The Heartless Silence of Chestless Man
Where we find ourselves, in the throes of our phony plague, fulfills the warning of the writer C.S. Lewis that, when man abolishes God, he really abolishes his own freedom and therefore himself.
When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that's all.’
— Lewis Carroll, Alice Through the Looking Glass
The failed attempt by a bunch of half-wit Irish politicians to have the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) declare that the oath required to be taken by the President of Ireland was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights is interesting without being encouraging. The rejection, rather than being an upholding in principle of the democratic imperatives of the oath, was essentially based on a technical failure of the case put forward by the litigants, Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall & Co, viz. an inability to establish locus standi. In a unanimous ruling last week, the case was declared inadmissible by a seven-judge chamber of the court in Strasbourg.
‘The court,’ the ruling confided, ‘in declaring the applications inadmissible, found that the applicants had failed to provide reasonable and convincing evidence that they were at risk of being directly affected by these requirements and so could not claim to be victims of a violation of the Convention.’
While it is always a matter of celebration to see such stupidity rebuffed — especially by a court as ideological as the ECHR — the decision provides none of the kind of guarantees that are urgently required in these times of persistent encroachment on the fabric of fundamental laws, to which the ‘concept’ of God is utterly, well, fundamental.
Had the Shortall case been successful, it would most likely have been followed hard (these being the nature of the priorities of latter-day politicians) by a referendum to remove all mentions of God from the Irish Constitution. This would have represented the culmination of more than 25 years of political and judicial activism aimed at eliminating what are ignorantly deemed ‘sectarian’ elements of what is, even yet, after decades of persistent attacks, one of the best constitutions in the world.
Of course, it remains the case that any constitution is only as functional as the integrity of its enforcing judiciary permits, and we have seen many egregious attacks, retreats and evasions from the bench in recent years, not least in the past 20 months of what has been, in effect, a period of implicit, near-total constitutional derogation. Whether this amounts to total abrogation remains to be seen, but it is hard to see how we can walk back from here without establishing a total tabula rasa of the Irish establishment.
The characterization of the Irish Constitution as ‘sectarian’ ought to be seen as a self-evident nonsense. The purpose of references to Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity is not purely the expression of reverence to a deity. In legal terms, these references comprise an essential specificity designed to achieve a constitutional imperative concerning the protection of fundamental rights.
This can immediately be observed in the opening words of the introductory section of the constitutional text, The Preamble:
‘In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, we, the people of Éire, humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial, gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation, and seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations, do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.’
It is seemingly not immediately obvious to the ‘modern’ mind that this opening passage has also a secular interpretation, perhaps best demonstrated by reference to C.S. Lewis’s observation that when God is abolished by man, He is not replaced by all men exercising the ‘redistributed power’ of the ‘dead’ deity, but by a few men declaring themselves gods and imposing their will on the rest. Thus, even for non-Christians, unbelievers, secularists, atheists, it is vital that they come to see this formulation not purely as a Christian invocation, but as a mechanism that achieves something as essential to their own protection as it is to the protection of the rights of Christians.
The point is that the ‘mechanism’ provided by the Holy Trinity does something that cannot be achieved otherwise: it places the fundamental rights of human beings out of the reach of their own kind. Man has long understood that it is, for obvious reasons, essential that laws fundamental to human functioning and happiness be referred elsewhere — upwards, sideways, outside — though preferably not downwards. Certain rights are so fundamental and non-negotiable that they cannot be left to the mercies of human caprice or consensus. These include specifically: certain personal rights, on which depend the security and freedoms of the individual; family rights, protecting the unity and cohesion of the most fundamental grouping in society; and collective rights, regulating the health and stability of the nation.
Such rights were at one time universally understood to emanate from natural law, which could be characterised either as deriving from divine authority or as an extrapolation from the nature of earthly and human reality. By acknowledging the Holy Trinity as the source of these rights, the Constitution removes them from the gift of government’s, courts, electorates, so that they cannot be interfered with by human agency. Allowing men dominion over the rights of men has long been recognised as the first step on the road to tyranny, and the sole effective mechanism that man has constructed to avoid this is to acknowledge the source of these rights as residing in the hands of God — in the context of the Preamble described in Christian terms as ‘the Holy Trinity’ and ‘Our Devine Lord Jesus Christ’, these two designations amounting to the same Entity or concept.
