The Smiley Face of Totalitarian Experts: A Hideous Strength

My C. S. Lewis course is now concentrating on Lewis’s deep concern over the direction he saw society going during WWII and what he feared would happen in the future: a totalitarian government ruled by scientists, psychologists, sociologists, educationalists, and other “experts” who would tell everyone what to do.

This concern revealed itself in his essay, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” was more fully explicated in The Abolition of Man, and then put in story form through That Hideous Strength. I can also heartily endorse a video entitled The Magician’s Twin, a graphic exposé of this same theme, a video of stellar quality.

That Hideous StrengthAs we discussed the first four chapters of That Hideous Strength this week, I read a number of passages out loud to the class, including one that introduced the evil organization that sought to overthrow all traditional morality and to create a quasi-scientific, quasi-occult regime:

The most controversial business before the College Meeting was the question of selling Bragdon Wood. The purchaser was the N.I.C.E., the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments. They wanted a site for the building which would worthily house this remarkable organisation.

The N.I.C.E. was the first-fruits of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world. It was to be free from almost all the tiresome restraints—“red tape” was the word its supporters used—which have hitherto hampered research in this country.

It was also largely free from the restraints of economy, for, as it was argued, a nation which can spend so many millions a day on a war can surely afford a few millions a month on productive research in peacetime.

I’ve always appreciated Lewis’s wry humor as exhibited by the name of the organization. When totalitarianism arrives, it will of course wear a smiley face. It will present itself as a boon to humanity. Lewis also uses sarcasm effectively, calling it a “constructive fusion” between the expert scientists and the politicians they will control, the hope of so many “thoughtful people” who are convinced this will lead to a glorious future.

Later, in 1958, Lewis penned another insightful essay, “Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” that carried this theme forward once again. At the C. S. Lewis Foundation Retreat later this month, I will be reading a paper on this very subject, drawing on all of these writings.

As we ponder what Lewis foresaw, can we identify any of his fears coming to the forefront of society today? Aren’t we in awe of the presumed wisdom of the scientific elite who tell us climate change is real and the government must save us? Aren’t the educationalists telling us we need a “Common Core”? Don’t we rely more than ever on experts to guide our public policy in all realms? Aren’t the majority of our politicians mere ciphers who follow the lead of their “betters”?

Worth thinking about, don’t you “think”?