“Conservatives are chastened by their principle of IMPERFECTABILITY.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
It was in college that I was first introduced to the writings of C. S. Lewis, who I have often thanked for what I can only describe as an awakening to what it means to love God with one’s mind. His uncanny and masterful way of communicating made otherwise dry theological and philosophical concepts come to life. I’d often paraphrase a line from his book The Abolition of Man—man’s final conquest over nature will be nature’s conquest over man. Here’s the original quote:
“At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’—to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammeled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”
We’ll unpack Lewis’ audacious quote later. First, some background: Lewis was criticizing many of the ideas in vogue in his day and, to a certain degree, in ours. Namely, he was criticizing what we might call scientism and its insistence on positive evolution—the idea that, not only has evolution set mankind on a course of continual progression, but that humanity had evolved to the point it was now capable of taking charge of that progress. Lewis recognized this idea as a utopian fantasy that ignored some fundamental truths about human nature.
Blueprint for Armageddon
Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man during the darkest days of World War II—the year before the Allied forces stormed Normandy and reversed the Nazis’ foothold in Western Europe. Having fought in the trenches of World War I, Lewis was quite immune to the rosy predictions of utopia. His book serves as a warning to this day of the dangers imposed by such thinking.
Prior to the first World War, many utopian thinkers had gone on to suggest that perhaps war itself was a thing of the past. Author H. G. Wells recalls that, “in the decades before 1914 not only I but most of my generation—in the British Empire, America, France, and indeed throughout most of the civilized world—thought that war was dying out. So it seemed to us.” The documentary film, A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War details the mindset of most intellectuals of the era:
“Perhaps the most widely held view in the years leading up to the Great War was that Western civilization was marching inexorably forward, that humanity itself was maturing, evolving, advancing—that new vistas of political, cultural, and spiritual achievement were within reach...Rational Europeans would no longer indulge in the kind of extended and brutal campaigns of previous years. The days of religious wars, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War—these were relics of a bygone era.”
And yet, juxtaposed to this faith in a utopian future came the most devastating war the world had ever seen. The scientific achievements of the Industrial Revolution put into the hands of armies weaponry of unthinkable terror. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History six-part podcast series Blueprint for Armageddon includes over 24 hours of intense, first-hand accounts of trench warfare in World War I, in all its gory detail. I’d highly recommend it to anyone unfamiliar with just how mind-bendingly horrific The Great War was.
How was it that so many intelligent, well-educated people came to believe in the myth of the end of warfare when quite the opposite—the Great War–was just around the corner? Doubtless, it was because they looked around them and saw such progress in the sciences that it was only natural for some to assume there’d be equal progress in human civilization. “The belief in progress led others to argue that the West would soon dispense with war altogether as the remnant of a primitive, unenlightened epoch,” continued the documentary film. How soon we forget that science can progress while human nature remains constant.
Power Over Nature vs Power Over Human Nature
THIS is what Lewis was arguing against; for even after the Great War, and the following horrors of World War II, many still believed (as they do to this day) that utopia is realizable—that our advances in science and technology that give humanity power over nature must surely mean humanity is also advancing beyond bigotry and violence and greed. Lewis brilliantly demolishes this notion by pointing out that power over nature can be just as much a retreat for humanity as an advance:
“What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which may, or may not, allow other men to profit by…as regards the powers manifested in the airplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target of both for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence…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…The power of Man to make himself what he pleases means…the power of some men to make other men what they please.”
Lewis was not arguing that the inventiveness of humanity was a bad thing, or that advancements in science and technology couldn’t bring actual benefits to the human race. Rather, Lewis was looking beyond our mere technological advancements and examining whether we were advancing as a species. Were we truly becoming something more than mere mortals, trapped in our imperfections? Were we somehow evolving beyond the ancient bickerings and maladies that had always plagued humanity because we seemed to be gaining so much power over nature?
“There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side,” Lewis professes, “Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.” That is because the more power we gain—or appear to gain—over nature, the more humans who are controlled by their natural impulses (that is, their own nature) can control other humans. The only true escape from this vicious cycle is to recognize our imperfectability and to embrace our better angels of rational intellect and moral consciousness—which propels us beyond our mere natural appetites. The solution isn’t more power over nature, but more power over our human nature.
But such teaching doesn’t tickle the ears or stoke the vanity of those looking for humanity to gain mastery over nature herself and go on to utopian perfection. We discussed in Part 1 how visions of perfection are quite healthy for individuals and societies to hold. The trouble comes when the vision is mistaken for a blueprint for one’s political ideology to be realized in the here and now. “There are also madmen who find it impossible to disentangle dreams from reality,” wrote the father of Neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, “which we familiarly call ‘utopianism.’”
“The inmates of any asylum, given pen and paper, will also produce their share of such ‘insights’—only it doesn’t ordinarily occur to us that this is a good way of going about the collecting of insights. It is only when people write about politics in a large way that we are so indulgent to their madness, so eager to discover inspired prophecy in their fulminations.” These political “insights” come in a variety of forms—Communism, fascism, nationalism, populism, socialism, progressivism…scientism. Each viewpoint, in its own way, promises to ultimately make humanity something beyond its limited nature. Each viewpoint ends in misery.
How is conservatism different? If perfection isn’t the goal, what is? Those are the questions we will untangle in the fourth and final post in this series.