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Dr. Larry Arnn Continues His Totalitarianism Study of That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

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HH: It is that last radio hour of the week. Even in a week as full of news ten days after an election as consequential as this, we always go back to the big ideas and the big books with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College as we do the Hillsdale Dialogue. All of the Hillsdale Dialogues are collected at www.hughforhillsdale.com going back four-plus years now, www.hughforhillsdale.com. Everything Hillsdale is organized, collated and made very easily accessible at www.hillsdale.edu, including your free subscription, free, I emphasize free, to Imprimis, the speech digest that lights up millions of mailboxes every month as Hillsdale provides you with the very best reading material. All you have to do is sign up for it. That’s part of the mission of the university, the lighthouse of the north, the lantern of the north, I call it. And all of their free online courses, also at www.hillsdale.edu, and you will be needing some of them, given the arrival of President-Elect Trump on the scene. Dr. Arnn, you did my first hour today. You took time off. You came back. I appreciate it very much. We are talking about C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. But I neglected to mention in the first hour, and I’ve got to do it or people will be mad at me. Rush Limbaugh lit up my emails two days ago when he said that you were going to be the Secretary of Education. And I don’t expect you to comment on this, but I do want to say, it’s going to create a hell of a lot of work for me if this happens. I’m going to have to recut all the old Hillsdale Dialogues and play them in this hour. Now that’s good, because that audience has never heard them. But are you giving any thought to poor Mr. Bultitude in the other room there who’s got to do all the work?

LA: Well, I think about Mr. Bultitude all the time, of course. Well, first of all, yeah, there’s, you know, there’s influential people who’d love for me to do that, but there’s a lot of really great people who could do that. And Mr. Trump’s got to figure out his mind, right? And if he asked me to do it, I could take leave from the college and do it. But if he picks one of the others whose name I hear, good for him. And he, you know, he does, it’s, you know, we only have rumors, by the way, about the transition process. And you know, there’s a lot of information about what’s going on in very high places. But in the end, the only thing that matters is the high place in the Trump Tower in New York City. And they’re going to make up their mind, and you know, I mean, first of all, just think what a demotion in my life it would be if I were Secretary of Education. (laughing)

HH: (laughing) It would be. You will leave the fortress, the lantern of the north, your castle.

LA: Yeah.

HH: And you will have to come deal with Washington day by day. It would be…

LA: Oh, man. Think of that, you know? But you know, I’m going to be helpful to Donald Trump to the maximum extent I can, and it’s very likely that I could do it a lot better doing my job than I could doing one of his. But you know, that’s up to him. And God bless him while he thinks about it.

HH: And I know that you are a patriot. If asked, you will serve. But I do think, we probably should recut those hours anyway, because the new morning audience have never heard you talking about Homer. We can do that, but I’m nevertheless worried about Mr. Bultitude next door, which brings me to Bultitudeness Duane, and where the word comes from. We have been talking about That Hideous Strength, and I have been rereading it, and I’m about 40 pages from the end, so I don’t want you to remind me of the end too much. But we do have to set this up for people. It’s such a great book, but it’s one of three, starring at their center a man named Ransom and his journeys. And it’s a science fiction trilogy, but it’s much, much more than that. How did you describe this to your students at Hillsdale when you set them on That Hideous Strength?

LA: Well, the first, a great way to start, since we’ve been reading these other books, is to make a contrast. And this is sharply in contrast to the other books in some very important respects, although in my opinion, it makes the same point. First of all, this is an adventure story. It’s exciting, you know, and great things happen.

HH: Yes.

LA: And it’s a wild ride, you know. It’s really great. The others are grim and terrible, but not like that, not an adventure story. The second thing is there’s, there are heroes in this story, really genuine people that they’re held up for one to emulate, to provide a guide. And of course, those are the best stories, in my opinion. You know, we’re into nihilism in the modern world, and we’re into great forces that dominate human beings. And so their pitiful little efforts are crushed, and somehow we manage to, many people at least manage to take satisfaction from that.