The handful of religious references in the Irish Constitution represent, therefore, a vital element of the mechanism by which the given rights referenced and implicit within its text are acknowledged and guaranteed — and, in potential at least, protected. They do not emanate from the State or Government. They do not exist by permission of the people. They are independent of and superior to all positive law, and most certainly do not exist on the say-so of judges.
The reason natural law is invoked is precisely to protect fundamental rights from interference by human intervention. This is because certain human rights must be regarded as existing above human dispensation. As the Covid episode makes clear to all but the hypnotised, even secular-atheists depend for the protection of their rights on the certainty afforded by the divine connection, which, once dissolved, sets humanity on a slippery slope, as occurred in Germany in the 1930s. The language of the presentation of this mechanism within the Irish Constitution may be irksome to some of those who stake their identity on the claim of religious unbelief, but this is something they would do well to overlook. For the mechanism is intended not primarily to assert the dominance of one or any form of religious thought but simply to create a construct by which the rights in question might be placed outside human reach. Thus, when Article 6 declares that ‘All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people, whose right it is to designate the rulers of the State and, in final appeal, to decide all questions of national policy, according to the requirements of the common good,’ the point is not to remind people of God’s existence and power, but to create a structure in which fundamental rights are located in a place higher and more enduring than the manmade world.
The constant condition of natural law is that it is pre-existing — i.e. given — which is to say containing immanent characteristics that militate against it being usurped. It is rooted in accumulated knowledge of how human beings behave, and what the risks of such behaviour may be, and is transcendent of all manmade law. Such understandings frequently take on a religious demeanour — as they do in the Irish Constitution — but that is, as much as it is a reflection of the culture and beliefs of a society, a particular and lucid mode of expressing these understandings. They are rooted in an abiding consciousness of man’s tendency towards tyranny and malevolence, and precisely for this reason are placed outside human reach. It will be argued that they have been placed out of reach by man himself — and that is certainly true — but they are placed out of reach in much the way that an alcoholic might break the bottle of whiskey he had been gifted, to prevent him becoming tempted by its contents.
The language of natural law is sprinkled throughout the text of the Irish Constitution. The word ‘antecedent’ appears twice in the text (Articles 41 and 43); the word ‘imprescriptible’ appears twice also (Articles 41 and 42); the word ‘inalienable’ appears three times (Articles 1, 41 and 42); the word ‘natural’ appears four times (Articles 10, 42 (twice) and 43.
To speak of such things at this moment — as, indeed, to hear about the fatuous attempt to mount a further attack on such provisions at a time when one would imagine oppositional politicians would be screaming to high heaven about the 20-month and continuing abrogation of the human rights of Irish citizens — is laden down with bleak irony. These people speak of ‘rights’ but have in mind only the kinds of rights that they have been prompted and permitted to pursue by the darkest monied Svengalis on the planet. Abortion? Indubitably. Bodily integrity? Only when we say so.
The connection between fundamental rights and ‘God’ (which in the legal context means no more and no less than a power greater and higher than mankind), is utterly central to human freedom. The existence of the natural law was what enabled the Nazi leaders to be tried and punished at the Nuremberg trials 75 years ago, after it came to be perceived that, by virtue of careful husbandry of statute law, the Nazis had done nothing illegal. We may find ourselves in an analogous situation much sooner than we think.
The occasion of the abolition of God by a society is, all but invariably, the moment when the worm of tyranny enters. In accepting the Templeton Prize at the London Guildhall in 1983, the Russian writer and dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recalled that, when he was still a child, he would hear the old people saying that all the disasters befalling Russia were happening because God had been forgotten.
‘Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.” Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own towards the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: “Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.”’
God’s victory in the Soviet Union, achieved though Solzenitsyn and other heroes, must become one of our key guides in our present predicament, for they have left us the blueprint for surviving totalitarianism.
Solzhenitsyn, like Václav Havel, entered history warning of the dangers of materialism and the ideocratic state, which, both men bore witness, lead to a sleepwalking into totalitarian default.
