I like the image of the bright green snake picked out by the editor, but the title I proposed fell a bit flat. I’m no expert in marketing or anything, but it seems there should be a little twist of intrigue in the title of a piece that piques the interest of the prospective reader. In my case, I just bluntly stated the thesis of my piece in three words and left it at that. No mystery. Upon further reflection, even adding a single word would have helped: How Pornography Poisons Everything. Ah, that’s better. Well, lesson learned.
Despite the title I’ve been very pleased with the engagement the piece has received, as it was linked to by the main TGC website and Twitter account as well as Tim Challies – major boosters of traffic! Such was their reach that I’ve now got a little radio interview scheduled to discuss the topic further with the fine folks at Moody Radio Florida. I expect this will consist of me trying hard not to say anything spectacularly stupid and my wife trying to keep the kids quiet while I talk into my computer.
I have been reflecting on the themes in the article for a number of years, so I am grateful that people seem to find it helpful, or at least confirming of some intuitions they held. What I tried to make clear is some of the subtle ways pornography influences individuals, families, churches, communities, and societies. I found it helpful to use a combination of Scripture and Natural Law reasoning (also known as common sense) to make this case.
I noted in the piece a shifting tide of opinion in some quarters on the question of pornography. The libertarian laissez-faire approach of “do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t hurt me” has proven disastrously inadequate for helping our society, and especially impressionable youth, deal with the wave of pornography that has multiplied proportionally with the spread of Wi-Fi and high-speed data-enabled cellphones with HD screens. And this all the more given the fact that foolish parents anxious to be liked by their teens are pushovers and give them these devices with absolutely no guardrails. Disaster.
So thoughtful people are waking up to the fact that this is noxious and dangerous stuff which is harming a whole generation recently come of age, and that wise leaders will no more allow this to go unrestricted and unregulated as they would let drug dealers open up booths in our community high schools and at local parks. Why? Because young people do not have the moral or even biological resources to muster up a strong defense against the open availability of such powerful stimulants. It’s been interesting to see secular people coming around to this realization and starting to make moral cases against not only open access to pornography for minors but the industry itself.
Another fascinating angle is the growing activism and legal challenge to the frankly criminal behavior of PornHub, the world’s biggest porn site. The lawsuits are huge, and well, money talks. It’s no exaggeration to say that there is a large amount of content on that site which not only depicts heinous crimes but is criminal itself; freely available images and videos that may someday soon be entered as incriminating evidence in a trial. Outrage over that fact should be widespread and non-political, and I have hope that awareness is growing. While we’re on the subject, perhaps you want to sign the online petition over at Traffickinghub.com.
I hope to write more about this in the future, but in the meantime I need to write the promised Part 2 where I try to offer some help for those still ensnared and enslaved to porn. Stay tuned for that in coming weeks.
This brings me to a related topic: anthropology. I know, I know – another big word which we’ve all heard before but aren’t really sure what it means.
And for my most faithful readers, this will feel like a re-run of a previous post, but I’m firmly convinced that it is a necessary word to understand the nature of the rapid transformations taking place in our time. One of the most helpful thinkers in this regard is Carl Trueman, who has made the transition from church historian to cultural critic with great success. And boy can he write. Consider for example this article just published today over at First Things, where he responds to the same controversy I alluded to in my piece, namely the statement made by Dennis Prager that pornography use and lust are not necessarily morally wrong.
Prager’s statement reveals that he lacks a real grasp of what is causing the social and political problems that he claims to abhor: We live in a time of anthropological chaos, where the very notion of what it means to be human is no longer a matter of broad social and political consensus.
Pornography is a great example of this. Behind the problems that should have been obvious to Prager—the objectification of other people, the human trafficking, the transformation of sex into something that is self- rather than other-directed, the reduction of the participants to instruments of pleasure for the spectators—lies a basic philosophy of life that sees me, my desires, and my fulfillment at the core of what it means to be human. Pornography is thus part of an anthropological shift that manifests itself most obviously in sexual mores but is far more comprehensive in its significance.
Later, he adds:
Now, sex and pornography are the most dramatic examples of where this plays out, but they do not exist in isolation from broader considerations of what it means to be a human person. Therefore those, like Prager, who see pornography as having a legitimate function are complicit in this shift. And this change underlies no-fault divorce, gay marriage, and (in its subordination of the body and its functions to the individual’s sense of well-being) even transgenderism. It is foundational to the progressive cause. To concede here is to concede everywhere.
I do encourage you to read the whole thing. This analysis goes much deeper than the moral outrage of an offended conscience and gets at the roots of what is driving a multitude of bewildering cultural phenomena. We do not need the momentary heat of Twitter-depth indignation which tempts us to feel morally self-righteous. That is cheap. But we do need the light of historically-informed thinking that sees through the chaos and confusion of the day and makes clear the deep tectonic shifts happening in our culture. That is “men of Issachar” type stuff.
I hope, in some small way, to continue making contributions to that good work. As always, thanks for reading.
The breakdown of political discourse and the crisis of legitimacy that traditional democratic institutions now face is therefore apocalyptic, in that it has unveiled this underlying, technologically fueled anthropological chaos. The “who are we?” question—always important, given that we are intentional, not merely instinctive creatures—has become the only question, no longer anchored in commitment to a notion of universal human nature, with limitations, a moral structure, and some common goal or range of common goals. Without such a foundation, without answering the “what are we” question, how can we answer the “who” question in any stable or meaningful way? How can we build any stable or coherent society?
Covid restrictions highlighted this in a painful way. Virtual Man, who works through his laptop and can thus work anywhere in general and nowhere in particular, found such restrictions to be far more reasonable than Real Man, who has to go to work in a particular time and particular place because he works with material, not virtual, reality. That is not simply a vocational divide. I would suggest it is an anthropological divide. Real Man experiences the world—and his own sense of self—in a fundamentally different way from Virtual Man. This is reflected in so many of the conflicts now straining western democracy, from the French Yellow Jackets to the rise of working-class nationalism to the Canadian truck protests. In each case, we see what Mary Harrington has dubbed the clash of the Virtuals versus the Reals. Underneath that divide lies a conflict of anthropologies between a technologically liberated view of human beings as disembodied wills who can transcend the limitations of the materiality of the world and a belief that embodiment and place are critical to survival.