HH: Can I hit a point here? That in the character of Ransom, there is held up that kind of person who we rarely encounter who inspires and encourages and embodies a lot of grace. I think of Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. There are others. You know, some would even say Larry Arnn was such a person. Not me. I’ve felt the scourge of his wit too much.

LA: No, no, you wouldn’t say that (laughing).

HH: But I…

LA: People who know you would say that.

HH: …is wonderful, it is wonderful that Ransom exists, because we have been through dreary, there have been some heroic actions in Brave New World and in 1984 and in Darkness At Noon, but there hasn’t been a lot of virtue. They’ve been heroic actions, but this Ransom is virtuous.

LA: Yeah, and it’s just, he is virtuous, and I’ll say a word about his prudence in a minute. But the virtue in the other novels, or the brave people in the other novels, their efforts are all vain, right?

HH: Yup.

LA: Nobody good wins in the other novels.

HH: Yup.

LA: So in this novel, Ransom, who is directly in touch with things that are almost like angels, so think of that, you know (laughing)/

HH: Yup.

LA: Angels are somehow between us and God, and it’s easy to imagine what that would be like, right, something that experiences the presence of God and has no body, and yet is an intellect, right? That’s the most classical and medieval and Renaissance descriptions of angels run that way. Well, these guys are not angels, these Eldils, who are associated with planets. But they’re something like angels, I guess. And I don’t know what that would be. Well, he’s in touch with them, and he’s talking to them. And George Orwell reviews this book and says that it’s too bad that God has to come into it, effectively, he says this, because now you know the ending. God comes in, everything’s over, right? But that’s not true, right? That’s not true in the Bible, and that’s not true in this novel, because people have to do things. And they understand while they do them, that this might encompass their deaths. And so Ransom is such a man. He’s talking to these, he’s been to Mars and Venus, and he’s talking to these Eldils that come from there, and other ones, we eventually find out. But on the other hand, everything might go wrong, and he might be killed. And he knows that. And he, and see, that’s a point. In this book, there is a statesman, that is somebody who amidst the doubts of human life has to make grave choices and make them well. And so he’s telling Jane, who’s a big figure we’ll talk about, and she meets him and immediately wants to be with him, because he is a holy man and very galvanizing. And he won’t let her stay because of her relationship with her husband. Her husband is working for the bad guys.

HH: Mark Studdock.

LA: That’s right. And she’s disappointed, but can’t, you know, what does it matter what he thinks, and can’t I just stay? And he says well, he says I can’t be too prudent, and he uses that word. That’s the statesman’s word, the virtue of the statesman, too prudent. He said if I just took any circumstance and used it to overbear high principles for Lewis, and the family and marriage are high principles, then I’d just be like them. I’d be doing every kind of crime in order to remake the world, right? So unlike O’Brien in 1984, and unlike Mustapha Mond in Brave New World, and unlike Gletkin, and at times, Rubashov in Darkness At Noon, there’s a lot of things that Ransom just won’t do.

HH: He’s self-limiting. He’s limiting…

LA: That’s right. Limited by the higher things he serves even in the choice of means that requires one to have some flexibility. So he’s, and see, Orwell, I think, is exactly wrong, right, because in the world that Orwell creates, you have a theory and you just put it into action in all cases. Orwell says a world in which there’s a God is like that, but in fact, this world, if you read this novel, is not at all like that. They have to grope their way. They’re limited by ultimate things, even as they adapt to circumstances. And so it’s a very, it’s a much more, with a Divine in the middle of it, by the way, and it is the presence of the Divine in the middle of it, and the character of the Divine, that makes this a more richly human world than the world in the other novels.

HH: And when we come back, we’ll explain. I will say it probably is, for a Christian political actor, a necessary read.

LA: Yeah.

HH: It’s an embodiment of how Christians, as Lewis imagined them in the real world, acting on political and consequential matters, That Hideous Strength.

