Posts Tagged ‘C. S. Lewis’

Genre: Dystopian near-future Sci-Fi. Published: 1949.

Premise: In the wake of a full scale atomic war that followed WWII, “The” political party, IngSoc (which stands for “English Socialism”) has taken over Oceana. But Winston, an outer party member living in London, knows to his bones that everything is wrong. Can life always have been so unbearable? The constant propaganda, the shameless “rewriting” of the past, the continuous war and concomitant rationing? He also knows something else: that he hates Big Brother. And this means he is just walking dead—because Big Brother always finds the thought-criminals.

In A Nutshell: Taut; a smart political (and philosophical) thriller; a warning for the ages; still relevant today. I began reading this book because I was studying socialism, and the premise seemed fairly anti-socialist. (I didn’t know Orwell’s political stance, before reading.) I had originally read the book in high school, but the political implications largely escaped me, as I was mostly concerned with Winston’s arc at that time. This time, I raced through the pages to find out what had gone wrong with IngSoc, and what Orwell proposed as the solution. But Orwell ended up sharing a very different conclusion than what I first expected: [highlight to view spoiler: that IngSoc is not socialism at all; that true, democratic socialism, unlike its corrupted strains (aka Communism and Fascism), could actually save humanity. He didn’t exactly explain how, but he said that with all the technological advancement, democratic socialism could eradicate the problems of inequality and poverty. The leaders of Ingsoc parade as socialists, but they are, instead, power-hungry life haters. (Their motivations are more than a little mysterious, to me; but I’ll go into that later.) So instead of improving everyone’s conditions, Ingsoc brings everyone to the same level of near-poverty, so they’re all “equal.” But, Orwell proposes, it doesn’t have to be like that. Socialism can save the world (END spoiler)]. I disagree with this conclusion, but that’s beside the point. He did a marvelous job teasing me along until I was practically begging for his thesis.

What I Liked: (1) Exactly what I just said- that I couldn’t put this book down until I knew what Orwell was trying to tell me. Although some have complained that the book is too much like a political essay, I completely disagree. I was very interested in the stories of Winston and Julia. (2) I like how he points out, through concepts such as “doublethink,” that totalitarian/fascist/communist countries are not the only countries that need to worry about Big Brother. If America and the UK are not careful, we could easily slip into the dumb herd mentality which facilitates the rise of a totalitarian leader. One of Orwell’s biggest messages is that we must never censor thought or speech, even if we disagree with one another. We must not be afraid to share divergent opinions, lest we become like the hapless characters controlled by IngSoc. (3) I also like that Orwell assumes the existence of a human nature, in opposition to some relativist thought.

What I Disliked: (1) That he assumes humanism is the only way to fight against doublethink, automaton-like behavior and evil itself.

“‘There is something in the universe, I don’t know, some spirit, some principle—that you will never overcome.’ ‘Do you believe in God, Winston?’ ‘No.’ “Then what is it, this principle that will defeat us?’ ‘I don’t know. The spirit of Man’” (222). “You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable” (222).

If humanism were our only defense, our outlook would be every bit as grim as Orwell portrays. So, in that sense, I compliment his realism. The human heart, alone, can certainly be overcome by these powers. But I don’t think humanism is our only, or best, defense. (2) In the end, the true ideology of IngSoc seemed unrealistic, to me. It felt just slightly “off,” like the antagonist’s ideology in Atlas Shrugged. Like, “I’m sorry, but nobody believes that.” (I must add that the anatagonist’s motivations in Atlas Shrugged seemed much more realistic, to me, than the motivations of IngSoc in 1984. I couldn’t quite penetrate the mysterious motivations of Ingsoc. They kept slipping through my mind like sand.)

Recommendation: Despite (and, really, because of) its grimness, I would recommend this book to anybody ready for a really creepy Dystopia. It was a little over my head at seventeen, but now, at twenty-three, I’m very grateful for Orwell’s brilliant, mindful work. As Erich Fromm put it, in the afterword, it presents a “mood” prevalent during the aftermath of WWII and amidst the growing fears about nuclear war with Russia. It’s a priceless peek into the mind of a mid-twentieth-century secular humanist and democratic socialist on the growing problems facing humanity in the nuclear age.

****4/5 STARS

[Highlight to view spoiler: The book quotes about the human spirit (quoted in the “What I Disliked” section) became very intriguing, to me, after I read 1984’s afterward by Erich Fromm. Orwell and Fromm were both democratic socialists and secular humanists. While Orwell clearly warns against the communist and fascist tendencies toward thought-control, Fromm points out that concepts such as “doublethink” should come as a warning to Western “free” nations, as well. Weak minds, lacking the ability to think critically, can easily succumb to power such as is wielded by IngSoc. Fromm seems to interpret the book as Orwell’s fears that new, modern generations of “automatons” could lead the free West into just such horrible states as are found in 1984. Fromm also says that greedy capitalism is the cause behind this problem, and that very well might be a part of Orwell’s message. (I don’t recall seeing any textual support for that; but since Orwell was a democratic socialist, I suppose he may have felt that way. I just don’t know for sure because I haven’t read enough of Orwell’s other writings.) At any rate, Orwell clearly agrees with Fromm in the opinion that whatever the cause of this frighteningly “automaton” like malady of the young generations, humanism is the cure. (Winston says as much in the quotes above.) Humanistic values such as courage and love could help the new generations avoid the pitfalls of Oceana, Eurasia and Eastasia.