For the Virtual elite, the most unforgiveable thing about the Physicals, and the physical world in general, is that they stubbornly refuse to yield to full, frictionless control. There is a reason the dominant informational class is today most comfortable in a purely virtual environment – it’s one where they can have direct, instantaneous control over (virtual) matter. Real matter is stubbornly resistant, a reminder that the self doesn’t control the universe. It’s dirty, polluting, a reminder of one’s vulnerability, even mortality. And the need to rely on other humans to deal with it is super awkward.
So expect the Virtuals of the ruling class to double down on trying to exert control, moving with all haste to develop new and innovative methods of information management and coercion to try to eliminate every human vulnerability from the machine. Self-driving truck startups are about to have an excellent next funding round.
So the farmer and the trucker get discipled into a kind of humility with regard to nature. Their relationship to the nature of the cosmos and of human behavior is such that they must adjust themselves, like a partner in a waltz, to the larger forces they reckon with and harness. The best farmers, or plumbers, or electricians, or woodworkers — all those hands-on trades — are those who best discern and adjust themselves to the raw material they handle, and the natural forces which act on that material. This willingness and ability to adjust to nature as we find it is a kind of humility which is absent from those who aim to remake the world.
Trueman’s piece is important and helpful because he focuses in on anthropology. Anthropology is the study of man – what is man? What is human nature? He traces the loss of broad agreement on the answer to those questions from the Reformation to today. He makes an important point that I am not at all convinced most Christians are clear on:
Christianity takes the material world very seriously and sees it as having an authoritative moral structure that limits how we should act. Most obviously, it sees human nature as a real, universal thing, inextricably connected to our embodiment. From identity and sex to family and community, from the private sphere to the public square, this is foundational to Christian thinking. And in a world that wishes to assert the opposite, this means that the emerging terms of membership in civil society are increasingly those that will deny Christianity and Christians the possibility of full membership.
When I was growing up, I saw the conflict between orthodox belief and the unbelieving culture in the issues of exclusivity (Jesus as the only way to salvation) and sexual morality. But then over the course of my 20’s and early 30’s it dawned on me that a more fundamental divide was emerging, that of anthropology. Trueman does a good job making that divide clear in his piece.
What first alerted me to the deep significance of one’s anthropology was the difference I observed between the ‘Christian counseling’ content I read in popular books and through some teachers at my Bible College and the ‘Biblical counseling’ content I was starting to come across from David Powlison, Paul Tripp and others at CCEF. Much of that difference boiled down to two very different ways of seeing the human person. The former approach adopted rather uncritically the concepts of secular psychology and tweaked the therapeutic advice to accord with Biblical statements. But the latter approach questioned the premises of secular psychology and sought to arrive at an understanding of human nature that was deeply informed by the Scriptures. This approach led to a deeper appreciation of the multifaceted effects of indwelling sin and of life lived in a broken world.
The writing and teaching of the folks at CCEF struck me as qualitatively different from what I had encountered in the popular Christian psychologists like Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. Larry Crabb, though their work was still very helpful in some ways. Nevertheless, this experience settled a conviction for me that a thoroughly Biblical anthropology was crucial for building on. Simply put, it serves as the substructure for your view of sanctification and human flourishing. This experience also convinced me that this was one of the areas where regular church folks and ministry leaders had imbibed an awful lot of unbiblical assumptions from the world around them.
Fast forward to today and we find that many of the most pressing moral issues of our time are directly related to the question of human nature: transgender ideology, the dystopian dreams of the transhumanists, and the advances of AI.
Now, more than ever, the church needs to search the Scriptures diligently and gain a new level of clarity and conviction on what human nature is, what God’s intent for humanity is, and how this informs our response to the challenges that are coming at us with increasing complexity and velocity day by day.
While Trueman closes his piece with a glimmer of hope, his overall analysis is very sobering. I encourage you to read the whole thing. Here is how he wraps it up:
Yet here, perhaps, is a glimmer of hope. The reason for this is something we all intuitively know: we human beings are not simply whoever we wish to be; we are not simply disembodied wills; on the contrary, we do have a nature—a “whatness”—that cannot be indefinitely denied with impunity. We are embodied, and those bodies involve biological limits (we all die, even if we choose to self-identify as immortal) and a moral framework—we never exist in isolation but always within a network of dependence and obligation. If the time of Covid revealed anything, it revealed that most human beings still have some intuition that embodiment, and the communities of obligation and dependence that are intrinsic to our embodiment, are of critical importance to what it means to be human.
The challenge for the church, embedded as she is in this technological age, is to embody that reality in her life. The path forward is to take our coming marginalization seriously, as an opportunity, not merely a setback: an opportunity to embody in our own lives and congregations what it means to be truly human.
Since reading it over ten years ago, I’ve had lodged in my mind an affectionate fascination with Chesterton’s Everlasting Man. It is a kind of intellectual tour de force of the history of religious thought as only possible from Chesterton’s singular mind and from the vantage point of the early 20th century. If you have some interest in understanding how paganism relates to Christianity, or how Christianity fulfills the philosophy of the classical era, you will enjoy it.
But this is a Christmas post, and so I want to walk you through a few selections from the first chapter of the second half of the book. The chapter is called The God in the Cave, referring to the tradition that the stable was actually a rocky cave. In this chapter Chesterton reflects on the symbolism and meaning of Christmas, teasing out implications from it that do not naturally spring to my mind. And yet, once I read them, they have a certain logic and an undeniable power. My goal here is to deepen your appreciation for Christmas and your wonder at the incarnation.
We start with a some paragraphs about the paradox of Christmas — that of the very high and very big (God) united with the very small and very weak (a baby).