Like Havel, too, Solzhenitsyn believed that the West held in potential a diluted version of Soviet tyranny, and that it might kill the spirits of its people just as comprehensively in the longer run. ‘Today’s prosperous world’, he warned in Between Two Millstones: Sketches of Exile, 1974-1978, ‘is moving even further from natural human existence, growing stronger in intellect but increasingly infirm in body and soul.’ Both men spoke frequently — as had Padraig Pearse — of the ‘soul’ of a nation, a people. Citizenship is the ticket by which the human person becomes part of his nation’s soul, a condition that unites the people as though in a transcendent family (transcendent temporally and spiritually) with a history and culture and a profound collective memory of that history and that culture, as well as a constant consciousness of that history’s, and that culture’s, meanings.
Such things are all but impossible to convey in the present cultural condition of Ireland, which seeks every remote opportunity to treat the values of the past with contempt. One of the great ironies arising from the Catholic Church’s role in the Irish education system is that, by educating several of the recent generations out of the alleged ignorance that prevailed before, it also educated them out of belief in transcendent reality. If this seems an odd charge to make, the case can be demonstrated on the basis of the deep misunderstandings of Christianity that have developed in Irish society, where a severance has clearly occurred between faith and what is considered reason. A straightforward way of defining this would be to say that the core of recent Irish education has been to insinuate an Anglo-Saxon form of linear positivism in place of the prior Celtic romanticism, which is in effect a bastardisation of the Irish soul. This is a crude sketch, but nevertheless a useful one.
To summarise how this came to pass, and continued after Independence, it is necessary to return to the admonitions issued by the great Irish revolutionary Padraig Pearse in his 1914 essay on the British education system at work in Ireland, The Murder Machine, and observe that, after independence, the Catholic Church simply co-opted and carried on the existing British system, without much thought as to how this system treated of the various subjects and reconciled them with one another. Consider, for flavour, this extract from Pearse’s essay in the dim light of the present moment:
‘When one uses the term education system as the name of the system of schools. colleges, universities, and whatnot which the English have established in Ireland, one uses it as a convenient label, just as one uses the term government as a convenient label for the system of administration by police which obtains in Ireland instead of a government. There is no education system in Ireland. The English have established the simulacrum of an education system, but its object is the precise contrary of the object of an education system. Education should foster; this education is meant to repress. Education should inspire; this education is meant to tame. Education should harden; this education is meant to enervate. The English are too wise a people to attempt to educate the Irish in any worthy sense. As well expect them to arm us . . .’
Among the main damaging outcomes of the apparently reflex adoption of English educational methods has been the Church’s collaboration in the building of a world within a world — in effect in the building of what Pope Benedict called a ‘bunker’ at the heart of Irish life and culture. There are many facets of, and many ways you can go about describing this bunker, but ultimately it amounts to the effective ‘de-absolutisation’ of modern social reality, the removal of a sense of accompaniment and destination from the lives of those human inhabitants of Ireland nowadays treated as mere residents, though escalatingly not even that. In this and several other essays written about the same time — little more than a year before the Easter Rising of 1916, which he led — Pearse set out a prophetic diagnosis of the condition of a future Ireland which refused to insist upon a true and total freedom, and defined this future condition as slavery and spiritual death. A key but overlooked element of what followed, as Pearse warned it would, was the co-option (by the Catholic Church acting as official educator) of the British model of education. This served to instill in the minds of growing Irish citizens a profound positivism, at least during all classes other than Religion Studies, which then, ‘mysteriously’, began to communicate themselves at best in the same way, if at all.
The positivistic process involves the cutting off of the human person from a sense of his or her rootedness in an originated reality — i.e. a reality with a sense of beginning, a dynamic unrestricted by earthly horizons or boundaries, moving towards a destination. More concretely, it involves a retreat from the idea that values and judgments can be deduced from the pre-existing, given context into which humankind has been placed by what might tendentiously be called ‘the hand of God’.
If you wished to make this latter point in another way, albeit in a more limited context, you might say that the Catholic Church has presided over the introduction of relativism into the mainstream of Irish culture.
