That Hideous Strength, Again


“It is the main question at the moment: which side one’s on—obscurantism or order . . . .  If Science  is really given a free hand it can now take the human race and recondition it; make man a really efficient animal . . . . Man has got to take charge of man.  That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest . . . . You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of.”

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1945)

I just stumbled upon this image and thought at once to post it here for all the fans of C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, a novel I have more than once praised as prescient.  Nothing in the novel is more prescient that Lewis’s National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, since the era of Big Science was just around the corner when he published the book in 1945.  The Nation Science Foundation was founded five years after Lewis published That Hideous Strength, and it has done to American higher education what the N.I.C.E. did to Bracton College.

At the time of its birth, Big Science was described as a happy marriage of modern science, government funding, and business management.  There had been several proofs of concept during the Second World War—most notably the Manhattan Project—and Big Science made this mode of knowledge production nearly universal.  Science, and soon thereafter social science, became a large and lucrative industry that was run by bureaucrats, funded by taxpayers, and only nominally controlled by politicians.

Those who are familiar with modern universities can easily identify the men and women for whom Hideous characters like Busby, Curry, and Feverstone might have been prototypes.  The “progressive element” now absolutely controls all higher education, and has progressed to a progressivism that would have astounded the “progressive element” of Bracton College.  The shards of the “Henrietta Marie Window” were swept into dustpans long ago, as were the stumps of Bracton Wood and the stones of Merlin’s Well. (Henrietta Marie was the wife of Charles I, and thus arguably the last true Queen of England, all subsequent monarchs being the victims of Puritans or the puppets of Whigs).

Lewis was not merely straining to make an ironic acronym when he called his juggernaut N.I.C.E., since this name incorporates all the elements of what Lewis perceived as the Great Conspiracy.  It was first of all National, a word that falsely suggests that it works in the interest of the nation and under national control.  What this word really means is that the nation now works for and under the direction of the N.I.C.E.  It was secondly an Institute, a word that literally means “a thing set up,” just like the word superstition.  It was, thirdly Coordinated, a word that here means a human society modeled on a machine.  We call this form of social organization a bureaucracy; the Bible calls it Babylon

“And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon The Great, The Mother Of Harlots And Abominations Of The Earth . . . . And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.” (Revelation17: 5, 18)

Finally, the N.I.C.E. is founded on Experiments, which is to say experimental science, or, speaking more broadly, the experimental life.  This means a science and life confined to the world that is open to sensory experience.   And of this world it was famously said

“This life’s five windows of the soul
Distorts the Heavens from pole to pole,
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not thro’, the eye
That was born in a night, to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in the beams of light.”

These lines are of course from William Blake’s Everlasting Gospel (c. 1810).  Those who know the poem may remember the first line as “this life’s dim windows of the soul,” but this appears to have been a crafty emendation by the atheist poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who published edited extracts of Blake’s unfinished poem in 1868.  Blake’s “five windows” are obviously the five senses on which experimental science and life is based.  Those who know these lines as commonly quoted may also be surprised by the last two lines, which are normally omitted and yet contain the pith of Blake’s objection to experimental knowledge and life.

Experimental knowledge and life begins in “a night” of savage ignorance and will “perish in a night” where the ignorance is the ignorance of savants.  Where the ignorance is, indeed, exactly like the ignorance of the savants who who coordinated their ignorance in the N.I.C.E.

* * * * *

Lewis took the title That Hideous Strength from Ane Dialogue, a 1552 poem by the Scottish poet Sir David Lyndsay.  Alternately titled The Monarch, Lyndsay poem uses Bible stories to examine man’s fatal attraction to power.  “That Hideous Strength,” as most everyone knows, is Lyndsay’s epithet for the biblical Tower of Babel.

Lyndsay’s Tower of Babel is not, however, the Tower of Babel that you learned in Sunday school.  It was very tall and reached to the heavens, but its principal purpose was to serve as a refuge from God.  Should God break his promise and once again flood the world, as he did in the time of Noah, men would be able to weather the storm in this tower of “hideous strength,” the strength being “hideous” because it was sought on the pretext that God is a low-down liar, and that men must look out for themselves.

This, I think, is what St. John’s Revelation calls the mystery of Babylon.  The Tower of Babel is its mystic symbol and its modern manifestation is essentially N.I.C.E.  Here is Lyndsay:

“After the flood I find no story
Worthy to be put in memory,
Till Nimrod did begin to reign,
Above the people as a king,
Which was the principle man of one,
That builder was of Babylon.
. . . .
‘My friends, said he, I make it known,
The greatest vengeance that God hath shown
In time of our forefather Noah,
When he did all the world destroy,
And  drowned them in a furious flood.
Wherefore I think we should conclude,
How we should make a strong defense
Against the water’s violence,
For to resist his furious ire,
contrary both to flood and fire.'”

Nimrod’s people agree to Nimrod’s plan, not understanding that any fortification that resists the “furious ire” of God must also repel his sustaining love.  Lyndsay immediately suggests this double effect by calling the tower a “dungeon.”  This word originally meant a castle keep: a fortress and place of refuge.  It of course later meant a dark cell beneath the keep: a prison and place of despair.  The Tower of Babel likewise had a double meaning, as does every human enterprise that unwittingly repeats the Mystery of Babylon—“that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.”

“‘Let us go spy some pleasant field,
Where a strong building we may build:
A city with a strong dungeon,
That none engine may beat it down;
So high, so thick, so large, so long,
That God to us may do no wrong.
It shall surmount the planets seven,
That we from god may win the heaven.’