A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated and rung the changes on that single paradox; that the hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded. It is at least like a jest in this, that it is something which the scientific critic cannot see. He laboriously explains the difficulty which we have always defiantly and almost derisively exaggerated; and mildly condemns as improbable something that we have almost madly exalted as incredible; as something that would be much too good to be true, except that it is true. When that contrast between the cosmic creation and the little local infancy has been repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasised, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled, in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems, and popular sermons, it may be suggested that we hardly need a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about it; especially one of the sort that seems to take a long time to see a joke, even his own joke.
… Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God. …
In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature. There is really a difference between the man who knows it and the man who does not. Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. It is not unreasonable to call it unique. Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet.
It is true, isn’t it, that even after a hundred thousand hymns, that joining of divinity and infancy retains an inexhaustible power? We return to it again and again. Now we turn to a passage where Chesterton argues that Christmas turned the universe inside out, placed heaven under the earth, and in so doing set off a kind of revolution.
It might be suggested, in a somewhat violent image, that nothing had happened in that fold or crack in the great grey hills except that the whole universe had been turned inside out. I mean that all the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest. […] But it is true in a sense that God who had been only a circumference was seen as a centre; and a centre is infinitely small. It is true that the spiritual spiral henceforward works inwards instead of outwards, and in that sense is centripetal and not centrifugal. The faith becomes, in more ways than one, a religion of little things.
Whether as a myth or a mystery, Christ was obviously conceived as born in a hole in the rocks primarily because it marked the position of one outcast and homeless. Nevertheless it is true, as I have said, that the cave has not been so commonly or so clearly used as a symbol as the other realities that surrounded the first Christmas. And the reason for this also refers to the very nature of that new world. It was in a sense the difficulty of a new dimension. Christ was not only born on the level of the world, but even lower than the world. The first act of the divine drama was enacted, not only on no stage set up above the sight-seer, but on a dark and curtained stage sunken out of sight; and that is an idea very difficult to express in most modes of artistic expression. It is the idea of simultaneous happenings on different levels of life. Something like it might have been attempted in the more archaic and decorative medieval art. But the more the artists learned of realism and perspective, the less they could depict at once the angels in the heavens and the shepherds on the hills, and the glory in the darkness that was under the hills. …But in the riddle of Bethlehem it was heaven that was under the earth.
There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.
That last paragraph is quite something. Was the incarnation the beginning of the end for slavery? Perhaps the end was far too long in coming, but there is no question that it was a set of Christians acting on their Christian convictions who led the push to abolish slavery, not pagans or secularists. It was a Christian impulse to dignify the slave, and then to free him.
Later in the chapter he turns to mythology and philosophy, themes which he has developed in the first half of the book. So keep in mind that we are entering partway through a length discussion. Still, I think it is worth considering:
Mythology had many sins; but it had not been wrong in being as carnal as the Incarnation. But something of the ancient voice that was supposed to have rung through the graves, it could cry again, ‘We have seen, he hath seen us, a visible god.’ So the ancient shepherds might have danced, and their feet have been beautiful upon the mountains, rejoicing over the philosophers. But the philosophers had also heard.
It is still a strange story, though an old one, how they came out of orient lands, crowned with the majesty of kings and clothed with something of the mystery of magicians. That truth that is tradition has wisely remembered them almost as unknown quantities, as mysterious as their mysterious and melodious names; Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar. But there came with them all that world of wisdom that had watched the stars in Chaldea and the sun in Persia; and we shall not be wrong if we see in them the same curiosity that moves all the sages. They would stand for the same human ideal if their names had really been Confucius or Pythagoras or Plato. They were those who sought not tales but the truth of things, and since their thirst for truth was itself a thirst for God, they also have had their reward. But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophy as much as mythology, that reward was the completion of the incomplete.
Such learned men would doubtless have come, as these learned men did come, to find themselves confirmed in much that was true in their own traditions and right in their own reasoning. Confucius would have found a new foundation for the family in the very reversal of the Holy Family; Buddha would have looked upon a new renunciation, of stars rather than jewels and divinity than royalty. These learned men would still have the right to say, or rather a new right to say, that there was truth in their old teaching. But after all these learned men would have come to learn. They would have come to complete their conceptions with something they had not yet conceived; even to balance their imperfect universe with something they might once have contradicted. Buddha would have come from his impersonal paradise to worship a person. Confucius would have come from his temples of ancestor-worship to worship a child.
You may, at this point, if you are a good evangelical Protestant like me, start to feel things are getting a bit slippery. Is he granting too much here? After all, aren’t these false religions (Confucianism, Buddhism, etc)? Yes — and whatever light and truth were or are in them cannot reconcile us to God. But I think a careful and generous reading of his argument dodges the heart of these concerns, which I share. In fact, one can see here the genesis of much of C.S. Lewis’ later apologetical approach, that of Christianity as a fulfillment of more than the Old Testament, but of everything that was good about every system of belief anywhere — rather than a repudiation of it all.
Skipping down a bit, he returns to the Magi and the long history of mysticism and philosophy which they represented.
Here it is the important point that the Magi, who stand for mysticism and philosophy, are truly conceived as seeking something new and even as finding something unexpected. That tense sense of crisis which still tingles in the Christmas story and even in every Christmas celebration, accentuates the idea of a search and a discovery. The discovery is, in this case, truly a scientific discovery. For the other mystical figures in the miracle play; for the angel and the mother, the shepherds and the soldiers of Herod, there may be aspects both simpler and more supernatural, more elemental or more emotional. But the wise Men must be seeking wisdom, and for them there must be a light also in the intellect. …
The philosophy of the Church is universal. The philosophy of the philosophers was not universal. Had Plato and Pythagoras and Aristotle stood for an instant in the light that came out of that little cave, they would have known that their own light was not universal. It is far from certain, indeed, that they did not know it already. Philosophy also, like mythology, had very much the air of a search. It is the realisation of this truth that gives its traditional majesty and mystery to the figures of the Three Kings; the discovery that religion is broader than philosophy and that this is the broadest of religions, contained within this narrow space. The Magicians were gazing at the strange pentacle with the human triangle reversed; and they have never come to the end of their calculations about it. For it is the paradox of that group in the cave, that while our emotions about it are of childish simplicity, our thoughts about it can branch with a never-ending complexity. And we can never reach the end even of our own ideas about the child who was a father and the mother who was a child.