All religions, and indeed the foundational philosophies of modern rationalism agree that judgment as to the meaning of ‘the Good’ must derive from beyond mankind. Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’. Aristotle said that the aim of education is ‘to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought’, which presupposes a given order, including a given order of aesthetics and morality.
The aforementioned reference to C.S. Lewis arises from his remarkable 1947 booklet The Abolition of Man, comprising the text of a series of lectures delivered four years previously at King’s College, Newcastle, on a set of loosely inter-related topics perhaps best summarised as ‘the retreat from the Absolute and the risks of moral relativism’.
In this remarkable booklet, Lewis condenses divergent but universal understandings of the Eternal, Infinite and Absolute — Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, Oriental — to a single word, co-opted from the Chinese concept of ‘the Tao’, which he calls ‘the greatest thing’. The Tao is the thing out of which even gods are born. ‘It is the reality beyond all predicates,’ writes Lewis, ‘the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlasting emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time.’ The Tao, he says, is ‘the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.’
One of the odd characteristics of the kind of Irish education system we have had is that it suggests an inherited value system which, by virtue of being unmoored from an absolute context that is nowadays increasingly denied, amounts to a kind of artificial conscience being programmed into each seedling citizen/resident. The values taught therefore frequently appear syllogistic, but, precisely because of lacking a solid basis, and necessarily communicated with a certain ‘absolutism’, are infected with a subjective relativism which imbues all inconsistencies with a sense of arbitrariness. For example: murder is wrong but abortion isn’t, and therefore abortion cannot be murder. The murderer is guilty but the abortionist is a hero.
This methodology corresponds to what Lewis describes of the modus operandi of what he calls the ‘Conditioners’, who do not believe the values they teach as given, but nevertheless insist on passing them on in a certain dissociated fashion, as an abstract calculus of good and bad that exists as a set of rules but little else. Because these rules, minus any truly absolute context, are inevitably seen as capricious, and frequently subject to randomness in their framing and implementation, the only motive for their observance is adherence to the cultural prescriptions in which they are enshrined, and fear of the punishment reserved for those who demur. In such a culture, instinct becomes the only criterion of the Good, because everything else has been obliterated or disintegrated by the cynicism that infects all consideration of value. ‘I want it, therefore I must have it’ becomes the sole principle of the society so ordered. When ‘what is good’ has been debunked, observes Lewis, only what says ‘I want’ remains.
But there is here a fantastic paradox. By clinging to positivistic understandings only, the Conditioners fall victim to an ‘absolute’ irrationality. Standing outside all absolute judgment of value other than their own adamancy in respect of their favoured inconsistencies, the Conditioners who rule the bunker lack any criteria for choosing one impulse over another, apart from the weight or insistence of any particular want. And because each human being is different in big ways and small, this leaves the general outcome of the tumult of human desire in the arms of, in effect, chance, which amounts to surrendering things to human nature. Because there is no absolute fount of truth or value, things must be decided on the basis of personal preference, prejudice and whim. There is no reason to be good, except the idea that good is more satisfying than bad, or bad more likely to result in punishment. The Conditioners rely for guidance on their own natures — ‘heredity, digestion, the weather, and the association of ideas’, says Lewis — thus returning them to the territory of the irrational. Having elevated the sacred cow of the ‘rational’ above everything else, their refusal of a bedrock, ‘given’ value system takes them back to the soggy conditions of their own internal psychologies. ‘Their extreme rationalism, ‘ writes Lewis, ‘by “seeing through” all “rational” motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behavour. If you will not obey the Tao, or else commit suicide, obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere “nature”) is the only course left open.’
And we find an extraordinary resonance between Lewis’s depiction of the Conditioners and the Conditioned and Padraig Pearse’s description, in The Murder Machine, of the relationship in the colonial structure between the jailors and slaves. Pearse perceived that the ‘murder machine’ had, in effect, created in Ireland the conditions of slavery: ‘Certain of the slaves among us are appointed jailors over the common herd of slaves. And they are trained from their youth for this degrading office. The ordinary slaves are trained for their lowly tasks in dingy places called schools; the buildings in which the higher trained slaves are trained are called colleges and universities’.