Here are the lines from which Lewis took his title.

“The translator Orosius,
Into his chronicle writes thus,
That when the sun was at its height,
At noon when it doth shine most bright,
The shadow of that hideous strength,
Six miles and more it was of length,
Thus may you judge into your thought,
If Babylon be high or nought.”

After the great confusion of Babylon, Nimrod left that land and sojourned in Persia.  There the Zoroastrians taught Nimrod that men need idolatry to altogether escape from God.  Idolators of course worship some creature as if it were the creator, and this false god becomes their dungeon just like that hideous Tower.  And so Nimrod returns to Babylon bearing the false god of fire.  He addresses the people thus:

“Saying, I think you are not wise
That to no God make sacrifice,
Then to fulfill his false desire,
He caused be made a flaming fire,
And made it of such breadth and height,
He caused it burn both day and night:
Then all the people of that land,
Adored the fire at his command
. . . .
This god, said he, is of great might,
Shewing his beams on the night:
When sun and moon are both obscure,
His heavenly brightness doth endure.
When men’s members suffer cold,
The fire warmeth them even as they would.
Then cried the people at his desire,
There is no god, except the fire.
Ere there was any imagery,
Began this first idolatry.

And with this first idolatry, Nimrod’s people “perished in night,” to use William Blake’s term.  They trapped themselves in the experimental life—a life that is distorted “from pole to pole” because it relies exclusively on the “five windows of the soul.”  And having trapped themselves in the night of the experimental life, Nimrod and his people at once hated all who said there is a God far greater than the fire.

Then he made proclamation,
Who made not adoration
To that new god, without remead,
Into that fire should suffer dead.

There are, however, two brothers in Nimrod’s land, Abram and Aram, who refuse to worship the fire and stunningly fail to explain the error of idolatry to Nimrod.

These brethren Nimrod did reprieve,
Saying to him: Lord, by your leave,
This first is but an element,
Pray you to God omnipotent. 
When Nimrod in his furious ire,
These brethren both cast in the fire;
Abram by God he was preserved
But Aram in the fire was starved.

* * * * *

The words in my epigraph are spoken by Lord Feverstone, formerly Dick Divine, a wily politician who thinks he knows what N.I.C.E. is about because he knows one or two things that utter dupes like Busby and Curry and Jules do not.  As he says to the two dupes Busby and Curry,

“Isn’t it a little naïve . . . to suppose that being in on a thing involves any distinct knowledge of its official program?”

Yes, it is a little naïve.  And it is even more naïve to suppose, as Feverstone supposes, that being slightly more “in” on a thing involves any distinct knowledge of its program.  This naïveté extends to this highest reaches of the N.I.C.E because none of these ignorant savants have any distinct knowledge of its official program.  That program is to “take charge of man,” as Feverstone says; but it will not be men who will “do the taking charge.”  It will be some new Nimrod acting under the instruction from the Devil, and persuading men to build their own dungeon and bow down to a great fire.

As for the question Feverstone poses—which side are you on—the choices are not “order” and “obscurantism.”  They are the side of Nimrod (and his master) or Abram (and his master), because these men and their masters are the only ones who can take charge.

“It is the main question at the moment: which side one’s on—obscurantism or order . . . .  If Science  is really given a free hand it can now take the human race and recondition it; make man a really efficient animal . . . . Man has got to take charge of man.  That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest . . . . You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of.”

7 thoughts on “That Hideous Strength, Again

  1. Great article. I will have to read that book and the entire Blake poem some day. (And did Swinburne change “beams” to “beans” or vice versa?)

    • Thanks. I’ll have to look into that beams/beans question. Changing five to dim seems like tendentious editing to me. The line scans the same either way.

  2. I think people who get up in the morning and go to jobs where they bio-engineer viruses should be stripped of their livelihoods and their labs burned to the ground. But that’s exactly what scientists in the US and China are doing, with US and industry tax dollars doled out by the USG’s most highest-paid employee. This isn’t even “conspiracy theory.”

    Having just got over a respiratory virus pandemic, what next? Re-engineer the old Spanish flu virus and infect rhesus monkeys with it–that’s what!

    Remember when a government scientist mailed anthrax to random locations because he became insanely obsessed that the government was not taking biological warfare seriously enough? This actually happened, in 2001.

    Was the COVID virus engineered, then released, then a vaccine dangled in front of everybody, to enrich certain people and companies? Or to try and teach suspicious Deplorables a lesson in obedience to government authority?

    I don’t think so; at least, I hope not, but unquestionably that seed has been planted.

    • I’ve worked my whole life among scientists and have not found them better or worse than the general run of humanity. They are certainly not more honest or selfless than other folk, but many of them think they are and that is a problem. A crooked laboratory is about as probable as a crooked bank or a crooked brothel.

  3. This whole bio-engineering business anti-gnostic refers to is of a particularly painful feigned ignorance, and i wholly agree. Risking the planet for some shekels is never okay. You could argue further degrees up and down from there, but the class 4 labs are undefendable. This has turned out to be a surprisingly evil planet for someone that identifies as an openminded sophia perennis adherent. Spiritual joke score?

    Also i think the answer to all of your questions is basically ‘yes’. And finally using the word ‘deplorables’ is a little bit nasty.

  4. Pingback: The Beast on Jekyll Island Born – The Orthosphere


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.