I love the description of that Christmas scene as one which is limitless in its profundity and simplicity — we shall never reach the end of it. That’s something worth pondering this Christmas as we sit by the fire after dinner. Well this has gone long enough, but I leave you with two last paragraphs near the end of this remarkable chapter. Here Chesterton puts his finger on something of the unique ethos and spirit of Christmas, and the way it takes a hold on our minds and memories like nothing else.
Christmas for us in Christendom has become one thing, and in one sense even a simple thing. But like all the truths of that tradition, it is in another sense a very complex thing. Its unique note is the simultaneous striking of many notes; of humility, of gaiety, of gratitude, of mystical fear, but also of vigilance and of drama. It is not only an occasion for the peacemakers any more than for the merry-makers; it is not only a Hindu peace conference any more than it is only a Scandinavian winter feast. There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won. All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapour from the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago. But the savour is still unmistakable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace. …
The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero-worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can some times take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good.
I’m no movie critic – not even close. I don’t seem to have whatever artistic antennae are required to appreciate the subtleties of the cinematic medium. Nevertheless, like most people, I do have eyes in my head and do enjoy a good movie. And it happens to be a fact that every movie works from a script – a story with characters and dialogue. So the basis for every movie is the written word, while it cannot be said that every book is based on a movie. (Woe to the book that is based on a movie: Thou art a fraud.) My point is that the same dynamics of moral imagination are at play in a movie as in a novel or any other creative work of fiction. And this is where the following quote by C.S. Lewis collided in my mind with a simple observation I’ve made about many of the movies and TV shows made in recent decades, which I’ll get to in a moment.
It remains, of course, true that Satan is the best drawn of Milton’s characters. The reason is not hard to find. Of the major characters whom Milton attempted he is incomparably the easiest to draw. Set a hundred poets to tell the same story and in ninety of the resulting poems Satan will be the best character. In all but a few writers the ‘good’ characters are the least successful, and every one who has ever tried to make even the humblest story ought to know why. To make a character worse than oneself it is only necessary to release imaginatively from control some of the bad passions which, in real life, are always straining at the leash; the Satan, the Iago [the scheming antagonist from Shakespeare’s play Othello], the Becky Sharp [the morally vile protagonist from Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair], within each of us, is always there and only too ready, the moment the leash is slipped, to come out and have in our books that holiday we try to deny them in our lives. But if you try to draw a character better than yourself, all you can do is to take the best moments you have had and to imagine them prolonged and more consistently embodied in action. But the real high virtues which we do not possess at all, we cannot depict except in a purely external fashion. We do not really know what it feels like to be a man much better than ourselves. His whole inner landscape is one we have never seen, and when we guess it we blunder. It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations. … To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not.
C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, Chapter 13. Emphasis mine.
Now since I’ve already dipped into the mode of the woe-throwing Old Testament prophet, I’ll allow myself one more: Woe to the one who looks to Hollywood for moral clarity. And all the people said Amen. But even without looking to movies for moral clarity, it remains a fact that so much of what is compelling about a movie is the moral fabric of the main characters, both good and evil. I am limiting myself here to those movies which are a essentially a contest between moral opposites: crime dramas, thrillers, action movies, or the never-ending series of original or rebooted or off-shoot superhero movies. The simple observation I am making about such movies and shows is that the good characters are becoming more troubled and morally compromised. It is so very rare to see a compelling protagonist that is good. The anti-hero is the hero for our age; the anti-hero is the only kind of hero we can believe in.
The above quote by Lewis is commenting on the scholarly consensus that Milton’s Satan (in Paradise Lost) is more compelling as a character than any other in the story. Lewis then lays out a morally insightful explanation for why that is necessarily the case in fallen humanity’s literature. Another example of this principle is found in the fact that Dante’s Inferno is by far and away more popular and compelling to the typical reader than either Purgatorio or Paradisio.
I used to think that an author’s characters had no vital connection to them – that an imagination could dream up moral monsters and virtuous heroes without it being a reflection of itself. But this is not true. As Lewis says, “It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists [and screenwriters] make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations.” Indeed, we are infected with moral cynicism. We look back on the virtuous heroes of past literature and we groan at the naivety of such caricatures. But this reaction reveals far more about our modern moral weakness than it does about anything else. And our modern writers cannot conceive of a truly virtuous person because our culture has jettisoned objective morality and the priority of character formation.
Adam and Eve and the obedient angels may not have been Milton’s best characters, but I dare say he was able to make them far more compelling than our typical cadre of authors and screenwriters could today. Even when they attempt to treat subjects of similar greatness, it seems they cannot avoid falling into caricatures either of rigid moralists and unhappily repressed religious people on the one hand, or vile hypocrites who are only pretending to be good on the other.
Small wonder then that the heroes we see onscreen, whatever technical mastery and skill they may have, are hardly ever compelling examples of deep moral goodness: Iron Man and the whole Marvel cast, John Wick, Deadpool, and so on. There are of course blessed exceptions to this rule, such as Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s LotR Trilogy and Franz & Fani from Terrence Malick’s recent movie A Hidden Life. It takes real effort to pull off these characters well and avoid portraying a plastic pseudo-goodness that comes across more as naivety than virtue. One common element between them is suffering. Perhaps goodness untested by suffering and evil is never very compelling. But I am straying from my main point, which is that we do learn all too much about the storytellers of our time by the manifestations of goodness that they are able to imagine and conjure for us.
Simply put, we do not have deep and compelling moral goodness manifested in our entertainment because a writer’s imagination is constrained by his or her own moral character and by and large we have forgotten (or rejected) the possibility and priority of conforming ourselves to an objective standard of virtue.
I mean, have you ever seen Caillou? That kid’s a brat.
When someone asks me, as a friend did not long ago, who my favorite authors are, C.S. Lewis ranks near the very top. I know that really makes me stand out from the crowd. (I didn’t plan to be so boringly typical, okay?). Aside from his best-known works, I have really enjoyed reading the collections of essays, articles, and public addresses that one can find in various formats here and there.
