C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is the third in his Ransom Trilogy and the least spacey of the three. A series that began with rocket ships, aliens, and outer space here concludes with philosophy, political intrigue, and a dystopian apocalyptic showdown. Written in between Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, Prof. Lewis’ work shares much in common with them both, as it explores the ways in which currently fashionable philosophies, economic trends, and political methods necessarily tend towards horrific ends. That Hideous Strength sets Prof. Lewis apart from Messrs. Huxley and Orwell, however, both in its supernaturalism and its attention to the decadence of the mid-century academic mindset, the latter of which helped establish the conditions for technocrats to lay claim to the status of intellectual elite. And in some ways, That Hideous Strength, while far less famous than its predecessor and successor, is able to provide the most compelling critique of our own time.
The principal antagonists in That Hideous Strength are the N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), an influential band of technocrats with powerful funding and coercive abilities. Their supporters in the British universities are known as “the Progressive Element,” and they represent a number of fashionable theories from late modernity, each possessing a utopian vision for the future. They are described in the book as being, “the first-fruits of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many people base their hopes of a better world” (Scribner 1996 ed., 23). Though perhaps most directly modeled on Fabianism, they also possess certain characteristics taken from neo-Darwinism, fascism, and even national socialism, referring to themselves as “applied science… from a national point of view” (37). The N.I.C.E.’s goal is ultimately “technocracy” (259).
George Orwell, in a 1945 review, described the goal of the N.I.C.E. as follows:
All superfluous life is to be wiped out, all natural forces tamed, the common people are to be used as slaves and vivisection subjects by the ruling caste of scientists, who even see their way to conferring immortal life upon themselves. Man, in short, is to storm the heavens and overthrow the gods, or even to become a god himself.
And while this is obviously a literary satire, especially designed for the genre, Mr. Orwell doesn’t miss the fact that this outlook on life was alive and well in his own day:
There is nothing outrageously improbable in such a conspiracy. Indeed, at a moment when a single atomic bomb – of a type already pronounced “obsolete” – has just blown probably three hundred thousand people to fragments, it sounds all too topical. Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters, and we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realisable.
Orwell understood that Lewis’ N.I.C.E. was but a composite picture of the managerial revolutionaries, a powerful force in intellectual and political thought, and while Prof. Lewis’ literary flare might make for some fantastic apocalypticism, the exaggeration could only be slight.
Indeed, That Hideous Strength, while unapologetically employing spiritual and Christian themes (the good guys are fighting for the true God whereas the bad guys are being governed by demons), still manages to give us a dynamic and nuanced picture of dystopia recognizable by anyone of free mind, believer or not. While Huxley’s prophecies did in part come true, they seem rather one-sided today. Orwell’s picture was straightforward and obvious and so exaggerated as to be concretely impossible. Lewis’ however is more complex. Embodying the worst features of both “Right” and “Left” political thought, the N.I.C.E. also reveal the psychological justifications and political maneuvering at work within corporate technocracy and state-run social engineering, the overseers of an occupied Christendom. Most importantly, the politics of N.I.C.E. teach us something about the political non-choice facing most Europeans and Americans today, as the progressive element has in large part succeeded in its campaign against nature.
It is obvious that Lewis is making a specific point about modern thought throughout his presentation of the N.I.C.E., and the preface even directs the reader to compare this with his more explicit essays in The Abolition of Man. The essays there are concerned with logical positivism and the “men without chests,” those thinkers and supposed educators who promote brain and stomach, but reject the validity of mind and heart. Thus the technocrats in That Hideous Strength are in large part driven by late modern philosophy.
There are a number of specific intellectual and philosophical assumptions that come together to make up the N.I.C.E. outlook. They are “progressive” in the sense of always looking to the future as the utopian horizon, and regarding movement toward that as the solution to the world’s socio-political problems. The “Progressive Element” (whose name alone is telling) call for “new blood” (34) at the university, and they view their opponents, the older academics, as “Die-hards” and “obstructionists” (35). Tellingly, one progressivist equates becoming “stagnant” with dissolution (36). A perpetual forward motion is the only proper and sustainable posture.
As would be expected, this sort of progressivism disdains the past, along with any of its reminders. Speaking of the English agricultural laborer, we are told that, “The Institute doesn’t approve of him. He’s a very recalcitrant element in a planned community, and he’s always backwards” (85). The N.I.C.E. show no hesitation in destroying ancient landmarks, traditional churches, and older villages, calling them instead, “abuses and anachronisms” (87). This also leads them towards an anti-environmental demeanor, as they dam up rivers, cut down forests, and seek the “full exploitation of nature” (258). “Hygiene” is promoted over and against plant and animal life (176), and the overall vision of the N.I.C.E. is modern, clinical, and industrial, an emphasis which nicely intersects with Michel Foucault’s thoughts on the use of “health” and “hygiene” in the 19th century (especially biopower and polizeiwissenschaft). And on this particular point, when viewed from the contemporary American scene, the N.I.C.E. actually embody something of “conservative” thought, at least when that term is used in support of global capitalism. They are thorough-going corporatists and industrial managerialists, even with “state” backing.
