Reimagining American Community

CSL plaqueThere is a tragedy which shrouds the legacy of C.S. Lewis’s compatriot Eric Blair – an author better known by his nom de plume, George Orwell.

Having written anti-totalitarian classics like Nineteen Eighty-Four, and having written upon anti-Soviet themes in Animal Farm (not to mention ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and ‘Why I Write’), many see him as a ‘muscular’ champion of democracy.  It is not uncommon to see Orwell quoted extensively on the websites of Socialists and, presumably, ex-Socialists who nowadays wish to go abroad in search of non-democratic monsters to destroy – inspired, no doubt, by Norman Podhoretz’s attempt to conscript Orwell’s legacy on the nascent neoconservative movement’s behalf.  They find in Orwell’s legacy that which they wish to find:  a refusal to compromise with Communism and other forms of totalitarian government, a hostility to passive foreign policy and an unflinching Cold Warrior alignment with the (ostensibly democratic) West.

Such a selective reading does a great injury to his legacy, and Orwell might be among the first to note the irony.  As a veteran of the British occupation in Burma, one needs only pick up the first few pages of Burmese Days to note his hostility even to ‘well-intentioned’ forms of empire exercised by democratic nations.  Even his later work Nineteen Eighty-Four, it could be argued, was in essence not necessarily about the dangers of any one political system, but a cautionary tale about how the misuse, corruption and impoverishment of language can place even well-meaning democratic regimes on a path which destroys what is human.

But this is an article on the topic of Professor CS Lewis, not Orwell.  As it happens, the legacy of Lewis, as well – no less prolific or influential an author of both fiction and non-fiction than Orwell – has been subject to similar attempts to conscript it to a political cause, and that even when he was alive.  In 1951, no less imposing a figure of the Right than Sir Winston Churchill offered Lewis his recommendation for the Order of the British Empire, which Lewis declined on the basis that ‘[t]here are always knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda, and my appearance in the Honours List would of course strengthen their hands.  It is therefore better that I should not appear there.’

It is depressingly common today to see CS Lewis tied to causes he would likely reject on similar grounds, by the ‘fools who believe’ that his writings are best interpreted in an anti-leftist light.  The Foundation for Economic Education has attempted to claim Lewis as a ‘free market advocate’ on account of his distrust of bureaucracies and a few surface similarities between him and Hayek’s individualist methodology.  The Acton Institute’s Journal of Markets & Morality has likewise tried to paint Lewis as a kind of Christian libertarian.  In this interpretation they rely very heavily upon a very select constellation of his writings:  The Abolition of Man; the third novel of the Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength; and his essay ‘Is Progress Possible?  Willing Slaves of the Welfare State’.

As is the case with Podhoretz’s conscription of Orwell as the ‘guiding spirit’ of neoconservatism, there may be a kernel of truth to the idea of CS Lewis as a ‘classical liberal’, but it has more validity in relation to what he opposed than what he supported.  He had very little patience for grand schemes to make the world anew; and though he retained a keen respect for the natural sciences, he always distrusted the attempts by advocates of the ‘social sciences’ to engineer structures which would absolve people of personal responsibility for their own circumstances (and would seek instead, as he predicted in The Abolition of Man, to pinion, coddle or medicate them into good behaviour, or else eugenic them away).  But the Actonites do seem to overreach themselves when they take his healthy distrusts of make-the-world-anew schemes and utopian social engineering, and attempt to portray them rather as a systematic support for their own make-the-world-anew schemes.

Belbury and St Anne’s-on-the-Hill – death and life compared

In order to get at what CS Lewis truly thought of his society, it is best to examine not only what he was himself against but what he was for.  That Hideous Strength is of interest because it attempts, in fictional narrative, to describe two very different ways of living, and hints at what Lewis found valuable and worthwhile.  His two protagonists, Mark and Jane Studdock, find themselves drawn into (as Jane Studdock might have put it) the orbits, respectively, of the NICE’s headquarters of Belbury, and the Director’s refuge at St Anne’s.

Belbury, the headquarters of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (the NICE) is something like Lewis’s vision of Pandemonium drawn in (or against) human scale.  The physical environment is described in this way:

 The Edwardian millionaire who had built Belbury had enclosed about twenty acres with a low brick wall surmounted by an iron railing, and laid it all out in what his contractor called Ornamental Pleasure Grounds. There were trees dotted about and winding paths covered so thickly with round white pebbles that you could hardly walk on them. There were immense flower beds, some oblong, some lozenge-shaped, and some crescents. There were plantations— slabs would be almost a better word—of that kind of laurel which looks as if it were made of cleverly painted and varnished metal. Massive summer seats of bright green stood at regular intervals along the paths. The whole effect was like that of a municipal cemetery.