— – – – –

HH: And at this point, Dr. Arnn, maybe we should go back and set the stage a little bit for people who missed last week. We are set in post-war Britain. We are in a college town like Oxbridge, but it’s not Oxford or Cambridge. It’s a little bit down on its heels, and our central characters are Mark and Jane Studdock, a newly-married and young academic don, and his wife who’s approaching her PhD when word arrives that N.I.C.E., a big, giant government bureaucracy with enormous powers that is in fact satanic begins to arrive in town and take over. And they want Jane, for reasons related to her prophetic element, and they take Mark as a means of getting to her. What do we learn about N.I.C.E. that informs our understanding of central planning, by the way?

LA: Well, it is satanic. We learn that. But that’s not the first thing that arrives. What you learn is that they’re huge, that they’re in some way scientific, and that they’re interesting above all in power. So there’s a, Fairy Hardcastle is the head of the N.I.C.E. police, which are becoming a secret police, and she says that there’s not really much difference between sociology and police work, is there? And in the first half of the novel, Studdock, a sociologist, is qualified and attracted to and attractive to the N.I.C.E. and attracted himself to the N.I.C.E., because he understands that enough of this learning, we’ve got to do. We’ve got to start working on the society. And so they’re like that. And then as you begin to, and right away, when you learn their internal operations, you learn that it’s a world just like the world of the Screwtape Letters, a long time before you know that there are devils involved.

HH: Yup.

LA: And what is the world of the Screwtape Letters like if you take out the devils? It’s a big bureaucracy, right? And it’s a zero sum game. Anybody who rises means somebody’s got to fall. And it’s even stated in the Screwtape Letters as the principle of the, what’s he called, of, whatever he’s called, the god, who is Satan, to the imps in the Screwtape Letters.

HH: The enemy.

LA: The enemy. No, well, the enemy is Jesus.

HH: Yeah, the enemy is Jesus.

LA: Yeah, and whatever he is, right? Our father.

HH: Our master.

LA: I think he’s our father.

HH: Yeah, it’s our father. Our father.

LA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. His principle is that for one thing to expand, another thing has to contract. And in the end, what they’re all trying to do in hell is absorb each other, actually eat each other. And when you meet the N.I.C.E., everything is vague, everything is scheming, everything is backbiting, everything is who’s preferred at the moment, and who’s not, who’s in the inner ring, a big conception in C.S. Lewis? And so the N.I.C.E. is this thing coming into a world of learning, and it’s much, and Bracton College, where Studdock is, is a great place. It’s like All Souls College. There aren’t any students. They’re just a bunch of guys and girls, I imagine, writing things, right? And that’s all they do. I sometimes say about All Souls College, they’ve got faculty and no students. That’s half the solution.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing)

HH: Wouldn’t it be awfully dang boring? I mean, it would inevitably dissolve into this ceaseless competition for status and position.

LA: Yeah, that’s right. And Mark realizes as his conversion is underway, which is not explicitly a Christian conversion, but Jane’s is, and you can see where Mark’s is leading. He realizes that now he understands the N.I.C.E., and that everyone hates each other. And everyone tortures each other all the time. That’s the society. That’s N.I.C.E.

HH: That is hell, and that is often a bureaucracy. Not always. When we come back from break, we’ll continue talking about That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis. Don’t go anywhere, America. Dr. Larry Arnn returns after this.

— – – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, a related point. You mentioned in the last segment that the inner ring is a central concept to Lewis. I often recommend the inner ring to young men and women who wish to rise in the world as a cautionary tale. But your detachment from this transition process while being in it, I think, reflects that you think a lot about the inner ring, because there is a seduction underway in any organization always. There’s N.I.C.E., and there isn’t any inner ring at St. Anne’s, which is the good guy’s place in That Hideous Strength, though there is a central player, a commander. But there isn’t the competition. And you’ve got to be detached from it and aware of its temptation at all times, or it will get you.

LA: Yeah, and Lewis gives a lecture about that, that’s reprinted in one of his books of essays, and it might be God in the Dock, or it might be The Weight of Glory, which is one of the best of them.

HH: It’s God in the Dock, but go ahead.