Most significantly, the N.I.C.E. (with the exception of their mad parson, who admittedly works with them despite certain contradictions) hold to a strict materialism. We are told that human “reactions to one another are chemical phenomena. Social relations are chemical relations” (255). The spiritual element or animus is denied, and Aristotle is even dismissed by name (296). “Motives are not the causes of actions, but its by-products.” Emphatically, “All motives… [are] merely animal, subjective epiphenomena” (296). This is directly parallel to the philosophy that Prof. Lewis seeks to openly rebut in The Abolition of Man.
In the wake of the denial of traditional metaphysics and religion, the N.I.C.E. promote what they believe is science, but which is consistently presented as actually being para-science. The one true scientist, a chemist who believes that science must be content to operate within strict limitations, is actually referred to as “the wrong sort of scientist” (57). And so the true alternative to metaphysics actually becomes the social sciences, of which are especially sociology, anthropology, psychology, and even, perhaps, phenomenology. Neo-Darwinism is also an obvious foil, as the N.I.C.E. are committed to an extreme form of evolution (indeed they hold the hope of evolving beyond their humanity). C. H. Waddington and Thomas Huxley are named in specific (295), though Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean ideology is alluded to when the “Macrobes,” brains existing apart from bodies (177, 299), are held forth as a higher stage of existence and the evolutionary goal of mankind, an existence free from nature. This state is also known as “objectivity” or “the process whereby all specifically human reactions [are] killed in a man…” (299), a sort of existence beyond humanity.
This vision coalesces into the strategic plan of creating a world for the elite of humanity. “Science must be given a free hand to take over the human race… if not.. we’re done” (41). Or, more candidly, “Man has got to take charge of man… which means some men have got to take charge of the rest” (42). This new power will necessarily be limited, “confined to a number–a small number–of individual men. Those who are selected for eternal life” (178). These elect elite are actually what is meant when “humanity” is extolled, for “Man’s power over Nature means the power of some men over other men with Nature as the instrument” (178). Terms like “humanity” and “mankind” turn out to be codewords for the preferred humanity, the technocratic elite. The promotion of this select humanity is also referred to as “the creation of God Almighty” (179), thus connecting the book’s title, taken from a poem about the Tower of Babel, to the socio-political plot. This “technocracy” is summed up in eschatological terms:
The real importance of scientific war is that scientists have to be reserved… The effect of modern war is to eliminate retrogressive types, while sparing the technocracy and increasing its hold on public affairs. In the new age, what has hitherto been merely the intellectual nucleus of the race is to become, by gradual stages, the race itself. You are to conceive the species as an animal which has discovered how to simplify nutrition and locomotion to such a point that the old complex organs and the large body which contained them are no longer necessary. That large body is therefore to disappear. Only a tenth part of it will now be needed to support the brain. The individual is to become all head. The human race is to become all Technocracy. (258-259)
One of the most significant features of Prof. Lewis’ presentation of the N.I.C.E. is the way in which they are able to conceal their utopian and totalitarian vision by appeals to “practical” measures, the mastery of journalism, and a consistent rejection of clear logical and dialectical argumentation. “[T]o hear the claims of sentiment against progress and beauty against utility openly debated” is no longer “the way things are done” (23). Instead the controlling force is a sense of inclusion, to be “in on it” (37) with the popular and influential elites. This is a phenomenon that Prof. Lewis discusses at length in his essay “The Inner Ring,” which can now be found in The Weight of Glory. Essentially, the desire to be in “the inner ring,” or we might call it “the inner circle,” is the desire to be respected and esteemed by those thought to be powerful, sophisticated, and popular– the cultural chic. This desire, a mix of insecurity and aspiration, is what attracts otherwise smart and virtuous men to the N.I.C.E.
Of course, we are told that it is naive to “suppose that being in on a thing involves any distinct knowledge of its official programme” (37). Indeed, Mark, one of the main characters who, at first, desperately wants to be included in the N.I.C.E., cannot ever seem to find out what it is that he is actually expected to do for them (53-54). In fact, we are told that a chief virtue of the N.I.C.E. is “elasticity” (54), which means a rejection of “strictly demarcated functions” in favor of “a moment or grade in the progressive self-definition of an organic whole” (54). “Making things clear is the one thing the D.D. [Deputy Director] can’t stand” (97). In short, to work for the N.I.C.E. means to be willing to do whatever it is that they tell you to do.