The murder machine, he contended, ‘aimed at the substitution for men and women with “Things”. It has not been an entire success. There are still a great many thousand men and women in Ireland. But a great many thousand of what, by way of courtesy, we call men and women, are simply Things. Men and women, however depraved, have kindly human allegiances. But these Things have no allegiance. Like other Things, they are for sale.’
In strikingly similar terms, C.S. Lewis describes his ‘Conditioners’: ‘It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.’
Thus, the bunker is populated not by human beings, but by ‘things’ or ‘artefacts’, who walk, speak, act and talk like human beings but represent, in a certain sense, the negation of humanity.
Democracy would have been impossible without at least the idea of God, because unless we assume the equal, given dignity of each human person, there is nothing to dissuade human society from succumbing, in some guise or other, to the rule of the few over the many. The sole remaining question, as Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, is: Who is going to be Master?
Here is what both Pearse, a Dublin-born Catholic, and Lewis, a Belfast Protestant, saw in different ways, three decades apart from one another: Progress, defined in earthly terms, without reference to an absolute, becomes the enslavement of one man or woman by other men and women. For ‘progress’ inevitably can be laid claim to by the few, who dictate its terms and jealously guard it against sceptics. The recalcitrant in its face is at first regarded as a passenger, and presently as a parasite, from which his disqualification as a citizen is rarely much delayed.
This is what we subscribe to every time we add our tuppenceworth to the ‘rationalism’ of the bunker perspective. For in doing so, we do not elevate all humans into the imaginative space once occupied by God, but only those who have climbed to the higher branches. In doing so, we accept the logic they advance for their having done so: that virtue and principle do not come from any pre-existing source, but are generated out of the ‘goodness’ of men, a quasi-oxymoron (since man is not the source of what goodness he exudes) which glides past our vision because our vision is swirled by the unchallengeability of the sentiment masquerading as truth.
The word ‘progress’ and its derivatives — ‘progressive’, ‘progressiveness’ — is nearly always essentially totalitarian, for it presupposes some path of going forward that is other than the intuited, spontaneous way forward divined by the human in pursuit if his absolute destination — being in truth the path cautioned of by Václav Havel in his 1987 essay Stories and Totalitarianism, in describing what he called the assassination of history to achieve both ‘nihilisation of the past’ and mastery over the future. The instrument of this process he identified as the removal from history of the possibilities of human choice, mystery and autonomy: history becomes a fixed sequence of unfolding inevitabilities, and the role of human beings reduced to mere acquiescence, an embracing of what is pressed upon them. The future is a city already constructed, waiting to be moved into.
C.S. Lewis insisted that we either submit our wills to a higher being, or we surrender both our wills and our hearts to the reduction implicit in the idea of man becoming his own master. Once man reduces himself to the material element, he sees himself as at one with all other matter, which rescues him from subservience to a creator, yes, but immediately re-enslaves him to one or some among his fellows. In pursuing this error, man in general, according to Lewis’s analysis, returns himself to nature. Under the law of the Tao, human beings remained outside nature, which in this sense means the three-dimensional world of space and time, the world of objects, concrete things. Nature recognises no values, being red in tooth and claw.
Man, by right, both Pearse and Lewis insisted, belongs to the other dimension: of consciousness, freedom, values, self-awareness, soul. Previously, at the zenith of human civilisation, human beings and their edifices existed, alongside the supernatural and the spirit world, in opposition to nature. The effect of more recent machinations, however, has been, as Lewis identified, that man is regressing to the context whence he emerged, moving from the world of the qualitative to the world of quantity, of matter.
Lewis postulates that when we seek to investigate something analytically — i.e. positivistically — and then adapt it to our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of nature ‘in the sense that we suspend our judgements of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity’. It is simply there, and therefore has no meaning or value beyond its existence and usefulness.
As we look upon nature, name its component elements, and work out the ‘mechanics’ of each one, we ‘conquer’ it and also destroy the taboos which kept us separate from it. By claiming dominion over it, we paradoxically bring ourselves back into its clammy embrace. In the next stage, by developing mechanistic, objectified understandings of our own ‘workings’, we return our own selves to nature, where we consider ourselves as some separated, ‘thingified’ entities, no longer subjects but third-person quantities. In reducing our social existence to rules and vacuous, self-standing moralisms, we nudge ourselves towards this objectified state, where we stand with the rest of nature to be examined, naked, by the Camp Commandant. When we submit ourselves to psychoanalysis and believe utterly in the outcome, we attain the same end. When we believe that the opinion of the many can be divined by asking questions of a relatively small ‘quota-controlled sample’, we likewise deposit ourselves amidst the tagged animals in the stalls of the stable next door to the sacred home in which we once lived.
