I’m inhabiting a particularly unpleasant circle of grading hell at the moment, but a series of student papers has given me the opportunity to escape for a moment of throughtful reflection. The assignment–given to sophomores in a core course–required students to connect the dots between The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength, and then use two “classic” authors to reflect on the larger themes articulated by Lewis. Among the authors they could have chosen as foils are Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Locke. To adapt the phrasing of one of more colorful former colleagues, Lewis has more in common with “Team Classical and Christian” than with “Team Early Modern Liberal.” In any event, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
At issue, for our purposes, is Lewis’ critique of the ambitious project of modern science, which holds out the prospect of the abolition of man. The students by and large get that. Some of them (and this begins to separate the sheep from the goats) also understand that (and how) the masters of this project—Lewis calls them the Conditioners in Abolition, and they comprise the leadership of N.I.C.E. (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments) in That Hideous Strength—have also abandoned their humanity in their quest for power over nature.
What I find interesting is that many of my students seem confident that Hobbes and Locke unambiguously and unreservedly side with Lewis against the bad guys. This is the Hobbes who defines scientific understanding to be demonstrated by being able to manipulate causes so as to produce effects more or less on demand. And this is the Locke who devotes the most important chapter of the Second Treatis of Government to a theory of property that has at its core the human transformation and appropriation of an “almost worthless” nature. Both authors share a non-teleological view of nature that makes it at best indifferent to human purposes. We are not at home in nature and have to exert ourselves to create a comfortable place. Regarded in this way, Hobbes and Locke might seem to be candidates for employment by N.I.C.E. rather than inveterate opponents of its designs.
But my students focus on the classical liberal doctrines of rights and limited government to argue that Hobbes and Locke provide ammunition for the opponents of anti-natural modern science. They seem confident, in other words, that our institutions and our ideology are sufficient to control the totalitarian excesses of the project Lewis so elegantly describes in the two works. And they don’t see any tensions in the theory that grounds the institutions and the ideology, on the one hand, and the scientific project, on the other. So long as we hold fast to rights, call for frequent elections, and maintain a separation of powers, we’re safe enough, so they think.
Suffice it to say that I don’t think Lewis shares their confidence, nor do I. Do not many of our political leaders often express an impatience with the forms and formalities of constitutional government, deprecating the “red tape” that the figures associated with N.I.C.E. also scorn? Don’t many of us support scientific research on embryonic stem cells—leaving aside questions of humanity—because those who want to conduct it promise us great rewards? And have we not in recent months been celebrating—without a tinge of irony—the victories brought by applied behavioral science in the presidential campaign?
Now, I don’t think that as a practical matter we can improve all that much on rights and limited government. The problem lies in the cultural and intellectual contexts in which we situate them. If, for example, we regard rights simply as socially approved or powerfully expressed wants—if, in other words, we decouple them from an understanding of our human dignity (with its responsibilities as well as its rights)—then it’s not clear to me that our adherence to a doctine of rights will pose much of an obstacle at all. If we disconnect desire from sin (the former being capable of being engineered or treated therapeutically, the latter of course not), they we might regard limitations on government as temporary expedients rather than as permanent necessities in a fallen world.
I tell my students that I regard my course as a success if I persuade them that the books I assigned are worth keeping, that they are lifelong possessions rather than mere one-semester rentals. If I succeeded, then perhaps they’ll revisit these works and find in them the resources to gain more clarity about our situation.