The heavily-manicured, modernist architecture and landscape of Belbury – which might be as apt a description of a corporate-designed courtyard as of a public works project – is but only the lesser half of what Lewis describes there.  More importantly, the interpersonal environment at Belbury is described by Dick Devine (one of the Space Trilogy’s minor recurring villains) as ‘wheels within wheels’:  a kaleidoscopic vision of competition, one-upmanship, petty intrigue, gossip, contempt for ‘outsiders’, ‘flattery, backbiting and toad-eating’.  Poor Mark Studdock, with his very natural and human desire to be liked and accepted, comes to Belbury in the hopes that he will at last make it ‘in’, to befriend the people of real power and influence.

And the people at Belbury, from Dick Devine up to the two head powers of this miniature Pandemonium (Deputy Director Wither and Dr Frost), are portrayed as embodying this libido dominandi.  In Miss Hardcastle we see a very literal lust for violence, a woman who takes sexual pleasure in inflicting psychological and physical pain, particularly on other women.  In Dr Filostrato we see what appears to be the opposite, but is actually not – someone who sees all manner of organic life as dirty, impure and frail, and wishes to free the human will from its grasp through the use of technology.  In Reverend Straik we have a zealot who subscribes to a sort of ‘kingdom-now’ theology, which enthrones man as God.  In Dr Frost we see someone who embraces all the monstrous consequences of metaphysical (rather than merely methodological) materialism:  who refuses to acknowledge the reality of his own beliefs and desires, instead chalking them up to mere chemical and electrical impulses.

Another thing to note about Belbury happens when Mark flees the place, under suspicion of a murder committed by the NICE to frame him.  He considers making his way to America, but rejects this as folly.  The Pandemonium he temporarily escaped has the support, we are told, of both the United States and Russia – written as That Hideous Strength was as the Cold War was just beginning, when both the ideological centre of democratic capitalism and that of totalitarian communism were beginning to fashion weapons of mass destruction in preparation to destroy each other and most of humanity with them, this is not to be taken as a mere throwaway comment.  The inference to be made is that Lewis (like Chesterton) sees the same lust for mastery over man and nature at work in both American-style corporate capitalism and in Soviet-style planned economy.  And the wages of each is death.

Indeed, Lewis makes it clear (were it not already so from the title of the book) that it is power, and the worship of power, which is the driving force behind the NICE.  But what the Actonites who cite the novel, in their wrongheaded effort to conscript CS Lewis as a supporter of their brand of Rightism, fail to note about Belbury is that it is, as Miss Hardcastle explains conspiratorially to Mark Studdock, ‘nonpolitical.  The real power always is.’  She goes further:

Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the NICE is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us.


 From this we can see what Lewis is arraying himself against.  But that still leaves the question:  what is he for?  To answer this question from That Hideous Strength we have to turn to the sole outpost of sanity in that dystopian world:  the Manor at St Anne’s-on-the-Hill.

Apart from the connexion of its characters to the main story, we only get fragments – snippets, really – of what life at St Anne’s-on-the-Hill is like.  This may have been intentional on Lewis’s part:  when he wrote Mere Christianity he made a plea that ‘some Christians – those who happen to have the right talents – should be economists and statesmen, and…  all economists and statesmen should be  Christians’.  But it was clear that he did not believe himself to possess those particular talents.  When discussing the topic of usury, he said merely:  ‘I am not an economist and I simply do not know whether [it] is responsible for the state we are in or not’.  As a result, he was loath to discuss directly his views on economics and politics, even in his fiction.  Still, the fragments from St Anne’s are quite suggestive.

At the beginning, at Bracton College, Curry remarks to Mark Studdock upon the receipt of his fellowship that his rival, Arthur Denniston (later of St Anne’s and one of the heroes of the book), ‘never would have done…  A brilliant man of that time, of course, but he seems to have gone quite off the rails since then with his Distributivism and what not.’  Jared Lobdell comments on this episode thus:

 Distributism was an economic and political polity proclaimed and supported by the League for the Defence of Liberty by the Distribution of Property, chiefly (though not only) in the 1920’s.  It was, as noted, the brain child and ward of GK Chesterton, and the only lengthy exposition of the principles of Distributism I have come across is to be found in his book, The Outline of Sanity (1926).  A reading of that book, while it has not convinced me that Distributism is a workable economic doctrine, has convinced me that Denniston’s “Distributivism” is not accidental and that, as of 1943, Lewis’s own economics were essentially Distributist.

It will be remembered that Lewis, in another context, once gave something of his view of a fully Christian society.  “We should feel that its economic life was very socialistic and, in that sense, ‘advanced’, but that its family life and its code of manners were rather old-fashioned – perhaps even ceremonious and aristocratic” (Mere Christianity, 1952, p. 66).  But I find it hard to take the word “socialistic” to be exactly meant unless it is the socialism of William Morris’s Dream of John Ball, socialism intended (one might say) in a purely Kelmscottian sense:  not that the State should own factories but that Everyman should own his own land.