Two of the most profound and prescient of Lewis’ books are The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength. It has often been pointed out that what Lewis argues in the former he demonstrates with fiction in the latter. But I am a little thick, and I have often wished that Lewis had fleshed out his argument a little more in The Abolition of Man.
How happy I was then when I stumbled across the chapter from which the following selection is taken, for in it Lewis explores those very themes in very clear terms, and in a way that seems to me very applicable for our own day. The selection is part of an unpublished reply to a certain Professor J. B. S. Haldane who had written a criticism of That Hideous Strength. Haldane is described by Walter Hooper in the preface as “a theoretical biologist,” a “disillusioned Marxist,” and “violently anti-Christian.” Sounds like a great guy! I tracked down his criticism of Lewis on the interwebs, and for those interested, the ‘online Yoda of Lewis’ Brenton Dickieson (A Pilgrim in Narnia) has a helpful post on it as well.
Here is the nub of Haldane’s critique:
As a scientist I am particularly interested in his attitude to my profession. There is one decent scientist in the three books, a physicist who is murdered by the devil-worshippers before we have got to know him. The others have an ideology which ranges from a Kiplingesque contempt for “natives” to pure “national socialism,” with the devil substituted for the God whose purposes Hitler claimed to carry out. As a matter of fact, very few scientists of any note outside Germany and Italy have become Fascists. In France only one, the engineer Claude, did so, though the Catholic biologist Carrel came back from the U.S.A. to support the Vichy government. A very much larger fraction of the clerical, legal, and literary professions bowed the knee to Baal.
Weston is recognisable as a scientist; Frost and Wither, the devil-worshippers, are not. They talk like some of the less efficient of the Public Relations Officers who defend Big Business, and even Mr. Lewis did not dare to assign them to any particular branch of science. At a guess I should put them as psychologists who had early deserted the scientific aspect of psychology for its mythological developments.
Mr. Lewis’s idea is clear enough. The application of science to human affairs can only lead to hell. This world is largely run by the Devil. “The shadow of the dark wing is over all Tellus,” and the best we can do is to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling. Revealed religion tells us how to do this. Any human attempts at a planned world are merely playing into the hands of the Devil.
So with that in mind, here is the passage by Lewis.
But if you must reduce the romance to a proposition, the proposition would be almost the converse of that which the Professor supposes: not ‘scientific planning will certainly lead to Hell’, but ‘Under modern conditions any effective invitation to Hell will certainly appear in the guise of scientific planning’ – as Hitler’s regime in fact did. 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’. It may be true that any real salvation must equally, though by hypothesis truthfully, describe itself as ‘scientific planned democracy’. All the more reason to look very carefully at anything which bears that label.
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. I decline the motive game and resume the discussion. I do not hope to make Professor Haldane agree with me. But I should like him at least understand why I think devil worship a real possibility.
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 any party program – whose highest real claim is to reasonable prudence – the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication.
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 organization will have already inflamed in them that passion for the inner ring which I think at least as corrupting as avarice; and their 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 down 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.
I must, of course, admit that the actual state of affairs may sometimes be so bad that a man is tempted to risk change even by revolutionary methods; to say that desperate diseases require desperate remedies and that necessity knows no law. But to yield to this temptation is, I think, fatal. It is under that pretext that every abomination enters. Hitler, the Machiavellian Prince, the Inquisition, the Witch Doctor, all claimed to be necessary.
From this point of view is it possible that the professor could come to understand what I mean by devil worship, as a symbol? For me it is not merely a symbol. Its relation to the reality is more complicated, and it would not interest Professor Haldane. But it is at least partly symbolical and I will try to give the Professor such an account of my meaning as can be grasped without introducing the supernatural. I have to begin by correcting a rather curious misunderstanding. When we accuse people of devil worship we do not usually mean that they knowingly worship the devil. That, I agree, is a rare perversion. When a rationalist accuses certain Christians, say, the seventeenth-century Calvinists, of devil worship, he does not mean that they worshipped a being whom they regarded as the devil; he means that they worshipped as God a being whose character the rationalist thinks diabolical. It is clearly in that sense, and that sense only, that my Frost worship devils. He adores the ‘macrobes’ because they are beings stronger, and therefore to him ‘higher’, than men: worships them, in fact, on the same grounds on which my communist friend would have me favour the revolution. No man at present is (probably) doing what I represent Frost as doing: but he is the ideal point at which certain lines of tendency already observable will meet if produced.
The first of these tendencies is the growing exaltation of the collective and the growing indifference to persons. The philosophical sources are probably in Rousseau and Hegel, but the general character of modern life with its huge impersonal organisations may be more potent than any philosophy.
Secondly, we have the emergence of ‘the Party’ in the modern sense – the Fascists, Nazis, or Communists. What distinguishes this from the political parties of the nineteenth century is the belief of its members that they are not merely trying to carry out a programme, but are obeying an impersonal force: that Nature, or Evolution, or the Dialectic, or the Race, is carrying them on. This tends to be accompanied by two beliefs which cannot, so far as I can see, be reconciled in logic but which blend very easily on the emotional level: the belief that the process which the Party embodies is inevitable, and the belief that the forwarding of this process is the supreme duty and abrogates all ordinary moral laws. In this state of mind men can become devil-worshippers in the sense that they can now honour, as well as obey, their own vices. All men at times obey their vices: but it is when cruelty, envy, and lust of power appear as commands of a great super-personal force that they can be exercised with self-approval. The first symptom is in language. When to ‘kill’ becomes to ‘liquidate’ the process has begun. The pseudo-scientific word disinfects the thing of blood and tears, or pity and shame, and mercy itself can be regarded as a sort of untidiness.
[Here the essay goes on for a sentence or two and then is missing at least a page.]
C.S. Lewis, “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” Of This and Other Worlds (London: William Collins & Sons, 1982), 104-109.
There’s a lot in those few paragraphs, but I will let you, the reader, take from it what you will.
The most striking quotes to me, here at the end (it’s the end, right?) of our Covid moment, are these:
The majority in most modern countries respect science and want to be planned.
