C. S. Lewis titled That Hideous Strength after a line in a poem by Sir David Lyndsay called “Ane Dialog” (1555) in which Lyndsay was describing the biblical Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1-9): “The shadow of that hideous strength, Six miles and more it is of length.”
Lewis considered That Hideous Strength to be a fictionalized version of the themes in his book of three lectures, The Abolition of Man. In the preface to That Hideous Strength, Lewis states, “This is a ‘tall story‘ [pun probably intended] about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.” In The Abolition of Man, among many things, Lewis offered his thoughts to an audience from the University of Durham in February 1943 on education, the natural law tradition, and the necessity of moral oversight of the institution of science and its practitioners. In That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups, first published in 1945, he breathes life into these ideas in a primary character of the book, in his description of the aggressive vision of the scientific group called N. I. C. E. (The National Institute for Coordinated Experiments), and in his attribution of N. I. C. E.’s views and actions to the demons, or … “devilry.”
For John Mark Reynolds who founded the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University (Los Angeles, CA), That Hideous Strength is “… the truest account of the state of the West written in the last one hundred years.” For this reason, the work made its way to the second spot in his list of top ten must read books, second only to the Bible.
Since summaries of That Hideous Strength are readily available online and in print, I will point out three important facets of this profound novel in this discussion. First is the character of a young academic named Mark Gainsby Studdock. His “mental weather” (That Hideous Strength, 217) is seemingly unpredictable in both personal and professional ways. From That Hideous Strength, it appears that Studdock was the subject of the kind of mis-education in the tradition of Gaius’ and Titius’ The Green Book that Lewis discusses in The Abolition of Man. The thorough-going subjectivism of the modern schools deprived Studdock of any objective virtue, much less the inner wherewithal to deploy it in the demanding contexts of both his marriage and occupational pursuits. In quoting Aristotle in The Abolition of Man, Lewis said education ought to form what a person should and should not like (The Abolition of Man, 16). Apparently this did not happen with Studdock who is nothing but a bundle of confusion at every turn. “Why had his education been so ineffective?” Studdock wondered at a particular moment of reckoning (That Hideous Strength , 224). Mark Studdock’s soul had not been conformed to reality (The Abolition of Man, 77); he had not been endowed with the necessary fertile and generous emotions to put any virtues or values into practice (The Abolition of Man, 25). Sad to say, but Studdock was a man without a chest, a bona fide trousered ape and urban blockhead (The Abolition of Man, 11). To put it mildly, the school (and other institutions) had failed him.
What happens when science falls into the hands of people like Mark Studdock (he so desired to be a part of the inner circle)? What happens when science as an institution is under the control of other valueless and chestless people like the Belburians (the original N.I.C.E. headquarters was Belbury)? Here’s what happens: eventually you wind up with an organization like N. I. C. E. that desires to take over the world and remake humanity. You wind up with an institution whose personnel remind us of the titanic pride of the Babel builders – people like Wither, Frost, Hardcastle, Filostrato, Feverstone, and Straik.
Don’t forget: the N. I. C. E.’s symbol, devoted as it was to “Technocratic and Objective Man” (That Hideous Strength, 259), was a muscular male nude grasping a thunderbolt (That Hideous Strength, p. 215). For Mark Studdock, its goal was “… the scientific reconstruction of the human race in the direction of increased efficiency …” (That Hideous Strength, 258). In The Abolition of Man’s more abstract terms, it was the power of some — the conditioners — over others; it was the conquest of nature and of human nature in particular through eugenics. Ultimately, it meant the abolition of man (63-64).
Lewis seems to conceal the satanic influence on “technocratic and scientific man” in TAM, but in That Hideous Strength, it’s a central point: “… [dark] eldilic energy and [dark] eldilic knowledge” (201) are behind N. I. C. E. The “macrobes” — Lewis’s astute name for demonic powers hovering from above — and those who cooperate with them are the animating powers of N. I. C. E. In other words, Lewis portrays science as an institution, embodied in N. I. C. E., to be under demonic influence and control.
Recently, James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World (2010) has taken Christians of various stripes to the woodshed for failing to take into account the role of institutions in their theology of cultural change (chapter four). It’s a good point, but one that should not be embraced nonchalantly. This is especially so if Lewis in That Hideous Strength, American theologian William Stringfellow (1928-1985) and biblical scholar Walter Wink (1935-2012) are correct in connecting institutional evil with the demonic powers.
In his book Free in Obedience, Stringfellow claimed that satanic powers were relevant for comprehending institutional evil. In similar fashion, Wink argued in a trilogy of books on the powers that biblical people believed sincerely in their existence and that they were at the center of the spirituality of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day. Likewise, Lewis has Prof. August Frost of N. I. C. E. make the following statement about demonic influence in the world and in human institutions like N. I. C. E. in a conversation with Mark Studdock:
But though there has been little intercourse [between humans and demons or the “macrobes”], there has been profound influence. Their effect on human history has been far greater than that of the microbes, though, of course, equally unrecognized. In the light of what we now know, all history will have to be rewritten. The real causes of all the principal events are quite unknown to historians; that, indeed, is why history has not yet succeeded in becoming a science (That Hideous Strength, 257).
I think John Mark Reynolds of Biola may be right: That Hideous Strength offers one of the best accounts of the condition of the West in the last hundred years … especially in its depiction of Mark Studdock the man, in its grasp of science run amuck, and by recognizing the power and influence of the devils in our world.
Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.
Dr. David K. Naugle is chair and professor of philosophy at Dallas Baptist University. Learn more.
All citations in this piece to That Hideous Strength are from Macmillan Publishing, 1946 and The Abolition of Man from HarperSanFrancisco, 2001 (original copyright 1944).