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Dr. Larry Arnn Begins a Study of That Hideous Strength in His Totalitarian Series of Hillsdale Dialogues

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HH: It is the last radio hour of the week, on the last weekend before the presidential election of 2016. So it’s an abbreviated Hillsdale Dialogue today, only two segments with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, as afterwards, I must speak with Reince Priebus, the chairman of the RNC in the third segment. But Dr. Arnn is appearing on a very auspicious day, and everything Hillsdale is found at And includes all the Hillsdale Dialogues, because today, Vince Benedetto of Bold Gold Radio informs us on Twitter is College Radio Day. And he greets Scot Bertram, John Miller, Hillsdale 101.7, and Hillsdale and me, hashtag #WRFH, which stands for Radio Free Hillsdale. Did you know that today is College Radio Day, Dr. Larry Arnn?

LA: I learned it from you just now. Amazing.

HH: It’s a good thing, and if you followed Twitter, you would know that. And have you yet graced the studios of WRFH?

LA: Well, I haven’t been invited on. I think I have to prove myself first.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing)

HH: It’s like Pirate Radio, that wonderful Philip Seymour thing there. They’re sailing around the borders of Hillsdale, and I hope they stay away from, too close to the castle. They’ve got to stay out of range of the castle, is what they’ve got to do. So congratulations to that. We are beginning today a series of weeks on C.S. Lewis’ amazing novel, That Hideous Strength. And for people just walking into the middle of this, Dr. Arnn is conducting a seminar on totalitarianism. And we have read thus far 1984, Darkness At Noon, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Now C.S. Lewis, who was born in Ulster in Belfast, Ireland, in 1898, died on the 22nd of November, 1963, at Oxford, England, the same day that Aldous Huxley died, and both of them were largely ignored in their passing because it was the same day that President Kennedy was assassinated. But Lewis was quite the amazing man. I would argue if not the most influential Christian of the 20th Century, among the top two or three. Billy Graham is up there as well. What do you make of Lewis generally and of his career as an Oxford and Cambridge don, Dr. Arnn?

LA: I think of him as one of the most important people to me that I ever read, and one of the most important people in the 20th Century ever to write. He’s different from Billy Graham. He’s an academic man. He’s a deeply learned man. And you know, I mean, his fundamental education shines in everything he writes. And yet he writes simply and beautifully. And his books are to this day huge sellers. And he’s been dead for, what, 50 years, a little more. And so he’s just a gift. He’s an extremely important man. And you know, in this age, one of the reasons I urge people to read him, and read him myself, I started reading him in graduate school, by the way, first in a course on nihilism. We were also reading Nietzsche, is that this is an age where, because deconstruction of everything rational and real and divine and abiding is the fashion of the age, and Lewis wrote a lot about that, including in this novel that we’re going to talk about. And so that’s a problem that has to be thought through. And I don’t know anybody who helps better than C.S. Lewis.

HH: Now he was part of a small group. He taught at Oxford at Magdalen College. He also taught at Cambridge University. That is unusual, is it not, for one to go from the one to the other?

LA: Well, he was, that’s right, and we say Magdalen College, which is near Magdalen Street in Oxford.

HH: That’s what you say when you know what you’re saying (laughing).

LA: Yeah, there you go. Why do I know? I lived there for a while. And, but if you make that mistake, that’s like really raises eyebrows in Oxford. (laughing)

HH: (laughing) I won’t go to Oxford. I only went once to debate there at the union, Magdalen College.

LA: Well, now you can go. There isn’t a lot more to know than that, but that’s one to know. And he, yeah, so he was, he got an appointment to Oxford when he was a young man, and he worked most of his career there. And then very late in his life, he was given a major professorship at Cambridge. And he had become a very famous man. And you know, he was, you know, he wrote the Oxford History of 17th Century Literature. And that’s a big deal, and a very big, important academic thing. And then did I get it right? Is it 16th Century literature? I’m forgetting right now. But it was Renaissance, anyway. And he, and so he was a very distinguished academic. He was a controversial figure in Oxford, because the contesting of the modern doctrines, which were coming into Oxford, and heavily planted there by his lifetime, he fought with people about that. And he never got offered so distinguished a professorship in the Oxford, where he lived to his dying day, by the way, outside of Oxford at a little place called The Kilns. He never got such a grand offer from Oxford, although he was a serious man and lifelong tutor at Oxford. And so he did move to Cambridge. And there, he was treated as a celebrity. And it didn’t last just a few years, and I can’t remember how many. So yeah, he did both. And…

HH: And I bring that up, because the beginning of That Hideous Strength, there’s an introduction in which he says you learn more from fairy tales than you do from people at places like Bracton College, the imaginary college which is sort of an amalgam of Cambridge and Oxford. For many German peasants, it actually meant cruel stepmothers, where I have never in any university come across a college like Bracton. He also writes that in this story, the outer rim of devilry has been shown touching the life of some ordinary and respectable profession, academia, and that those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the true West, must await the publication of much that still exists only in the mind of the manuscripts of my friend, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien. So I wanted to point out, he knows the world of which he writes in That Hideous Strength so well, Oxford, Cambridge, his whole life is spent there. His pals are Tolkien, and what you made the point of, he is very smart and well-read.

LA: Oh, yeah. And another thing is that in same introduction, shortly beneath what you quoted, he says that he’s not meaning to say bad things about the academic world. It just happens to be a profession he knows, and that’s why he wrote about it. But the truth is he wrote about other professions in his life. And I think he’s being charitable and ironic when he disavows that point, because what the book does is it shows how certain arguments lead to certain practical consequences in the lives, including the political lives, of people. And of course, it’s in academic settings where those arguments are born and propagated.