The worst of all public dangers is the committee of public safety.
I would not have agreed with that first quote until this my experience of this pandemic. Regarding the second quote, notice that he does not say such a committee is illegitimate or has no reason to exist. Rather he is pointing out the possibility that public safety can be used as a vehicle for illegitimate goals. To deny that is to be stupendously naïve.
Whether and to what degree that has been the case with all this, I think time will tell.
I have been enjoying reading some of the writings of Paul Kingsnorth recently. He is a British author of some repute and has a very interesting background. Now a Christian in the Orthodox church, he was not so long ago a radical environmentalist and practicing Wiccan. I first encountered him in an interview he did with Jonathan Pageau, who is another interesting character. Kingsnorth has written for First Things here, where he details his conversion and gives the reader a taste of his style and substance. He is a gifted writer.
I have a weakness for good writing, even when I find myself disagreeing with some or much of what is written. Thus I find myself reading and returning to a broad range of writers – but this I think ends up being a good thing. I am not so rootless in my own tradition that I end up being tossed to and fro, but I love to get inside the minds of those who think differently than me, or who see the world from another vantage point. Good writers are those who can express these thoughts, ideas, and insights with the most clarity and beauty. I am the better for this exposure, and the best of those insights can always be incorporated into my own thinking.
On his Substack, The Abbey of Misrule, Kingsnorth has been exploring the role of technology in modern society in a series of reflections titled Divining the Machine. It is worth reading. I’d like to draw a link between something he explores in Part Five of the series and a theme one finds throughout the writings of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: the relationship between magic and science.
First, Lewis, from his (increasingly?) prescient and relevant The Abolition of Man:
There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead. If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking.
We see a fictional representation of this dynamic in Tolkiens’ The Two Towers, where the wizard Saruman constructs an industrial hellhole – or should we say a dark Satanic Mill – in and around Isengard. The key line is placed in the mouth of Treebeard, who says of Saruman:
“He is plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”
That a corrupted wizard would be the one to lead in mechanization is telling. By itself it may mean nothing, but in context of Tolkien’s other writings on the subject, and those of his friend Lewis, we see that he is making a profound point. Tolkien explains this in a letter to a friend in 1951, where he describes the almost-finished Lord of the Rings as having to do, amongst other things, with The Machine:
By the [Machine] I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised. . . . The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines.
Fascinating. We do Lewis and Tolkien a great injustice when we make it seem that they were simply good writers of compelling fiction. The more one digs into their thought, the more one finds a depth of learning and reflection that informs a stunningly broad range of topics. I will now quote a somewhat lengthy section of Paul Kingsnorth’s piece (but if Rod Dreher is allowed to do it, then so am I).
The scientific worldview is leading us rapidly towards the total remaking of both humanity and non-human nature in the image of the (post) modern self. Science built the Machine. Now the Machine will rebuild the world, and us with it. As Sherrard has it:
“There is a price to be paid for fabricating around us a society which is as artificial and mechanised as our own, and this is that we can exist in it only on condition that we adapt ourselves to it. This is our punishment.“
Sherrard presents science as a modern enterprise built on a Christian rootstock that grew out of shape. He is not the only one to make this case, but as I was reading his book, another thought occurred to me; a thought that took me back to the time, not so long ago, when I used to practice magic.
When I say ‘magic’ I don’t mean fairground tricks; I mean the workings of what is sometimes called the Western Mystery Tradition, or, if we want to be spookier about it, the occult. The meaning of the word ‘occult’ is actually less sinister than it has been made to sound: occulted simply means hidden. A few years back, before I became, to my own surprise, an Orthodox Christian, I was a practicioner of Wicca, a nature religion founded by the eccentric Englishman Gerald Gardner back in the 1950s. Wicca is a form of modern ‘witchcraft’, though everyone involved will have a different explanation of what that word means. Being a modern path, Wicca is mostly undefined and eclectic. At its (usually American) extreme, you can basically make it up as you go along, which is why it has proved so appealing to millennial teenagers.
The Wicca I practiced was the more traditional variety: I was a member of a coven, whose workings and details were secret and into which you had to be initiated. The people in the coven were not dastardly devil-worshippers; they were basically good-hearted, interesting people looking for meaning in a society which offered none outside the marketplace. Wiccan covens do all sorts of things, but at the heart of the enterprise is the practice of magic: which, if you’re feeling mysterious or pretentious, you can spell magick.
There are all kinds of magick available to the practicing mage. There’s sympathetic magic, Hermetic magic, herbal magic, elemental magic, High (or ceremonial) magic, folk magic (or ‘cunning craft’), natural magic, Enochian magic (fun with secret Angelic languages) and – for the ultimate rush – Goetic magic, which involves the summoning of spirits to do your will. Faust, who did his famous deal with the devil, was practicing Goetia. At the heart of the practice is the notion that the spirits of the otherworld are ours to command. If we are knowledgeable, smart and well-trained enough, we can summon up the very forces of nature itself, and ‘bind’ them to our will.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going here. The history of magic in the West is a long one, but one thing it teaches is that what we call ‘magic’ and what we call ‘science’ are intertwined. Many of the pioneers of science we know today were also magicians of one sort or another. Bacon was said to be a Freemason and an alchemist. Isaac Newton wrote far more about alchemy than he did about physics, and many of the august founders of England’s Royal Society, still one of its foremost scientific institutions, were alchemists or mages. In the early modern period, today’s distinction between ‘science’ (real, good, objective) and ‘magic’ (fantastical, bad, superstitious) did not really exist. Both were branches of the same effort: to understand the mysterious forces of the universe, and ultimately to control them.
Here is Francis Bacon’s definition of science:
“The knowledge of causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”
And here is the occultist Aleister Crowley’s definition of magic:
“The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with the will.”
These could be swapped around without anybody really noticing. The thread that links them together is control. Both the scientific enterprise, and the magical quest which it was part of, spring from the same desire: to know the world, and to bend it to our will. Will, in both cases, is the key word. When Aleister Crowley, pioneering occultist, rampant self-publicist and self-described ‘Great Beast’, created his own occult religion, Thelema, in the early 20th century, he gave it its own famous commandment: do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. Thelema wilted on the vine, but we could say that Crowley’s dictum lived on as the foundational basis of what our culture has become.