Likewise, though St. Anne’s might be called “socialistic” or even “communistic” – for the property is held by the Company of Logres and the work is shared – it has little enough to do with the socialism of the Fabians, and nothing at all to do with that of the present Labour Party.  It is difficult, however, not to convict Lewis of semantic inexactitude here:  at the very least, I wonder if his desire to speak colloquially did not lead him astray. […]  In any case […]  not yet a tithe of a present-day graduate seminar in economics would have understood him had he said that the economic life of the Christian society would be Distributist.  Yet if we are interested in Lewis’s imaginative perception of right order, we should be able to understand such a statement…

Lewis envisioned in the Manor of St. Anne’s, almost precisely a Distributist economy in microcosm. To begin with, the company raise their own vegetables – and, for that matter, their own bacon at least as well (That Hideous Strength, pp. 190 [“trenching celery”], 306 [“the pigs are kept in a stye and killed for bacon”]).  And on this, Chesterton is clear.  “Exchange and variation can…  be given their reasonable place…  but there would be in the centre of civilisation a type that was truly independent; in the sense of producing and consuming within its own social circle” (Outline, p. 136).  That is exactly what happens at St. Anne’s, centre of the civilisation of Logres:  the production and consumption goes on within that circle only.

Moreover, none of the Company, except perhaps MacPhee, has any background in country living.  Ransom is a don, Grace Ironwood a doctor, Dimble and his wife scholars (don and don’s wife), Arthur and Camilla Denniston also, Jane Studdock a scholar, if “not perhaps a very original” one (That Hideous Strength, p. 2), Ivy Maggs a housekeeper; MacPhee, one supposes, was a tutor, like his model, the Great Knock, but perhaps the Great Knock could trench celery with the best of them.  In any case, one turns to Chesterton and finds that the nucleus of his England of small farms comes from the cities…  In yet a second way, then, St. Anne’s is a microcosm of Distributism at work, and this microcosm has its birth in Lewis’s faculty of moral imagination of the ordering of things…

Lewis was not, to be sure, a capitalist, and certainly not an advocate of that unrestrained pursuit of profit in a laissez-faire economy some consider the capitalist ideal.  But in That Hideous Strength as elsewhere he was Chesterton’s disciple in many ways (note the similarities of the robing scene at the end of That Hideous Strength and that before the meeting with Sunday in The Man Who Was Thursday), not least in the application of moral imagination to economics.

But it is not merely moral imagination as applied to economics in the strict sense which makes itself felt in That Hideous Strength.  There is, it seems, a rebellion in That Hideous Strength against many facets of modern life we might consider habitual, or cultural.  Belbury is characterised not only by cutthroat competition, gossip and backstabbing, but also by hurry.  Those in the Progressive Element at Bracton, and at Belbury, are ever in a hurry to ‘get things done’ and to ‘make real progress’ – whether that means tearing down Bragdon Wood or Cure Hardy, evicting residents, fomenting riots, extracting confessions, torture or murder.  But the characters Lewis portrays with sympathy:  the Dimbles, the Dennistons, Mrs Maggs, Ransom and – not least of all! – Jane Studdock herself, are all very deliberate and patient, even if this deliberation is sometimes unwilling.

Lewis, a personalist very near to being (but never quite!) existentialist, places a great deal of emphasis on the meanings of people’s personal choices.  One of Mark Studdock’s greatest faults, which Lewis takes care to highlight again and again, is his willingness to let his choices be guided by how he is seen by those he judges his betters, to the point where he isn’t even aware of having made a choice at all.  And Mark’s ‘salvation’ comes through his conscious decision, ultimately, not to give into the temptations of Dr Frost, to initiate him into the NICE’s deepest secrets.  Through Mark and through Jane, there is a very real sense in which his critique of modernity echoes that of Kierkegaard or Berdyaev.

It is important to highlight these subtle hints of Lewis’s positive moral vision – both the personal and the social – as well as the rejection of both American laissez-faire and Soviet managerialism, in order to better and more fully understand the points he is trying to make with That Hideous Strength in particular.  He warns against handing the studies of human beings (sociology and, we may imagine, economics) being turned over to ‘experts’ who will admit no theological guidance.  And he refuses to bow to the definition of the human person in totally mechanistic and materialistic terms, as ‘men without chests’ – and the book makes clear his observation that this is an error made both by Marx and by those classical political economists the Actonites take as their guiding lights.

Ultimately he is not in the business of doling out grand visions, only the hints of a humble one, of limits and well-ordered life-in-community.  But for all that, even the humility of That Hideous Strength has a militantly subversive quality.  In the writings of CS Lewis one can still feel the heartbeats of a lion, and it is not a heart which suffers being caged.

About the Author
Matthew Cooper is a machinist by trade, a development economist by training (but not by temperament) and a blogger by hobby, at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox. He is a Wisconsin native of English, Swabian, Yugoslav and Czech-Jewish extraction, who moved successively so far east - to wit: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kazakhstan, China - that he ended up west of the Mississippi, in Minneapolis. He's a self described Tory radical, but has yet to adequately explain how this squares with his soft spot for Christopher Lasch.