C. S. Lewis on fascism and the singularity

| April 26, 2008

I am a great fan of Jonah Goldberg’s book, Liberal Fascism, for its willingness to go back and actually look at the historical rise of fascism (and Fascism) in the 20th Century, in our own country (under Woodrow Wilson), in Italy (under Mussolini), in Germany (under Hitler), and in Russia (under Stalin). Indeed, I consider Liberal Fascism along with Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man to be the two most important works of 20th Century US political history written in the past decade.

So it was with sensitized eyes that I found myself re-reading The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis, written in 1944 and addressing “Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools” (the actual subtitle of the work). I happened to pick this up again due to a passing reference to this work over at Jerry Pournelle’s blog.

Those who think of Lewis merely as a ‘Christian apologist’ should take the time to read this book or, say, his lectures on Paradise Lost. He was a brilliant logician and at the same time profoundly humble — a most unusual combination. But he was never shy about quietly, methodically dismantling what he saw as shoddy or unfounded reasoning. You may disagree with his premises, but it’s much, much harder to pick apart the chain of logic that leads to his conclusions.

Lewis, as always, is eminently quotable, and so it’s hard to pick and choose. But since fascism has been on my mind, this paragraph — where he is talking about advances in science and knowledge, particularly in shaping human nature and even human form — leaped out at me:

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them — how Plato would have every infant ‘a bastard nursed in a bureau’, and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry — we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses. But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please. (pp. 59-60)

We speculate much about the coming singularity, which Lewis himself appears to glimpse in this chapter. What we talk less about is what happens if the first humans to make a singularity transition have — out of all good intentions (go read Goldberg)! — fascist tendencies. The thought of a trans-human Woodrow Wilson — much less a Mussolini, Hitler, or Stalin — is a chilling thought indeed. ..bruce w..

UPDATE: I have to put in one more quote from Lewis:

I am not thinking here solely, perhaps not even chiefly, of those who are our public enemies at the moment [1944]. The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rules of Germany. Traditional values are to be ‘debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it. The belief that we can invent ‘ideologies’ at pleasure, and the consequent treatment of mankind as mere hyle [Greek: matter, clay], specimens, preparations, begins to affect our very language. Once we killed bad men; now we liquidate unsocial elements. Virtue has become integration, and diligence dynamism, and boys likely to be worthy of a commission are ‘potential officer material’. Most wonderful of all, the virtues of thrift and temperance, and even of ordinary intelligences, are sales-resistance. (p. 74)

As always, ahead of his time. ..bfw..

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Category: 2008 Election, Commentary, Environment, Geopolitics, History, Main, US Politics

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

Comments (1)

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  1. Lincoln Cannon says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Bruce. I had no idea that Lewis had glimpsed into the future of technology, but shouldn’t be surprised — he was insightful in many ways.

    Too many of us eye-roll away these possibilities, and our apathy surely will result in more negative consequences than necessary. I’m optimistic, though, that enough of us have good enough hearts and wills steady enough to continue our progress toward a better world, for which technology provides at least as many opportunities as risks.