes of society (in whatever direction)…”

      The definition of “democrat” has flipped 180 degrees in 60 years.

    5. Jay Manifold Says:

      David – In general, see Frank Sulloway’s Born to Rebel, but note the telltale distribution of reviews on Amazon. It would be interesting to graph the birth order of the reviewers. ;^)

    6. david foster Says:

      Jay..thanks. Note that with smaller families, there has to be a higher % of first-borns in the overall population mix.

      In his study of decision-making, Prof Dietrich Doerner ran a simulation of the job of fire chier (for fighting forest fires.) He found that subjects who applied rigid, context-insensitive rules…such as “always keep the units widely deployed” or “always keep the units concentrated”…tended to fail at the game.

      In another experiment, dealing with a simulated clothing factory, the unsuccessful “factory managers” tended to use unqualified expressions: constantly, every time, without exception, absolutely, etc…while the successful ones tended toward qualified expressions: now and then, in general, specifically, perhaps,…

      My review of Doerner’s book is here.

    7. pst314 Says:

      “Haldane accuses Lewis of being anti-democracy”

      Ironic that a Stalinist could make such an accusation. And instructive that Haldane’s reputation among liberals has not suffered because of his advocacy for evil.

      Thank you very much for a fascinating post.

    8. Brett_McS Says:

      Yeh, those old guys knew a thing or two!

      As Lewis notes himself, That Hideous Strength is a fictionalized version of the essay The Abolition of Man, which is also on line.

    9. bgc Says:

      wrt Frank Sulloway and Born to Rebel see this:

      When an argument is coercively-enforced by the legal system (or indeed by any form of coercion: political, managerial, media or mob), it is not science.

      Indeed, in such a sitation science is impossible.

    10. Jay Manifold Says:

      Having read (indeed, having alluded to above) the negative reviews on Amazon, I’m not surprised. Sulloway’s thesis has explanatory power but not as much as he wishes it had, a point that balanced reviews tend to note.

    11. dearieme Says:

      Top post! On the first born: I read somewhere that the figures are dominated by only children; if you reclassify them as “last born”, everything changes.