This process can be seen clearly in the erosion of public abhorrence of abortion, once something unthinkable, now a matter of human convenience. We may consider ourselves lucky if, in this culture, such things continue to abhor us. The queasiness we feel in looking at the limp foetus in a bin is not merely an aesthetic objection: It is the inner voice of the still-human heart crying out against the reduction. It is not even squeamishness, but the very expression of the metaphysical affront that is suffered by the unconditioned, still human element of the buried heart of man.
By seeking absolute dominion over nature, Lewis argues, man falls victim again, just as Adam did, to his own arrogance — and counter-productively. ‘Every conquest over Nature,’ he writes, ‘increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psycho-analyse her. The wrestling of power from Nature is also the rendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage, we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same.’
Lewis takes us carefully into the heart of the paradox of mankind’s efforts to objectivise itself. ‘The stars’, he writes, ‘lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture. To many, no doubt, this process is simply the gradual discovery that the real world is different from what we expected, and the old opposition to Galileo or to “bodysnatchers” is simply obscurantism. But this is not the whole story. It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.’
The demolition of tradition, and ‘traditional values’ comes at a high price: not merely the end of religion but the end of the human, what Lewis, eight years before I was born, called ‘the world of post-humanity’ which ‘some knowingly, some unknowingly, nearly all men in all nations are at present labouring to produce’. And this process reaches through time, seeking to claim all time, past and future, to the dominion of those who live now.
The idea that, in pursuing what is nowadays called ‘progress’, humankind as a whole seeks to improve the general human situation on behalf of society is a piety that seeks to hide a calculating motive behind an altruistic one. In reality, a section of mankind seeks dominion over the future, to set the stamp of the present on all projected humanity as yet unborn, while also cutting the lines of communication that run underneath our feet into the past. By acquiescing in ‘progress’, we acquiesce in our own enslavement. If man, de-absolutised, has returned himself to nature, then in continuing with his mission of conquering nature into the future, man seeks dominion over himself, which is really dominion of the few who have managed to acquire the levers of control over the many who have been deprived of such access. The twentieth century ought to have taught us all we need to know about how this ends up.
It’s obvious that, in some respects, technology enriches and further enables the efforts of man to ‘subdue the earth’ or whatever it is he thinks he continues to be engaged in. Everyone assumes this and treats it as an unambiguously good thing. But, there is a price to be paid for all progress —in the overlooked and hidden riches that fall off the back of the wagon when something new is lifted on to the front. Technologies, often in subtle ways, are wont to dispossess human beings of skills that, though wearying to practice, function as vital elements of human capacity in the contexts of work, worth, self-expression and intrinsic rewards.
Just as our own potential may have become in certain ways impoverished by some of the implements and reductive understandings we have received from our ancestors and predecessors, so our descendants stand to be reduced in their potential by the instruments, edifices, paradigms and modes of understanding we bequeath them. And this precisely is the unspoken ambition of our species as expressed in its materialist/technocratic aspirations: to place the flags of our colonialism on the summits of the future, and corral posterity within enclosures designed by men of today.
In truth, our sense of diminution over the future is by definition delusional, since by ‘going forward’ on our stated terms, we move inexorably closer to the ultimate reduction of our species and therefore to its almost certain obliteration. By insisting upon a particular version of ‘progress’, we condemn those who come after us to exercise less control over the promise of their own lives and the conditions under which they will live. This has always been somewhat true; but, arising from the sabotaging of tradition in our own time, posterity will find its options more and more circumscribed as it moves ever closer to the probability of self-destruction. As C.S. Lewis observed, each new power of man is also a power over men. Each advance leaves us weaker as well as stronger. Each gain is but a gain for some, and also a loss for some others. Eventually, everyone’s a loser, Baby, that’s no lie.