At this point, any scientists reading will be protesting. No, no! they might cry; that’s not what we do at all! We’re driven only by curiosity, by wonder, by a desire to understand the world! Maybe. But science, always and everywhere, is handmaiden to technology, and technology is, in this time, never innocent. Einstein bombed Hiroshima just as surely as the pilots of the Enola Gay, and he knew it.
My point is not that all magical workings, or all scientific experiments, are bad, let alone the people who carry them out. A magician might want to perform a working aimed at bringing good luck to a friend. A scientist may be searching for a cure for cancer. But the wider project of both carries hidden within it a telos: a direction of travel. It is the direction of the Machine that now envelops us, and the new world it is building.
Clearly there is a lot of overlap here and, I think, something profound we need to grasp. And given our – all of us – embeddedness in the Machine, something to grapple with personally. Are we giving ourselves over to the human desire for control? Is such control always bad? I wish that Kingsnorth dealt with the tension and distinction between the desire for control and the calling we have to exercise dominion over the natural world. I haven’t finished his series yet, so maybe I will find it addressed elsewhere.
One thing is for sure, the signals are coming increasingly loudly and clearly from every conceivable source that our relationship to technology is deeply unhealthy. We need thinkers and resources to help us navigate this with wisdom we do not yet possess. I commend to you the artful writing of Paul Kingsnorth, a voice in the wilderness, to stimulate your thinking in this important endeavor.
In the first post on the topic of chronological snobbery we looked at what C.S. Lewis meant by the phrase and we considered two reasons for its particular prevalence in our own day. In this post I would like to explore related ideas from a thinker that has been helpful to me: René Girard.
Girard was a profound and original thinker whose work ranges over many disciplines. I am familiar with only a few small slices of that work, but some of those slices have been eye-opening. Consider his reflections on the words of Jesus in Matthew 23:29-30.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous,saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’
Girard focuses in on the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees as they built tombs and monuments for prophets who were harassed, persecuted, and killed by their forefathers: “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” He considers this as a kind of spirit, an attitude of the heart that any of us can adopt.
In the context of his broader theory of mimetic desire and the scapegoating mechanism, he describes this impulse as a mob of the living scapegoating the dead. For our purposes, we can simply say it is the attitude whereby one generation or group condemns those who came before them, exonerating themselves.
Girard points out one historical example of this in the phenomenon of Christian anti-Semitism, the kind that blames the Jews for killing Jesus. It says “if we, who are the spiritual children of Abraham, had been there when Jesus was crucified, we would not have joined the actual children of Abraham in condemning and killing Jesus. We are better than them. We alone would have resisted the mob. We would have stood by him when all had deserted him. We would have been willing to be killed with him rather than deny him.”
When one lays out what such an attitude really claims, as I did above, it starts to be seen for what it is. But usually the claim to superiority is not parsed and exposed for what it is. A claim like that is really more about the person making it than about the people he or she is supposedly superior to. At bottom, such statements are saying something like: “If everyone was as innocent as I am the world would be better. Therefore they must not be innocent like me, because someone has to be responsible for all this mess.”
Ask any high school class if they think they would have stood up against the Nazis if they had lived in Germany leading up to and during WW2. Most will say they would have resisted, which is to claim that if Germany had been populated with 21st-century North American teenagers instead of Weimar-era Germans, Hitler would not have done what he did. More pointedly, it is to claim that each of those students raising their hands, students who allow their wardrobes, attitudes, mannerisms, and vocabulary to be dictated by the passing fads and peer pressures of their social peers, yes these paragons of strict moral virtue, would have had the backbone to stand against what was an immense amount of social pressure and very real threats to their reputations, social standing, finances, and very lives.
In Romans 2:1, the apostle Paul writes “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” We live in a time when forces all around us seem to be working hard to whip up offense, outrage, and judgment towards the other. But not all judgment is the same. Some judgment is warranted and needed, but a lot of it is spiritually dangerous.
What do I mean by spiritually dangerous? Well, I mean that it is dependent on sin and it fosters sin. To judge others for what I am guilty of is to reinforce my own blindness to that sin, thereby distancing myself further from the truth about myself that might lead me to repentance and freedom. It is much harder to admit to a sin that I have clearly – and perhaps publicly – judged another for. I am less able to see it in myself when I get a kick out of pointing it out in others.
So this leaves the one judging further from the grace of humility, further from the grace of gospel sanity, further from the grace of honesty about my sin. These are graces that flow from Christ and to Christ.
When one takes this principle and applies it, what happens? It becomes very difficult to stand in judgment over our historical predecessors, because we now see that to do so is to fall into a very dangerous spiritual trap. It is the trap of saying that we are better and we would not have done what they did.
But does this rule out any and all criticism of the past? Quite the opposite: It allows for the kind of criticism that is good for us, rather than a danger. When I recognize that in the garden of my own soul grows the same root that in others bore such heinous fruit, it motivates me to weed it out. When I recognize that there is more than a little family resemblance between their sin and my own – if not in the fruit, then in the root – this encourages humility.
Indeed the effect is precisely the opposite of what self-righteous criticism produces, namely a deepening blindness with regard to my own expressions of whatever fault I am pointing out in others married to a swelling pride at being found so much superior.
The best writers of history intuitively (or perhaps intentionally) treat their subjects with this kind of moral sensitivity. They do not fall into moral relativism, which may be an enjoyable intellectual hobby for rich and comfortable Westerners, but is insufferable in the face of actual evil. Neither do they unleash a full one-dimensional moral tirade against historical villains, painting them as uniformly evil characters. Rather they preserve the humanity of both heroes and villains, allowing for nuance and being honest about the shortcomings of the heroes as well as the positive qualities of the villains, all while writing with a sense of moral clarity. This kind of history proves informative and beneficial to the reader. It is humbling, sobering, inspiring.
