Lewis & the Omnicompetent State (Part 2)

Last Saturday I offered the first section of the paper I presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s fall retreat. Here’s the next segment, dealing with Lewis’s concern that we may develop what he called the “omnicompetent state.”

It’s in The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength that Lewis’s concerns come to the forefront. The former lays out the philosophical case against the loss of absolutes and the consequences that will follow in the wake of that loss. The latter is his imaginative approach to describe what might happen in a society that suffers from the arrogant amalgamation of science, pseudo-science, occultism, and totalitarian government.

Abolition of ManThe final chapter of The Abolition of Man is where Lewis directs his readers’ thoughts to the practical outworking of the rise of this totalitarianism. “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized,” he warns, “means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men.”

What we need to understand, he continues, is that “there neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.” In essence, this will be “the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

He is careful to note that this is not new: men in all ages have attempted such things. However, this time he believes the danger is greater. Even though Plato would have liked every infant “nursed in a bureau,” and others have devised similar educational schemes, he says we can “thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.” So what is different now?

But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers 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.

This will be made easier by the rejection of the Tao, or natural law, that all societies have, up until now, acknowledged. The conditioners will concoct an artificial Tao of their own making and will be free, therefore, to start from scratch.

C. S. Lewis 8To the hope that perhaps these new elite planners will somehow be benevolent, Lewis has a rather succinct reply: “I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the conditioned.” Once we give up our souls to get power in return, we will discover that we have become “slaves and puppets of that to which we have given ourselves.”

Lewis then brings the subject directly to types of government:

The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany.

Traditional values are to be “debunked” and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it.

More on this next Saturday.