This elasticity allows the N.I.C.E. to accommodate a number of self-contradictory personalities and beliefs, so long as the practical end is the same (78-79, 127). “The great thing here,” one character says, “is never to quarrel with anyone” (86). And so while the reality is that one must be willing to do whatever it is that the N.I.C.E. might command them, the N.I.C.E. also manages to effectively put itself forward as an all-inclusive group. A tolerant and open group, the N.I.C.E. oppose all of the barbarisms of the past, especially religions and dogmatic truth claims. In fact, it is “strictly non-political” (99).
This sort of tolerance is actually a front. Assuming the center is actually a means of control:
Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N.I.C.E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us—to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is. (99)
While the technocrats claim to place all of their faith in science, a driving critique in That Hideous Strength is that scientism is not actually faithful to true science or reason. We see this early on with the conflict between the N.I.C.E. and the physical chemist William Hingest, or as his enemies call him, Bill the Blizzard (56). We are told that Hingest is “one of the two scientists at Bracton who had a reputation outside England” (56). He is described as being “old-fashioned” and “the only really eminent scientist they had” (57), yet he is also “the wrong sort of scientist” hated for the sin of “not attaching much importance to his own revolutionary discoveries in chemistry” (57).
We learn what Hingest, the only really eminent scientist in the group, has to think about sociology and the other parascienctific disciplines in his exchange with Mark Studdock, the sociologist. Mark begins, “You mean, I suppose, that the element of social planning doesn’t appeal to you? I can quite understand that it doesn’t fit in with your work as it does with sciences like Sociology, but–” But he is interrupted by Hingest, who treats the reader to brief sermonette on the evils of social science:
There are no sciences like Sociology. And if I found chemistry beginning to fit in with a secret police run by a middle-aged virago who doesn’t wear corsets and a scheme for taking away his farm and his shop and his children from every Englishman, I’d let chemistry go to the devil and take up gardening again…I happen to believe that you can’t study men: you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing. Because you study them, you want to make the lower orders govern the country and listen to classical music, which is balderdash. You also want to take away from them everything which makes life worth living and not only from them but from everyone except a parcel of prigs and professors. (71)
Prof. Lewis also lets us know that Mark’s sociology causes him to avoid true rational argumentation, thus adding to the faux-scientific nature of scientism. “‘I suppose there are two views about everything,’ said Mark.” To this Hingest replies, “’Eh? Two views? There are a dozen views about everything until you know the answer. Then there’s never more than one'” (72).
Of course, this view of a limited science that works together with reason and other means of knowledge to arrive at a singular truth is precisely what makes Hingest old-fashioned. By way of contrast, the N.I.C.E. promote “real education,” which is “biochemical conditioning” and just a bit of eugenics (42). Before they can get to that, however, they will have to engage in “psychological” education, by which they mean journalism and propaganda (45). This is why they want “a sociologist who can write” (42).
Mark’s sociology is employed by the N.I.C.E. as a means of controlling public perception. The fact that he writes in academic jargon with a veneer of objectivity makes him perfect for the “educated reader” who will “believe anything” (100). This educated audience is the primary target of the N.I.C.E. propaganda, because their vanity can be appeal to, with the promise of access to the inner ring and the elite status of the technocracy.
Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything. (99-100)
The parascientific approach is not a mere intellectual failing. No, it is actually a means of coercion, of controlling people under the name of modern science. The N.I.C.E. do not actually believe in classical speculative reasoning. Instead they represent “the triumph of practical idealism” (37), where “idealism” means both utopianism and an a priori system. Further, they rely on force, even government force, in order to embody “applied science from a national point of view” (37). Thus their technocracy is also a sort of fascism, as corporate-state alliances result in the multiplication of committees, boards, and panels of experts, all uniting at a control panel comically named the “pragmatometer” (38). Of course, this is all just scratching the surface. “The real thing,” we are told, is international coalitions, “to get science applied to social problems and backed by the whole force of the state, just as war has been backed by the whole force of the state in the past” (38). This is the “scientific war” (258).
Of course, while the technocrats will spread their science internationally through the use of NGOs and abstract concepts like “humanity,” the state-level control is enforced through propaganda-journalism and a gestapo-like police force. Only, Lewis is canny enough to make the head of this secret police force a former suffragette, pacifist, and British fascist (69), the androgynous “Fairy Hardcastle.” Miss Hardcastle is a new woman herself, wearing a short black skirt, with short hair, and a sexually aggressive demeanor (60-61). This fairy, with her “masculine characteristics,” surrounds herself with women who are “feminine to the point of imbecility” (96). And yet this sexually-liberated fairy is the head of the secret police.