HH: And I have a friend, he also begins with, and people who are not Christian had better understand this from the beginning. He has a, he is a devout Christian. He believes in the Devil, or the enemy. My friend, Jan Janura, will be happy to know that we’re talking about a book that actually believes not in mere science, but also in the supernatural and articulates the fact that there is an enemy. And here, he is, he’s writing from that assumption that there is an enemy, and that the enemy has plans. And those plans develop over a long period of time, as we have seen history full of bad people developing their plans over a long period of time. It’s a very strange worldview for a lot of our listeners, Dr. Arnn.

LA: Oh, yeah. And of course, what a blessing, because this is a really smart guy, right? And I mean, learned, deeply knowledgeable guy. And so he writes about that, you know. In Mere Christianity, if I remember rightly, he thinks up the question, you know, so you really do believe in this day and age that there are supernatural spirits, good and evil about us, you know? And that taunt was flung at him through his life.

HH: Oh, during the break, I have to…

LA: And nobody knew how to answer it better.

HH: I have to find a taunt that was flung at me by Richard Dawkins, another English don. Maybe they can find it during the break so I can play it for you. But he was not afraid, was he? I like that about Lewis that he was unafraid.

LA: Well, he, you know, he was, also, he had a gift that I wish to cultivate better than I’ve been able, and that was he wasn’t mean to anybody while he had these fierce arguments with them.

HH: Right. You have much to work on that with me. You’re often quite…

LA: Yeah, it’s a fact.

HH: It’s terrible (laughing).

LA: I’m meaner to my friends, though, than I am to my enemies, or I try to be (laughing).

HH: (laughing) But he was. He was a gentle soul.

LA: Very. Yeah, he, if we go on, the last book we’re reading in my course is the Abolition of Man, which is a partner to this book. And it’s a long essay. It’s a short book. And he says in the preface that you read from to That Hideous Strength that all he’s doing is putting into fiction the arguments in Abolition of Man. And in that book, he just tears apart throughout the book, and shows the cosmically disastrous consequences, of a high school grammar book. But he conceals the name of the book, and the names of the author.

HH: Because he’s kind.

LA: Yeah, he says, you know, I owe them good words for giving me a copy of this book. But after that, I will have nothing good to say about them. And so (laughing), he really tears them up.

HH: I will be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn. This is the predicate for many weeks of conversation about That Hideous Strength. You really need to read this book. And it’s available for pittance on iTunes and bookstores everywhere. That Hideous Strength. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – – — –

HH: That Hideous Strength, published in 1943 by C.S. Lewis, begins, interesting, Larry Arnn, with marriage. It begins with boredom in marriage, and then quickly moves to a faculty meeting. Why do you think he begins with boredom in marriage?

LA: Well, it will blossom at the end, because it also ends with the relief of that boredom. So it begins and ends with bad marriage and then good marriage. And it’s important in the middle of this totalitarian novel, because, I’ll put it in my words, there are three things about us that really all of us have to cope with and provide our deepest test and satisfactions in our lives, our lives as individuals, I mean. One of them is our faith, and one of them is the work we have to do to make our living, a necessary attribute of the human condition. And the last one is the, our family, which is how we come to be. And so, and remember, human beings coming to be is very complex. It takes a long time to raise a kid. And then when we get old, and when we get old as when we’re very young, we get weaker. Some of us for longer, some of us for shorter. And we need people to care for us. And the family provides that. Now totalitarian countries invade all three of those things. We’ve read in 1984, and in Brave New World especially how it’s a theme that they conscript the family…

HH: Yup.

LA: …into agents of the state, an agency of the state. In 1984, your children are turned against you by the education they receive, and you live in terror of them denouncing you. If they just do that, at any age, then you’re going to be arrested, and the results are likely to be horrific and utterly outside of your control. And so Jane, one of the main figures, a married woman, is bored with her marriage, and it’s revealed in the novel it’s because she and her husband both failed to understand it. And what they don’t understand is the depth of the partnership in marriage. They both want to, the husband, by the way, who is from Bracton College, and one of the main figures going to this new institution we will describe, is a modern social scientist.

HH: Yes. He’s a sociologist.

LA: He’s devoid of any knowledge or imagination for the magic of marriage. And in the novel, it’s very touching when he comes to see that.

HH: And it’s also touching at the beginning the Dimbles arrive. And I love the use of Dickensian names. The Dimbles are heroes, but you would never recognize them as such at the beginning, as are the old academics, who are the old set versus the young, smart progressives who are everywhere around us. But I hadn’t, I’m reading this closely, because it’s in your seminar, and I had not noticed before that the marriage, you know, it opens with marriage, which I guess is going to be Lewis’ argument about the way you stop the totalitarian state, is to make sure you take care of the married family.

LA: Well, there are several ways, because marriage appears as a ceremony, a sacrament, and a rite in this novel. And of course, that means that marriage is a connection with God, which is an explicit teaching of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. So yeah, they, marriage is very important in this thing. And for those of you who enjoyed Brave New World, I will tell you that talk of sex is constant in this novel.

HH: It is, from C.S. Lewis. And I also would tempt people, with 30 seconds, Arthurian legend is here as well, which is always a getter, right?

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: He’s, it’s good to have Merlin in your book. It’s very good. (laughing) That is our table set for next week. Go and get it, America. Dive into That Hideous Strength. It can stand alone. It’s a wonderful novel. It will change the way you think about things. And the Hillsdale Dialogue will be rich, rich, rich for having read it closely with Dr. Larry Arnn., all the Hillsdale Dialogues. I’ll talk to you again next week, Dr. Larry Arnn.

End of interview.


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