Man in general, then, becomes marooned in a situation he has no sense of having chosen for himself. This sense is correct: It will not have been chosen by him or other men like him, but by others of his species, no longer to be located or recognised. The wires to his past have been snipped by others whom he does not know and has never spoken to, and his culture is infected by ideologies which of their nature were designed precisely with the intention of disabling the freedom and autonomy of future generations. Man is caught in a moment he can’t get out of, and doesn’t know what direction he might choose if he had the power to decide.
A supreme paradox: What propels the vehicle of progress is actually not the ambitions of its current drivers but a residual element of humankind’s original dynamism, which has somehow survived the destruction of most of what was worthwhile in the culture before. Man moves forward under the momentum of that which he has done his utmost to obliterate. He is on a doomed course. The more he succeeds in his objectives, the closer he brings his own extinction. He speeds history up by striving to become its master. Ultimately history controls him, because the denouement is already written. By striving for mastery over nature, man becomes the victim of that which he imagines himself capable of vanquishing. By colluding in his own continuing de-absolutisation, he hands himself over to the lynch mob, whose members he may hope to appease by concurring with their outlooks and attitudes, provided he is sharp enough to anticipate their caprices. But the Conditioners have no need of collaborators, certainly not for long, and the fate of the would-be sell-out merchant is as sealed as the fates of those he seeks to sell out.
It becomes more obvious, then, that man without ‘God’ does not become more free, but increasingly subject to a new kind of tyranny, from which there is no question of escape by personal election. C.S. Lewis elaborates: ‘Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasure of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own “natural” impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can overarch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.’
In returning himself to nature, which includes accepting an ‘animal’ status out of some perverse and misdirected humility, man eliminates received, given values and acquiesces in their replacement by something called ‘ethics’. Lewis declared that he would ‘sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that “a gentleman does not cheat”, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who has been brought up among sharpers’.
There is another paradox here. Reason, as we have discussed previously, requires to be more than logic or rationalism. It requires to engage far more of man than merely his head. It is not something to be worked out by reference to ‘objective’ matters only. It demands the use of subjective apprehension, learning that derives from experience, instinct refined by great feelings, and above all a certainty that things are capable of being understood in the fullest way by the heart implicitly contemplating an absolute destination. Reason is the soul of man at work.
‘As the king governs by his executive,’ Lewis declares, ’so Reason in man must rule the appetites by means of the “spirited element”’.
‘Men without chests’, a phrase Lewis used repeatedly in these lectures from eight decades ago to refer to the absence of the heart from the process of what modern societies define as reason, captures beautifully the condition of the bunker resident of today. He explained it like this: ‘The head rules the belly through the chest — the seat . . . of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest — Magnanimity — Sentiment — these are the indispensible liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.’
‘In a sort of ghastly simplicity’, he elaborated, ‘we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful’.
Thus did Lewis encapsulate the operation of the core mechanism of the bunker, in which we regulate our own affairs and redefine our self-descriptions — but without reference to the mysterious outdoors. We rewire ourselves to bypass the chest — the heart in its largest meaning — and are then surprised to find we are unable to find any true bearings.
In the past 20 months, those who had ears to hearken could not miss or mistake the Great Silence of the professionals, the silence of civil libertarians, the silence of the journalists, the silence of the artists, the silence of the poets and novelists, the silence of the singers and songwriters, the silence of the academics, the silence of the playwrights, the silence of the actors, the silence of the feminists, the silence of the economists, the silence of the jurists, the silence of all the former spokespeople for this cause and that (all irrelevant now as compared to what is happening), amounting to a single Great and Seamless Silence that pervaded everything and every place — in the face of the privations, losses — not least of life — griefs and imprisonings of human beings in the name of a phony pathogen and a phantom pandemic. This silence, almost impossible to detect because of the simultaneous clamour of propaganda and misdirecting chatter, endured in the face of a tyranny unparalleled not merely in our lifetimes but in our inherited tribal memory, and in our history equalled only by the great genocides of the 1840s and, before that, by the Penal Laws. These words, as time will tell, are not too strong.
