Loose Ends (4)

Today turns out to be the 75th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’s famous lecture/sermon “The Weight of Glory.” You can read the whole thing at the link, but Justin Taylor also offers a good retrospective at The Gospel Coalition blog. You can see Lewis’s capacious mind on full display in this sermon, which ranged from the Stoics and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas clear through to Milton and Kant, never bogging down in obscurities or pedantic filler. The ending is especially profound, I think:

Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Which brings me to an old point. A long time ago I mentioned in a post here that I always thought Lewis’s short but elegant book The Abolition of Man could be read as a preface of sorts to Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History, which was Strauss’s most complete statement of the case against moral relativism and nihilism. A few readers asked for further explanation, and I never got back round to it.

Partly because it is a really big subject. But here are a few thoughts and a side-by-side comparison that may offer a thin ray of light. In Abolition Lewis writes of Bacon’s project of conquering nature for the relief of man’s estate, but understands that such a conquest means that “what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. . . 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.” “Nature” here means science, of course, and Lewis was early to perceive the totalitarian threat this implies:

But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the power 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. . . The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats not less than among Facists.

Compare this with Strauss in the introduction to The City and Man, where in discussing the rise of modern science he says:

After some time it appeared that the conquest of nature requires the conquest of human nature and hence in the first place the questioning of the unchangeability of human nature: an unchangeable human nature might set absolute limits to progress. Accordingly, the natural needs of men could no longer direct the conquest of nature; the direction had to come from reason as distinguished from nature, from the rational Ought as distinguished from the neutral Is. This philosophy (logic, ethics, esthetics) as the study of the Ought or the norms became separated from science and the study of the Is. The ensuing depreciation of reason brought it about that while the study of the Is or science succeeded ever more in increasing men’s power, one could no longer distinguish between the wise or right and the foolish or wrong use of power. Science cannot teach wisdom. There are people who believe that this predicament will disappear when social science and psychology catch up with physics and chemistry. This belief is wholly unreasonable, for social science and psychology, however perfected, can only bring about a still further increase of man’s power; they will enable men to manipulate man still better than ever before; they will as little teach man how to use this power over man or non-man as physics and chemistry do.

What was Lewis’s remedy? He spoke of the Tao, which was his shorthand for natural law; otherwise this passage, especially the last sentence, is easily comprehensible­especially the last sentence:

We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own “natural” impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not a tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

Again, Strauss said something very similar in “Liberal Education and Responsibility”: “Wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism.”

An interesting thing that this devout evangelical Christian and this secular Jew thought so similarly. I suspect if Lewis had ever come across Strauss’s work he’d have enthusiastically embraced it.

End of today’s Loose End. (Though if you are a glutton, you can read further thoughts on this same subject in an old post here.)