LA: God in the Dock. Yeah, and anyway, and the point is, you know, we humans want to be in. And what we can see plainly, what’s easiest to perceive, is power, right? It’s, like if anybody, our readers, our listeners surely know the joy of great friendship, right, which Aristotle describes as the highest human association. But that’s only for the qualified, that is to say the people who admire the highest things and have some understanding of them and devote themselves to them. And they become attached to one another in the most permanent and elevating way by that devotion. Well, that’s all kind of hard to see, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: Let’s say you’re a 20 year old kid, right? And you know, I work with 20 year old kids. And there’s a pecking order around here. And the student body, and the freshmen are junior to the seniors. And there’s the student federation, and there’s a college paper, and there’s fraternities and sororities. And those are structures that are visible. And then in the classrooms, there’s a different kind of hierarchy, right, the hierarchy of knowing and seeing and helping others to do that. And that’s less tangible. And so one’s education leads you into a very different kind of inner ring than the most obvious kind. And in that essay, Lewis describes that beautifully where he says that not seeking the inner ring if you just try to do, occupy your station well, you will find yourself in an inner ring that you hadn’t even seen before. And the phrasing is something like the real craftsman, the professionals who really know what they’re doing, not the people who spend their lives trying to build up the profession, the ones who practice it the best, and this novel is certainly say, because he says it, setting into fiction The Abolition of Man, which I guess we’re going to read next. But it’s also a setting into fiction of that essay, The Inner Ring. And it’s very powerful.

HH: Yeah, it’s very powerful, and I was put in mind, I don’t know if you’ve read the book, Boys In The Boat. I know most of my audience probably has. There is a craftsman there, Pocock, who lives atop the boathouse in Washington the 1936 Olympic team assembles and goes on to their great glory in Berlin. And he is that master craftsman. He is the best boat builder in the world. There is no inner ring for him. He doesn’t go to boat building conferences. He just builds boats. It’s really remarkable. Back to Studdock. So Studdock gets caught up in this N.I.C.E., and the Fairy is a malevolently drawn and wonderful person. But I’ve got to say Withers is, his language is so much the language of every faculty meeting I’ve ever been in. And God help you, I don’t know how presidents of college go to them. I can skip them when I want, and you know, I’m not leave this semester. But you couldn’t get me to be a faculty president ever, or to be on a faculty senate ever. And God love faculty members. It’s just the way they talk, Larry Arnn.

LA: Well, you know, not so much here, I’ll tell you.

HH: Oh, well, you’re not the norm.

LA: Yeah, it’s, I don’t go to very member faculty meetings. I used to go to all of them, and I found out that they became bored with me. And so I go once or twice a year. I go if there’s a problem. There hasn’t been one this year so far. And I go at the end to tell them how the year’s going, right? And they’re delightful. Now a bunch of really smart people, because here’s what’s wrong with faculty meetings, and it’s just because it’s what’s wrong with the world. A bunch of really smart people who know their Homer and their physics and all that, and now they’re talking about details of academic administration.

HH: Parking lots.

LA: Yeah, it’s just not, it’s just not interesting stuff, right? And I fancy, you know, that there’s, I wouldn’t say that it’s my opinion that they’re particularly good at it, and I’m glad about that. (laughing)

HH: (laughing)

LA: Because you know, the people who really take care of all that stuff, they understand it, the best of them for sure, and my colleagues, for sure, they understand it for what it is. It’s something you’ve just got to get right so you can get on with the real stuff.

HH: Yes.

LA: So anyway, yeah, that’s, but I have been to faculty meetings, I think only twice in my life, at other places. And the way you describe them, like for example, the room was, both times, teeming with resentment. Both times the president came and gave a report. Both times, he really came, he was on, walking on eggshells, but also, he came to establish power. And power had to do with money.

HH: Yeah.

LA: You know, and faculty members need to get paid, and so they have the natural human interest in money, and in my experience, not overweening, but so, it was like that.

HH: Well, at Bracton, in this novel, the college is Bracton, and I’m wondering if you saw in their, you know, the progressive element in how they marginalized the old codgers, all of whom end up at Hillsdale, if you saw in there some lesson for modern education? You know, it’s all about contriving to advance.

