A High and Lonely Destiny

“The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.”

The Dangerous Trajectory of Those Who Seek to Be Gods

An excerpt from Joe Rigney’s new book, Live Like a Narnian: Christian Discipleship in
Lewis’s Chronicles.

Reading Lewis today, it’s easy to believe that he was a prophet (or at least the son of a prophet). His analysis of education, government, culture, society, and the church has proved to be unusually prescient. One of the chief reasons for this is that Lewis understood the deep reality of narrative, of story, of progression and trajectory.

This is something that many today, for all of our talk of Christian worldview, do not truly grasp—or at least, if we grasp it, we don’t always apply it with the level of insight that he does.
In Chapter 3, I showed how in Edmund’s character Lewis communicates to us the profound truth that we are all headed somewhere and sooner or later, we’re bound to arrive. We may not like our destination, but that is neither here nor there. We have all boarded the train, and it is inexorably going somewhere. This is what Douglas Wilson calls an inescapable question: It is not whether we will have a destination, but which destination we will have. Not whether we will choose to go, but where.

Lewis is capable of portraying this truth through a single character, or, as in The Magician’s Nephew, through a comparison of a few characters. As we read about Uncle Andrew, Jadis, and Digory, we are meant to see something crucial, not only for us as individuals, but for our communities and indeed the world as a whole.

The Tyranny of Scientific Conditioners

Before reflecting on these characters, it’s worth reminding ourselves of some things that Lewis writes about in The Abolition of Man.

There Lewis argues that men who have rejected the Tao (that is, traditional morality, the wisdom of the ages, the God-given order of the universe) have substituted for it the desire to conquer Nature through science and technology. A number of results follow from this.

First, “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.” [1] Because we are aiming to conquer Nature through science and technology, those who possess the technology have the power and ability to give or withhold it from the rest of mankind. In this way, “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men.” [2]

Second, because the conquest of Nature includes the attempted modification of human nature, such an endeavor truly means Nature’s conquest of Man, that is, the reduction of Man to an “artefact,” an object, or, in other words, the turning of Man into a “thing”—a He into an it. The scientific planners primarily engaged in this conquest are therefore compelled by a lust for power, the desire to control and shape the destinies of the rest of humanity (this is why Lewis refers to them as “the Conditioners”).

Third, in order to modify Man, these Conditioners must begin to “use” particular men as test subjects and guinea pigs. To do this, they must set aside their shared humanity and reject the common Law which stands over all men (namely, the Tao). As Lewis says, “the conditioners have been emancipated from all that. . . . They themselves are outside, above.” In seeking to be gods, they have ceased to be men, at least men in the traditional sense. They are, in essence, Former Men, “men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean.” [3]

Fourth, the last quotation introduces the key element of Time into the picture. For the tyranny of the Conditioners extends beyond their own generation. Indeed, one of their fundamental motivations is to shape what Man shall be in the future.

In order to understand fully what Man’s power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. [4]

Finally, it’s worth highlighting the historical connection Lewis draws between the scientist’s quest for power and the magician’s lust for the same.

I have described as a ‘magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. [5]

Later he writes,

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead. [6]

With this background, we’re now in a position to compare Uncle Andrew, Jadis, and Digory . . . .

1. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 47.
2. Lewis, 49.
3. Lewis, 73.
4. Lewis, 47–46.
5. Lewis, 63.
6. Lewis, 63–68.

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