I recently read The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis, in which Lewis discusses the very same observations about humanity; but he attributes the symptoms to a different disease with a slightly more complicated, if similar, cure. First of all, capitalistic greed isn’t the problem: a complete disregard for religious thought is the issue. (His “religious thought” refers to early religious texts dating from the Bible backwards, including Eastern and other ancient texts, such as Hammurabi’s Code.) Youngsters are being taught, in school, that virtue is a fairytale. How can we expect the results to be anything but awful? Lewis’s solution is similar to the humanistic one, because it also advocates a return to the virtues that distinguish man from animal. But his solution is different in that he points not to humanism, but to religious thought as the remedy. Lewis contends that religion is the only true source for the values Orwell attributes to human nature. I just thought I would share that as an interesting counterpoint to the grim Orwellian perspective. Lewis was just as fearful of the consequences of a generation of spineless, virtue-less automatons; and both Lewis and Orwell find hope in the power of virtue; but Lewis points to a source beyond simple humanity. Click here for my review of The Abolition of Man. (END spoiler)]

About: To virtue or not to virtue? That is the question. In this powerful little book, Lewis examines why human values come as a package deal or not at all—and the disastrous consequences if humanity chooses to forgo virtue entirely. Genre- Philosophy; Subject- Ethics; Published- 1944.

I will attempt to summarize the contents of this book, below; but as is always the case with summaries, much of the book’s potency (not to mention art and grace) is lost in translation. I only mean to give you an idea of what the book is about. Do please read the real thing, if you’re at all interested—it’s only a little over a hundred pages. If you’re not interested in the summary, skip down to the section of this review entitled “What I Liked.”

Before I summarize, however, I must explain an important concept in the book: the Tao. One of my favorite parts of the book is the appendix, which collects quotes from numerous religious writings dating backward from the Bible (“Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike” (28)). The point of this appendix is to highlight a common core of values among them (honoring your parents; witnessing truthfully in court; those sorts of things). He refers to this collection of spiritual wisdom as the Tao throughout the book. That term–the Tao–comes up a lot in the summary.

Content: Lewis’s thesis unfolds in three parts: Part I, “Men Without Chests”; Part II, “The Way”; & Part III, “The Abolition of Man.”

In Part I: Men Without Chests, Lewis spells out a growing problem he sees in the modern educational system: that modern man is attempting to create a species of “men without chests.” The “chest” here symbolizes what Lewis calls “sentiment” and what we can understand as “virtue.” Virtue is based on the values found in the Tao. Lewis wrote this book precisely because he was concerned that modern teachers/professors were churning out masses of students who lacked “just sentiments” or virtue. These teachers attempt to debunk virtue on rational grounds, and the students swallow this philosophy whole, becoming “men without chests.”

In Part II: The Way, Lewis argues that virtue can only be found, whole and intact, in the Tao.

“What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies,’ all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess” (44).

In doing so, he argues against the popular theory that virtue can be based on “’rational’ or ‘biological’ or ‘modern’ grounds” (23). (Adherents to this popular view often considered “traditional values” as “sentimental,” silly, outdated (such as sexual taboos overturned by the advent of birth control) or otherwise based on religious “taboo”(29)). Lewis further argues that the Tao is no buffet—if the modern seeker accepts some of the virtues of the Tao, he has no authority to pick and choose (41). He must accept the entire thing.

In Part III: The Abolition of Man, Lewis suggests that modern sciences will eventually destroy our values. While science has done much good, it has been tainted from an early age by a love of power—a love that overtook the earlier, purer love of truth that motivated the founders of modern science. (He writes of science as a battle to subdue nature: “‘Man’s conquest of Nature’ is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science” (53).) He agrees that science has successfully conquered much of nature, to the deserved pride of mankind and its scientists; however, he argues that the current course of modern science can only end in conquering mankind itself along with the values of the Tao.

“Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to man. The battle will then be won…But who, precisely, will have won it?…Man’s final conquest has proven to be the abolition of Man” (59, 64).

His reasoning and examples are far too complex to outline in this review; but he imagines a new “Natural Philosophy” (science) that would “conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life” (78-79).

What I Liked: This book reads like a thriller, and Lewis’s thesis is the source of its tension: that the future of humankind hangs on our acceptance or rejection of “traditional morality.” It’s short but complex, thrilling but thorough.

As usual, Lewis communicates the concepts smoothly to the non-philosophers among us (*ahem* such as I), assisted by his uncommon humor, wit, rationality, compassion and an abundance of illuminating examples.

To me, this book explains why humanity needs religion—or, at least, the virtues and values found only in religion—and why we can’t and won’t survive without it: because our “chests” make us human. I’m sure there are lots of other things you can take from this book, but that’s what meant the most to me.

Overall: I can’t really disguise how much I love this book. I read it as a teenager and it completely lost me, at the time. I’ve now read it twice more, and was only able to finally understand it by taking oral notes on my phone. (If you want to see the notes, which I’ve compiled and organized for further reference, leave me a comment or something and I’ll send them to you.) It was worth the time and effort–and in any case, I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I really dug in. I hope this review sparks your interest. If you read this book, you’ll be glad you did. It’s one of the most important I’ve ever reviewed. If you’re not sure, yet, check out the selected quotes below to get a feel for it.

5/5 STARS. Highly Recommended.

Characterizing Quotes:

“The head rules the belly through the chest…It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal” (24-25).

“And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful” (26).

“This is why Aristotle said that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics: to the corrupted man, the man who stands outside the Tao, the very starting point of this science is invisible” (47).

“I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason [the Tao] as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become sceptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more ‘realistic’ basis, is doomed” (49).

“Nothing I can say will prevent some people from describing this lecture as an attack on science. I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao are cut. But I can go further than that. I even suggest that from Science herself the cure might come” (76).