LA: Yeah, that’s it. And at Bracton, the old guys expect to go to faculty meetings and be bored, and they only become not bored when something fundamental is at stake.

HH: Yes, yes.

LA: The new guys have got very devious plans to change everything fundamental, and they’re really good at hoodwinking the old guys. And that’s, you know, it’s just ugly. It’s just awful, right?

HH: (laughing) But it’s so beautifully drawn.

LA: Oh, man.

HH: It is…

LA: And you know, what does C.S. Lewis do for a living?

HH: He was a don.

LA: Yeah. And you know, the book begins with a fib, by the way, a grand fib, because C.S. Lewis says, he’s charitable, right? And he, of course, excoriates the culture of Bracton College and many other things, but he begins by denying that he knows any college like Bracton or ever saw one like Bracton.

HH: (Laughing)

LA: And he says that he only picks the academic world, because it’s the one he happens to know. But of course, that won’t hold up, because it’s from the academic world that these ideas flow that animate the N.I.C.E. And so…

HH: There are a couple of, a couple of achingly beautiful portraits of the hard sciences guy who leaves N.I.C.E. And you know, he’s not a believer. He’s not a Christian. He’s just a hard sciences guy, and he has nothing to do with sociology. And then there’s Curry, who buries everyone who dies, and who’s the progressive element’s leading guy. And it’s such an empty, it ought to be a caution to everybody in academic life to read this thing.

LA: You know, people, I’m an old man now, and I’ve been doing this for a long time, and people sometimes mention to me now, this is starting to happen, my legacy. And I always think of Curry. (laughing)

HH: (laughing) Giving good eulogies? He buried them all?

LA: Right. Yeah, you know, the day is coming when somebody else is going to do this job. And if I keep it up, maybe I’ll be remembered as having done it well. But I’m not the only guy who ever did it well, and I won’t be the last, I hope and pray. So anyway…

HH: But there are good academics. Dr. Dimble is a good academic. He meets with his students. He leaves the St. Anne’s refuge.

LA: Yeah, that’s right.

HH: He teaches students. And he engages Studdock.

LA: And also, he has this, Bill the Blizzard, isn’t that, no, Hingest, Hingest is his name, the…

HH: Yeah, that’s Bill the Blizzard.

LA: …real live scientists, right?

HH: Yeah, that’s the same guy.

LA: And he and Dimble have something in common, which is real knowledge, deep knowledge, which takes a lifetime to get. And all the progressive element guys can’t say for sure exactly what they study, and no one else can remember.

HH: It’s amazing. But Dimble is, there’s a little monologue, this will tell you how far I’ve gotten, after he encourages Studdock, who’s trying to get away from N.I.C.E., where he reproaches himself for not doing, you know, he is subject to the same problems. It’s not like there are good guys and bad guys. There are all imperfect people. It’s just a question of being aware of your imperfection.

LA: That’s it. That’s right. Yeah, and that’s a point that, you know, because like why didn’t Winston Churchill think he was God? Well, he wasn’t. And you could see that. And so that’s why the very greatest statesmen, and remember, a statesman is somebody who’s really good at power, right? One of the things about Ransom is he’s a very humble man, but Lord, in these three novels, he kills a bunch of people, right?

HH: Yes, he does.

LA: He’s a very lethal man to come up against. And you know, it’s just a simple rule of prudence in the 20th Century, more common, or more true than the rule don’t get involved in a land war in Asia. Don’t get in a war with Winston Churchill. He’ll kill you.

HH: Let me add to that. If you add up Washington, Lincoln, and Churchill, you have three of the most ruthless people who’ve ever had to prosecute bloody, bloody war.

LA: Oh, yeah. That’s right. And you know, Bruce Catton, and one of my favorite lines ever written in all of history, after the Battle of Antietam, writes this line, which I think I can repeat just about as it was. And so, he says, after the Battle of Antietam, the war expanded again to a place that no one had foreseen. And yet, also, it contracted, focused upon two men – Lincoln and Lee, who had the awful capacity to make men love them, and the ruthlessness to tell them what to do. You see, now why are Lincoln, Churchill and Washington not monsters? Because they built constitutions, which are ways of distributing power and making government accountable. And that is a limit on their own power. And so they used that incredible, fearsome and lethal talent that they had to make other people strong.