Big strong men — without chests. Formerly voluble, garrulous and highly visible men . . . without chests. Men of substance and character and learning, but without chests. How could it be that they remained silent in the face of the encroaching, unprecedented tyranny?
Lewis’s diagnosis may explain it all. In many instances, it was not, as indeed he intuits, necessarily a deficit of brain-power: Much as one might want to insult these people for their weakness or cowardice, it is not sustainable. Nor was it, almost for certain, an absence of gumption, of moral fibre, of mettle, of backbone, of grit, of spirit. It was, rather, a matter of the missing circuitry that, linking these mutually remote functions via the heart, resulted in an inevitable chestlessness — not a ‘heartlessness’ of the literal kind, but an absence of heart all the same, a heartlessness amounting to an absence of Reason, which becomes the default condition of man suffering an absence of stable sentiments, an inability to reason using the whole mind, which is to say the heart and brain in unison. Thus, the brain becomes a sitting duck for propaganda and mass hypnosis, and, even when the gut screams that something is wrong, the circuitry necessary for making the connection is absent or inert. The head becomes unable to ‘rule’ the belly because the chest — the heart, essentially — has gone missing. And the heart is where God — here, we Christians, say ‘Christ’ with utter certainty — ‘cohabits’ with man — in man — and when man closes off his heart with a partition of self-sufficiency, the ‘Lodger’ remains but falls silent. And that silence becomes contagious.
This was not here, in these past 20 months, an occasional, intermittent absence: it was absent in almost everyone, as though by some kind of psychic fluoride in the water.
This silence, emerging like a scream without a mouth from the present unspeakable, ineffable situation, underlined the warnings of C.S. Lewis that, when man abolishes God, he really abolishes his own freedoms and therefore himself.
Perhaps, then, the absence of what we might have expected to be an emanation of spokespeople was born of a kind of nagging awareness that, in joining the mob in the onslaught of soul, spirit and sacredness, they had in a certain sense surrendered their right to speak of fundamental things, had reduced themselves to spectators along the great caravan of human existence, become mere minstrels, versifiers, jesters, harlequins — buskers along the way. They spoke, yes, from time to time, but mainly to upbraid or chastise those few who sought to address the unfolding calamity. But the giveaway here was their absence of magnanimity, of true sentiment, which is to say feeling for not merely those whom they attacked, dismissed and sought to silence, but also for themselves, for the long history out of which they had come, even the life experience which they had, each of them, enjoyed, and which ought to have been screaming at them through the chips and sensors and resistors and transformers and compressors and inductors and capacitors of their ‘modern’ condition.
The missing chest of man cannot simply be willed back into place. As Lewis says, we clamour for qualities which by definition we have rendered impossible.
‘Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed,’ said Seamus Heaney in an much-cited observation made at the Commencement Ceremony at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on May 12, 1996, ‘hope has to be maintained’. But how? Or even: Why? Where did the hopes we started out with emanate from? Why have they being dashed? How is hope to be maintained if it has already been exhausted? Where are the new hopes to be sourced, since presumably we need to acquire new hopes before we can maintain them? The tautology escapes our attention because we have been primed to believe that the word ‘hope’ of itself contains its own essence. This injunction of Heaney’s had been immediately preceded by another: ‘Even if the last move did not succeed, the inner command says move again.’ This is more interesting: What is the ‘inner command’? Where does it arise from? What/who (Who?) put it there?
Our cultures have come to speak and behave as though human hopes are self-generated, by a process of spontaneous auto-suggestion. But how might that work? Hope, one is led to understand, is something germinated out of mutated energy colliding with random possibility. Magic, in other words. We repeat the word ‘hope’ and, by a kind of self-hypnosis, seem to imagine the phenomenon itself manifesting before our eyes. In a word: superstition.
It is as if hope can exist as some renewable energy, like a self-charging battery, or one of those new-fangled pacemakers that is itself charged by the heart it provides the rhythm for. Except that this is actually a quite inappropriate comparison, since the heart is precisely what has been eliminated by the Conditioners, who have replaced it with a tiny generator of tautological construction and an artificial conscience based on rules and strictures and ethics which have no basis other than that they provide a ghostly echo of values held to long ago, now reduced to husks of the glorious certainties that erupted once upon a time from the very fount of creation.