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Not surprisingly, Lewis understood this. In the first chapter he sets forth his famous “Men Without Chests” argument: if contemporary learning addresses only the head—the seat of reason, the source of “facts”—and in so doing creates educational expectations about what really matters that in due course then shape society, we will find ourselves in cultural crisis because we will have lost crucial dimensions of what it means to be human, of what moral meaning can and must mean.
I had 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. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism (such as Gaius and Titius would wince at) about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use….The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable 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.
It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man. The stakes are that high.
Lewis was wise enough to know that the weight of the world is never one-dimensional. His critique is more nuanced, as he is as concerned about “feelings” becoming dominant, as he is about “thinking” holding sway. And in the realm of ethics, even as the Church debates moral questions such as the meaning of sexuality, that lens shapes so much of what is heard, in conversations among friends, in the press, and even in the highest of ecclesiastical courts, viz. my “feelings” tell me, I “feel” that this is right. In Lewis’s terms, the visceral or the “guts” can be just as overwhelming as the “brain,” and so the need for a chest—character rightly formed—to mediate.
Creatively engaging his time, Lewis knew that the more didactic argument would only go so far, and so he wrote a more imaginative account of the same dilemma, calling it That Hideous Strength. (He actually saw these as companion volumes, to be read together.) The third in his “space trilogy,” the story is set in the world of the university, full of itself and its ideas, spiritual temptations each one.
At the center of his story is an effort to control the world by “enlightened” people. The sort that are so sure of their brilliance, so certain of their schools and traditions and beliefs—unmediated as they are by Chests—that they are able to decide for the rest of us the nature of the good life, the path to human enlightenment.
Deliciously, Lewis calls them N.I.C.E.— the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments. In the perversity of the human heart, they in fact believe they are, nice, that is. They are the best and the brightest of their day, and it is that that is the temptation to Lewis’s character, Professor Mark Studdock. Simply, sadly, he wants in, he wants to be part of “the inner ring” of the most highly educated and influential thinkers in society. After all, their plans will make a better world for everyone—if only those not-so-bright and not-sohighly-educated ones will just cooperate.
As he tells his tale, Lewis connects ideas with life, showing that ideas do in fact have legs. The intellectual arrogance of the N.I.C.E. crowd is its undoing, eventually, after much sadness and horror. Their beliefs about reality, meaning, and truth have consequences, for themselves and for others. And the consequences are for curse, and not for blessing.
Lewis calls it “a fairy tale for grown-ups.” If it only were. But, I suppose that is the best of a fairy tale, in every century and every culture. If we have ears to hear, we can hear the truth about ourselves and about the universe in which we live. Shakespeare was right, as usual: “The play’s the thing to catch the conscience of the king”—as well as ordinary people like you and me, folk who are all too prone to think more highly of ourselves than we ought.
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