HH: I’ll be right back. Last segment of our second of three conversations about That Hideous Strength. You still have a chance to get it, read it and enjoy the end with us. When we come back, Arthurian Britain and how it figures in this.

— – – —

HH: Deeply buried in this book is my love of Arthurian legend. I have saved, Larry Arnn, for a long time The Once And Future King. I have never read it, because I’m going to save it for when I really have a chance to enjoy it. I might even listen to it if anyone has a good audiobook out there. But buried in this book is the Arthurian legend, which is very Tolkienish, and that animates a lot of Lewis’ life as a professor, as an academic. And why does he do that here? Why is he trying to merge the old magic of medieval times and Merlin into the modern world?

LA: Oh, that’s a really great and deep question, and of course, I don’t know the answer. But I’ll speculate. So first of all, there’s a wedding that goes on here between a nation, which is a real thing, right? A nation is a people living in a place. And our nation, the greatest of the modern nations, occupied a vast place that they did not own at the beginning, and kept freedom spreading all the way across it, right, which the exception of slavery, which was the cause of conflict from the very beginning, and of course, eventually, our greatest conflict. Anyway, so the nation, to C.S. Lewis, is real. And one of the reasons it’s real is it has a past. Its past is rich. The people have been formed for a long time. And so in Bracton College, there’s Bragdon Wood, and that’s where Merlin is found. And Merlin is a bridge, as is Ransom, between the supernatural and immortal, and the mortal and the natural. And so this Bragdon Wood, and Merlin was a servant of Arthur, right? And so it turns out Ransom inherits a title from Arthur. And so when they first describe this, the well at Bragdon Wood, and it turns out Merlin is hidden buried down in the well, he says, and C.S. Lewis speaks in his own name most prominently when he says I visited Bragdon Wood one time. And then he says I felt as if I was entering the holy of holies. And every provost, I think they’re called, of Bracton College has drunk from a ceremonial cup that traces back to the days of Merlin, right? So it’s like a communion, right? And so this human thing, this human being, Merlin, is in the novel, in the action of the novel, and it’s very artful how that’s contrived, is a bridge between us and God, sort of like a prophet. And so is Ransom. And so this, and there’s two things. One is the greatness of Britain, and the name for Britain that stems from Arthur is Logres. And Logres is kind of a shadow of the living nation that we see, but also its spirit or driving motive. And Logres is much greater than Britain. And Logres dominates Britain in great moment. You could say 1940, for example, when they became very heroic, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: And then in 1933, they were not very heroic, right? They made a lot of mistakes. And a lot of the mistakes they made, they made, and Churchill said this, they made them because they had the human rightful wish for an easy life, right? And it cost them hard, and they became Logres. But then it’s also said that, it’s specifically denied that Logres is God’s people. He says every country has a Logres. And ours is just our better half, the one in contact with the Divine. You know, and think about it in the terms of America. America begins on principles that are Divine, and states in those terms. But also, it is a specific place that specific people will live in and try to conform to these principles. But to form a structure, like if you just compare the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, in my argument, I’ve written a book about it, they are profoundly related, that they are in fact inseparable. And yet on the surface, they’re really different, because the Declaration of Independence is beautiful, high, elevated. The Constitution reads mostly mechanically, right?

HH: Yeah, it’s the rules of golf.

LA: Yeah, and so those, the relation between those two things, right, if you can figure that out, you can figure out America, in my argument, right? And that is Lewis’ argument in this book, that the relation between Logres and Britain is a form of the relation between God and man.

HH: And that is why you have to catch up with us, America. You have a week to get, read and finish That Hideous Strength. We will finish it next week. That includes Mr. Bultitude of the studio, you, Duane, and if you want to know who Mr. Bultitude is, America, you’ve got to read the book, That Hideous Strength. And all of the Hillsdale Dialogues at www.hillsdale.edu, and of course, www.hughforhillsdale.com. Thank you for listening.

End of interview.

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