Moving from history to the contemporary, we can apply this idea to so many current cultural issues. For example, I see a lot of folks these days eager to tear down statues of people who, terribly flawed and implicated in evil as they may have been, are nevertheless in many ways their betters. Leaving aside the specific arguments for or against any particular monument, or even for the taking down of statues in general, I just want to point out that this kind of fury, this kind of one-dimensional judgment of those in the past, is spiritually dangerous for all the reasons described above.
To take an example from the opposite side of the culture wars, we have the phenomenon of so many conservative religious leaders who were so thundering in their denouncing of sexual immorality being revealed to be sexually immoral themselves. Zacharias, Falwell, Hybels, and the list goes on and on. We all know such failures do not happen overnight. So we have someone publicly denouncing a sin in others that they are not just struggling against but positively nurturing in their own hearts.
This can happen on the political left as much as on the right, both inside and outside the church. But from my perspective, which is admittedly conservative, it does seem to be a particularly fashionable attitude among progressives on the left these days. If you think I’m wrong about that, let me know why in the comments.
This is part 1 of 2. Click here to skip ahead to part 2, or see the link at the bottom.
It was Owen Barfield who induced a young C.S. Lewis to abandon what he called ‘chronological snobbery.’ I like the term, but its meaning is not immediately clear. Is this what Lewis is referring to when he exhorts us to read old books as a corrective to the errors of the day (most famously argued in his essay “On the Reading of Old Books”)?
But no – it cannot mean simply reading old books since Lewis was already reading old books even at an early age (he loved classical poetry), well before meeting Barfield and having his chronological snobbery apparently cured. So what is it, then?
In this post I’d like to explore these ideas a little bit. Let’s start with what Lewis writes about it:
In Surprised by Joy, he defines chronological snobbery as
“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”
There is overlap here with his famous quote from the essay mentioned above on reading old books:
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. … Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.“
Reading old books is part of the solution, but the assumption of “newer is better” goes deeper, and it will likely take something more than mere exposure to old ideas to cure you of it. The fact that today we have many university humanities departments devoted to exposing the ‘hetero-normative patriarchal misogyny’ of Shakespeare and Dante and Milton makes that clear enough. They are reading the material, but with such a distorted lens that it renders no benefit, like eating a hearty stew but straining out everything except the onions.
This snobbery, like all snobberies, is subtle and mostly invisible to the one infected with it. It is something that one detects in others but never in oneself. Think about how often you have heard “what a snob!” said, and how not once was the person saying it talking about themselves. We accuse ourselves of many things, but snobbery doesn’t tend to be one of them.
The attitude, to the degree that one is conscious of it, seems entirely justified by the facts of the case. “After all, I have very good reasons for feeling this way!” So we are dealing with something that must be exposed before it can be dealt with.
I take it as a matter of fact that this attitude is widespread today. And my hunch is that the less historically informed our society becomes, the more this default assumption about the superiority of our fashionable ideas – this snobbery – will spread. I can see two other reasons for its prevalence.
First, there is this myth of progress. Generally speaking, the field of engineering is more advanced now than 400 years ago. The same is true for medicine, physics, and chemistry. These are the hard sciences where a wrong theory pretty quickly slams into the solid wall of objective reality, or better, the world as God made it. Since the delay between theory and result is brief, misguided ideas tend to reveal themselves as dead ends before getting too far, and more importantly, before the theorizers get too attached to the ideas.
But it really is another story when we are talking about fields such as sociology, anthropology, morality, or ethics. The myth of progress is the assumption that steady progress has been taking place in these fields similar to the progress that we can all see happening when we look out the window at the high-speed trains, jet-liners, and orbiting satellites. In this mode of thinking, the latest idea is, by virtue of its novelty, the best idea.
The problem is that the delay between theory and result in these other fields is much longer. By the time the fruit of misbegotten ideas becomes undeniable, not only can there be a huge human cost, but sometimes the entire field of study has become institutionally committed to the bad idea and cannot abandon it despite the growing evidence for its failure.
Second, it is basic human nature to desire to feel superior to others. Simply put: chronological snobbery allows me to feel superior to an awful lot of people – and most of them are not around to call me out on it. It is therefore a satisfying attitude to adopt.
To return to a point in the second quote above, every age – our own included – has its characteristic virtues and its prevalent vices. Future ages, or contemporary observers from outside the culture in question, are able to see and denounce what we cannot. And so we rightly reject the cruel tortures of the medieval world, the inexcusable infanticide of the Romans, and the perverted pedophilia of the ancient Greeks. But if we are not careful, we will miss their virtues and miss the chance to see and address some of our own vices.
In the next post, I’d like to reflect on some related insights I’ve gleaned from René Girard.
“Their religious lives, however, do not satisfy their consciences at the deepest level, and so there is a powerful underlying insecurity in their lives. Consciously they defend themselves as dedicated Christians who are as good as anybody else, but underneath the conscious level there is a deep despair and self-rejection. Above the surface this often manifests itself in a compulsive floating hostility which focuses upon others in critical judgment. Thus a congregation of Christians who are insecure in their relationship to Christ can be a thorn bush of criticism, rejection, estrangement, and party spirit. Unsure in the depth of their hearts what God thinks of them, church members will fanatically affirm their own gifts and take fierce offense when anyone slights them, or else they will fuss endlessly with a self-centered inventory of their own inferiority in an inverted pride.”
“Sometimes with great effort [church members] can be maneuvered into some active role in the church’s program, like a trained seal in a circus act, but their hearts are not fully in it. They may repeat the catchwords of the theology of grace, but many have little deep awareness that they and other Christians ‘accepted in the beloved.’ Since their understanding of justification is marginal or unreal – anchored not to Christ, but to some conversion experience in the past or to an imagined present state of goodness in their lives – they know little of the dynamic of justification. Their understanding of sin focuses upon behavioral externals which they can eliminate from their lives by a little will power and ignores the great submerged continents of pride, covetousness and hostility beneath the surface. Thus their pharisaism defends them both against full involvement in the church’s mission and against full subjection of their inner lives to the authority of Christ.”