Some years ago I was writing a book on, of all things, complexity theory and grace, when I came upon these remarks by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:
“We are always conquering Nature, because ‘Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. … But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our species to the level of mere Nature … the being who stood to gain and the being who is sacrificed are one and the same.”
In context, Lewis was condemning reductionist, mechanistic philosophy and psychology. Whether he also knew that Nature would soon become both more ephemeral and more hypostatized in the various “systems” theories that came to prominence in the latter half of the 20th century, I do not know. Given his treatment of bureaucracy in his writings, I suspect he did. After all, a bureaucracy exemplifies a system: it exists apart from its agents, directing them and constraining them without actually having a tenable existence itself. Political or social complex systems don’t exist any more than does the proverbial City Hall one cannot fight, yet as systems that make us who and what we are, cannot be resisted.
Humans have always exploited things and turned other humans into things when the need arose. But we have always had a sense that we the exploiter had a real and privileged relationship to the world. We were Stronger or More Important or More Justified; our actions appeared to reaffirm that we could in fact alter “nature” to suit our needs and desires. Take the mechanistic or systems view literally, and that sense of self (however degenerate it may be) is also an illusion. The entire history of the universe leads up to the moment of exploitation, yet the tables are turned. There is no privileged relationship, because “we” had absolutely nothing to do with it. “We” don’t even exist. To echo an earlier post on this blog, we are instantiated rather than vital (in any sense of the word). We don’t strip ourselves of our humanity, it is eliminated for us.
In Abolition, it was clear Lewis believed that relegating ourselves to a purely physical, ‘natural’ object was an abdication of responsibility, a perverse self-sacrifice which promised us greater knowledge and control but left us no reason for either. Perhaps because I grew up in the post-modern, relativistic world, I missed the true significance of that sacrifice until recently when I came across Lewis’s description of Hell in The Problem of Pain: complete isolation in a world never intended for humans, with the Gates locked from the inside.
This is not the Hell of the Inferno, where Evil is a spectator’s sport. This Hell is not the burning lake of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton’s Satan was at least obdurate; hollow as it sounded even to him, there was some human-like valor in his attempt to rouse his newly fallen lieutenants to one final, if doomed, assault on the Almighty. Nor is it the queue of The Great Divorce, full of victims not of Evil but of their own spiritual sloth. Like Diggle at the end of The Last Battle, the self-damned are comfortably constrained and, in a twisted way, safe, for all annoyances remind them how they really do deserve something so much better.
This place, never meant for humans whatever we might take ourselves to be, is unnatural in any sense. Even as natural entities, we violate the ‘natural order’ by being there at all, because we have ignored that intuitive conscience Lewis described in “Why I Am Not a Pacifist.” When we cease to listen, we lock those gates: we abolish what “Man” is, regardless of any scientific or theological explanation of our existence or purpose.
Said Milton’s Satan: “which way I fly is hell, myself am hell / and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide / to which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.” It is this dread of the lower deep that makes Satan’s temptation of Eve his real revolt against God, not the earlier battle for the Throne. It is this same dread that makes Hamlet sheath his bare bodkin rather than seek the undiscovered country. When we refuse to listen to our selves, when we ignore our own innate sense of vital duty, no matter the reason we possess that sense, we cast our self into that lower deep and its complete, utter, and endless isolation.
The Dane had it backwards: conscience and with it the risk of enduring guilt is precisely what distinguishes us from “cowards,” ensuring we remain true to what we are even as (or, perhaps, because) we struggle to figure out exactly what that is.
Else, the rest is silence.