C.S. Lewis, Ayn Rand, and science and magic as twins

CSLewis_PipeYesterday I came onto this blog post, in which Ayn Rands marginal notes are quoted like  she has scribbled them into C.S. Lewis book ‘the abolition of man’, a book that I’ve read several times in my life. As someone who knows the ideas of this book, I was quite surprised not only by the vitriol of her comments, but also by how irrelevant some of them are to the text they’re criticising. Update: the complete marginal notes from Rand can be found here (thank you Arend Smilde for the link)

For those who don’t know the book (which can be read online here): Lewis is mostly known for his Christian books, but this is a more a philosophical book that’s actually not particularly Christian. The main point of the book is 2-fold: First there is an Orwellian critique to the modernist project of man conquering nature, in which Lewis states that the final step of this conquering will be ultimately self-defeating on the part of man. The second point is that there is a more or less absolute set of values inherent to this world, which he calls the tao,  with a word borrowed from Eastern philosophy, of which all meaningful human values in all cultures are derived. I do not agree with every detail, and I don’t get more than half of his references, but  I’ve always found the basic ideas of the book, and it’s critique to modernism, quite compelling. (But you need to read the whole book to understand his conclusions, including some weird parts that are hard to read.)

(I also have the idea that some of her remarks about middle ages and the renaissance would not have been made if her issue of the book would have included, like the Dutch version does,  De despcriptione temporum, his inaugural lecture from the chair of mediaeval and renaissance literature at Cambridge University (1954).)

One of the things Rand reacts quite strongly to is the idea that magic and modern science are related:

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. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.

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.

Lewis as a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature (see also the ‘de descfriptione  temporum’ text I’ve linked to) knows what he is talking about, and anyone who knows something about the life of Isaac Newton for example, who was both a scientist and an alchemist who did weird studies in the occult (and a Christian who wrote bible commentaries)  should know what he’s talking about. Newton can indeed be considered as one of the last great Western magicians as well as one of the first great scientists…

Very important here is what Lewis means with the words science and magic. Both are not means of mere knowledge for him, but of power, power over reality, including power of the one who has it over other humans. Magic is a way to get power using the supernatural, science (and technology) is a way to get power using the natural world. Note also that ‘magic’ as used here is the opposite of astrology, which has the purpose of conforming to the influences of the stars and the supernatural!

Lewis himself does not deny the existence of science as a search for knowledge, and indeed explicitly notes that there are scientists who are seeking for pure knowledge, but that’s not the goal of most applied science both in the 16th century and the momdern time, which shares indeed the goal of magic: to subdue reality to the wishes of men.

I don’t think Lewis would say that this is always a problem, he’s not a luddite and used technology himself, and never rejects it. But what he wants to show us is a dark side that is inherent to modern (applied) science. A dark side that might remind us to the lie of the snake, that told the first couple that they would be like God.

And indeed, science has been used for ‘playing God, and abused in a lot of abominable ways to get power, not only over nature, but also over other humans. Most science nowadays is subdued not to those who want pure knowledge, but to those who want power and money.  This is how we came to have the atom bomb, genetically engineered crops that are very handy in making multinationals richer, etc, (While some other scientific fields not useful for securing power and money are underfunded!)

So what happened to magic? It lost because it didn’t seem to work the way science worked, and was pushed out of the modern worldview which became more and more hermetically naturalistic. But its goal is still the same goal of a lot of modern science.

The point of self-control to be able to conform ourself to reality is also something we should not forget. We are not the creators of the universe, and there are things higher than us we should conform to, like certain laws of nature. I do not mean this deterministically, we should not let every thing we meet rule over us, man is indeed able to fight back when reality is hostile and evil, but we moderns should not forget that we can never be free without self-control

what do you people think?




9 responses to “C.S. Lewis, Ayn Rand, and science and magic as twins

  1. Wonderful in so many ways I just can’t list all… and thought provoking. So I’m off for thinking 😉

  2. Thanks, Bram. I, too, am off for thinking… 😉

  3. Magic all but disappeared. It’s hidden and denied as much as it used to.

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