Miss. Hardcastle boasts that her measures of “remedial punishment” have superseded the older notions of “retributive” or “vindictive” justice, and that by controlling the press, the N.I.C.E. can actually move towards “prevention,” in which case every citizen would fall under their control (69). “Desert was always finite,” Fairy Hardcastle proclaims, “Remedial treatment, on the other hand, need have no fixed limit” (69). The N.I.C.E. also look for “emergency powers” to give them the window for totalitarian control (130). In such times, they will be able to suspend the traditional rule of law, which is why, of course, they need effective journalism:
“And that’s where you and I come in, Sonny,” added the Fairy, tapping Mark’s chest with her forefinger. “There’s no distinction in the long run between police work and sociology. You and I’ve got to work hand in hand”(70).
The politics of N.I.C.E. are not concerned with ordinary worldly gains. They are wholly bent on, in the words of Voegelin, immanentizing the eschaton. As an elite technocracy, they see themselves as the end of history, the telos of the race. And this is why, in the meantime, they must be in control. “If science is really given a free hand it can now take over the human race and re-condition it: make man a really efficient animal. If it doesn’t–well, we’re done” (41). This is why traditionalists, obstructionists, and all of those who would slow progress down must be removed. They are not simply disagreeing, they are standing in the way of history. “Man has got to take charge of man… which means some men have got to take charge of the rest (42).
Indeed, the N.I.C.E. is serious business, tasked with maintaining “the existence of the human race” (60). In quite another sense, however, the N.I.C.E. is actually working to supercede the human race, to bring in the “new man… the man free from Nature” (177). “Nature is the ladder we have climbed up by, now we kick her away” (177).
This new post-human man, Objective Man, is the product of a sort of unnatural selection. He is most definitely not an image of universal human progress, but rather of the conquering elite:
The great majority of the human race can be educated only in the sense of being given knowledge: they cannot be trained into the total objectivity of mind which is now necessary. They will always remain animals, looking at the world through the haze of their subjective reactions. Even if they could, the day for a large population has passed. It has served its function by acting as a kind of cocoon for Technocratic and Objective Man. (259)
To arrive at this new man, the old humanity must be abolished, and this starts with abolishing the humanities from all modern thought. “The whole system of instinctive preferences, whatever ethical, aesthetic, or logical disguise they wear, is to be simply destroyed” (296). The humanities, and really all of normal life, stand as an obstacle to objectivity. This objectivity is the goal of the new man, of the new world. It is “the process whereby all specifically human reactions were killed in a man so that he might become fit for the fastidious society of the Macrobes. Higher degrees in the asceticism of anti-Nature would doubtless follow” (299).
At this point, all of the supernaturalism which turned Orwell off comes in to take That Hideous Strength beyond political and pedagogical commentary. Alien archons, medieval wizards, and the fate of the universe come to head. And while we here at TCI are by no means averse to supernatural apocalypticism, even one fictionally ornamented with dragons and orcs (should they prove necessary), we still believe that Prof. Lewis’ most important contribution in this work is his portrait of the late modern mindset. Indeed, the politics of N.I.C.E. are responsible for much of where we find ourselves today, and, in fact, they continue to control the political landscape, polarizing a fierce Right and a fierce Left, all the while uniting the worst features of both.
It is here that That Hideous Strength has the most to teach us. What we often think of as the defining characteristics of Right-wing conservatism and Left-wing progressivism are, in many ways, all a part of larger whole. Neither are terribly traditional, when we consider natural philosophy and the older perspectives on the good life, and neither are terribly humanitarian, when we consider what it means to be human and the battle between persons and universal abstractions. So-called conservatives should consider whether they are not actually supporting a sort of N.I.C.E. corporatism and authoritarian efficiency. So-called progressives need to evaluate whether their rejection of essentialism and natural law isn’t also a rejection of Nature itself, and with it any meaningful desire to preserve and conserve the environment and older modes of life. One is here reminded of Carl Schmitt’s critique of international rights committees and moral crusades in the name of universal humanity, which is that they are really just means of amoral control disguised in language of moral incontestability. Of course, it’s also the case that Schmitt’s own legal positivism can be used as a means of control by the very same people. The tower of Babel was built by joint tribal efforts, and C. S. Lewis saw that the Strength could be painted equally red or blue.
Need there be a conspiracy to create a N.I.C.E. State? Only in the Augustinian sense. The libido dominandi, opportunity, and success are all that’s required; men are too weak to organize in the way conspiracy theories suppose. But people do build Babels when they can, and one is being built in our time. The tweedy medievalist, Prof. Lewis, saw that more clearly than armies of economists and political theorists have, and he drew a fictional portrait of it which matches the reality at most salient points. It hasn’t won yet. The architecture of our commonwealths is still standing and still strong enough to resist being subsumed in the engineering of the new Tower. If that dark engineering is to be deconstructed, it will be in part because of an old professor of English who leaked the blueprints.