The Magic of Technology in the Thoughts of the Inklings

The Magic of Technology in the Thoughts of the Inklings March 29, 2010

Despite the question of whether or not John Wain was an Inklings,[1] he shows himself sharing common ground with its major members by his dislike of technology:

Naturally I think that human life is tragic. No shallow optimism, no easy faith that humanity will be happy when this or that piece of social engineering has been completed, or when we have finished our conquest of Nature. What difference would it have made if my wife and I had met each other on Jupiter instead of on Earth? The longest journeys are made within the self. The solitude that can exist within the human mind is more absolute than the emptiness of interstellar space. That is why I care nothing for technology, nothing for science. With all their improvements they can never touch anything but the surface of human life. The same problems face every man, and they always begin again. There are many ways of making life.[2]

The struggle for happiness lies within; technology is an external which promises much, even gives much, but in the end, fails to give that which we truly seek. Indeed, technology comes to us at a price. Technology offers us false hopes, seduces us with its promises of happiness, bedazzles us with the great things it can do for us, and hides from our view the consequences of its use. Obviously, we can see the destruction of the earth which happens in the wake of much technology, but we can also see how technology is often used for the destruction of human society and the human person. Through the accumulation of technological power, one not gains power over nature, but over others; the more that power is exercised, the more Faustian such power becomes. C.S. Lewis, in discussing the changes which have been established because of the Baconian revolution, is right in saying there is little difference between the magician and the scientist, save for the fact that the scientist has found ways to actually harness the powers which the magician sought to control: “For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious — such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”[3] This view was shared by Tolkien, who wrote:

The Enemy, or those who have become like him, go in for ‘machinery’ — with destructive and evil effects — because ‘magicians’, who have become chiefly concerned to use magia for their own power, would do so (do do so). The basic motive for magia — quite apart from any philosophical consideration of how it would work — is immediacy: speed, reduction of labour, and reduction also to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between idea or desire and the result or effect. But the magia may not be easy to come by, and at any rate if you have command of abundant slave-labour or machinery (often only the same thing concealed), it may be as quick or quick enough to push mountains over, wreck forests, or build pyramids by such means. [4]

Through the sciences, we build up the means by which we can control nature, but in doing so, we also create the means by which we can be controlled. We establish the power by which those who are amoral can construct society under their own will. For Lewis, eugenics and its desire to manipulate future generations through the power of contraception is one example where this can be seen:

As regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. [5]

What is it that makes technology so dangerous and manipulative? It is not that the idea behind technology is necessarily bad; it is how it is approached which causes the problem. Tolkien described one of the ways one can discern the seduction of technology by its user:

Anyway all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects arts and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire which seems to have no biological function, and be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife. This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of morality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of ‘Fall’. It may become possessive, clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator — especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective,  — and so to the Machine (or Magic).[6]

That is, Tolkien sees possession, that is, the desire to hold on to something which should be let go, is what leads to manipulation and control. Power over something is aimed for the power of possession. This is what is meant by demonic possession: the power of evil to control and manipulate the human person. The manipulation does not have to be done individually, but can be, and often is, done through the structures of sin established within a given society. They are demonic powers which manipulate and possess people through social processes, and it is only by the naming and denouncing of that power can one find oneself exorcised of the evil and freed by grace. As long as we try to hold on to a construction of power based upon a fallen mode of being, that power will possess us even if we think we are the one in charge. Knowledge of that power, if used for the sake of control, leads to such possession; knowledge of that power, if used for the sake of overcoming the structure of sin and showing how where it is unreal and faulty, is what is needed. Both are capable of being said to be knowledge, but only one is wisdom.

Owen Barfield puts all of this in a way which also reaches back to John Wain’s point. Science, as it is explored today, is an exploration of the world and nature of the fall. In itself, this is a kind of knowledge, but it is limited:

Natural Science is the study of fallen nature carried on by fallen man. But, beside natural science, as it is taught to-day, there is — as the title of our Confessor suggests — another kind of knowledge of the world — a kind which is at the same time knowledge of the self. And that is what we call Higher Knowledge. When we labour towards the attainment of higher knowledge, it is not done in order to satisfy curiosity, or for the sake of attaining power over nature. Rather we are seeking the repair of that ‘falling-apart’; we are labouring for the re-union of man and nature and, through that, the redemption of Nature herself.[7]

While he does not put it this way, scientific knowledge of nature seeks to understand nature as an object, as a utility, which is why it cannot be nature as it is of itself, but nature as constricted by the limitations of sin. And even if one puts on a bigger straight jacket on nature, so to get more out of it, to allow it more power, it is still locked up and incapable of being as it is meant to be. What is locking up nature is sin, and its structure pushes against nature itself, causing nature to suffer as long as it is in place. As long as sin is neglected, and not dealt with, an increase in technology will lead to further imbalances in the world. It is like a golem out of control.

On the one hand, every advance of technology is, as Lewis points out, a conquest over nature; but on the other hand, because it has consequences which, if ignored, lead to all kinds of disaster upon us, it turns out not so much as the conquest over nature, but nature’s conquest over us, where the rules discovered and created are used as forces of control:

At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ — to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion.[8]

While we try to enslave nature, we find nature revolts and enslaves us. This is not how it was meant to be. While nature was created good, we have turned it into something evil; the original, good behind nature has been put to sleep, and what is left is the blind chaotic force which we seek to put under control for our own good. But if we want things to change, we need to stop this manipulative strain over nature, and seek to be its steward — to reawaken nature, so to speak, bringing it back to its original goodness. The powers of chaos are the powers of nature acting up as nature sleeps. If we can awake nature to its original self, if nature can be enlightened, so to speak, then, as Barfield points out, science could be used as it was meant to be used, in a harmonious relationship with the world:

Man has not only to know nature; he has to re-awaken her. But this he can only do by knowing her — truly knowing her — knowing her in depth. And this re-awakening , which began as the conscious gaze of poets and artists first rested on her sleeping form in admiration and rapture — this will continue, he said, until she stirs, and open her eyes, and arise again in strength, in the strength of the Spirit of man, to walk hand in hand with science now, as well as with art [9]

To seek for nature’s re-awakening requires an anti-Gnostic mentality. We must accept the fact that we are embodied, and salvation is within the body, within the world, and for the world.[10] We cannot dismiss what happens in the world because of how we have harnessed the power of nature as insignificant to us as spiritual beings — we are embodied, and the consequences of the fall are significant. It is for this reason that it is said that “Christendom had set out to re-generate the world.”[11]

Regeneration, healing – this is what is behind Tolkien’s understanding of enchantment, where the world is given grace to become what it is truly meant to be. We seek after Eden, but, as long as we are fallen creatures, we seek an Eden under our own control. We think we can create it by our power, but it must be understood, it is always outside of our power. We can create nothing, we have no power other than the reflected light of Christ working in and through us; we can only share the light and let it heal the world. Of course, that means, we have a role to play in the sharing of that light, but it must be that — a sharing of the light. Magic or machine, when used by those who seek power-to-themselves, will be used to subdue the light given to others and use it for some unnatural end. And thus we have the magician’s bargain, as Lewis warns us about, which leads not only to the weakening of the light in others, but the elimination of that light in oneself: “It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, our selves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.”[12]

Instead of seeking the knowledge of control and manipulation, we should seek out the path of healing and mediation. Buried deep within us is our true Adamic nature. It is one which is capable of mediation. It can restore balance and harmony, if we become as Adam was meant to be, and as Christ actually was: servants to the world. Charles Williams in his Place of the Lion portrays this beautifully, where the world, going into chaos, was restored by a new Adamic rite of naming; the main character, Anthony Durrant, was unsure if he could do it — but he knew it had to be done, following the perfect balance of unfallen Adam:

He knew them in the spiritual intellect, and beheld by their fashioned material bodies the mercy which hid in matter the else overwhelming ardours; man was not yet capable of naked vision. The breach between mankind the angelicals must be closed again; ‘a little child should lead them ‘ — back. The lion should lie down with the lamb. Separately they had issued — strength divorced from innocence, fierceness from joy. The must go back together; somehow they must be called. Adam, long since — so the fable ran — standing in Eden had named the Celestials which were brought into existence before him. Their names — how should Anthony Durrant know their names, or by which title to summon again the lion and the serpent? Yet even in Anthony Durrant the nature of Adam lived. In Adam there had been perfect balance, perfect proportion: in Anthony ——-?[13]

Anthony is successful only because of the power which transcended him helped him to become that which he needed to be; the powers of the world were once again revealed for what they were, in themselves, in their purity, instead of in the unnatural version of what they had become. “At each word that he cried, new life gathered, and still the litany of invocation and comment went on. By the names that were the Ideas he called them, and the Ideas who are the Principles of everlasting creation heard him, the Principles of everlasting creation who are the Cherubim and Seraphim of the Eternal. In their animal manifestations, duly obedient to the single animal who was lord of the animals, they came.”[14]

It is this harmony which Tolkien saw being preserved through the enchantment of the elves in Lothlórien. There are elements of its original glory which remain throughout the world, and we can gain glimpses of this glory if we meet nature with love. Without such love, nature responds to human cruelty with its own cruelty; both of these realities Tolkien establishes through one of his favorite parts of nature, trees:

In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beatiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story. [15]

This idea is not left out of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s great nature spirit, Tom Bombadil, reiterates this concept by showing how the trees have come to see the world: “Tom’s words laid bare the hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers.”[16]

Humanity and the world has had a falling apart from each other because of sin. However, it is not meant to be this way, and, as Charles Williams reminds us, salvation can only be had when that falling apart has been overcome:

The Church(of which He seems to have had a low opinion) is His choice, but nature was His original choice, and He has a supreme fidelity. It is, in fact, that fidelity which causes Him to maintain His creation and to die for His creation and to renew His creation. It may seem that little has been here said about our salvation through His sacrifice. That would not be quite true, for all that has been said concerns our salvation. Our salvation is precisely our reconciliation, to nature and to the Church — not that they are so separate; our reconciliation both to Him and to our present state, both at once and both in one. We are, by that august sacrifice, compelled to concede to Him the propriety of our creation.[17]

Thus, we see, for many of the major Inklings, science is not as great as we have been led to believe in the modern world. They are suspicious of the machine, of technology, because they see behind the desire for technology a desire for domination that Christendom had previously condemned when it met that desire in the magus. It is this which made Christendom reject magia, magic. But because people have rarely been taught as to why magic was condemned, people do not see how the evil behind magic has been liberated and let loose in the world, and encouraged now as an unquestionable good. We might be told that we are liberating ourselves through our conquest of nature, by the powers we put in our hand. While there is a kind of truth to this, we must remember, as C.S. Lewis points out all so well, that our triumph is also a failure, for it leads to the taking of power by a few who use their new power as a way to tyrannically  imprison the rest of the world:

Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is no can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.[18]


[1] As to why I believe he was indeed an Inkling, despite his own claims to the contrary, see Henry C. Antony Karlson III, Thinking with the Inklings (Silver Spring, MD: CreateSpace, 2010), 10-16.

[2] John Wain, Sprightly Running (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1963), 262.

[3] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Collier Books, 1955), 88.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), 200.

[5] C.S. Lewis, Abolition of Man, 68-9.

[6] Tolkien, Letters, 145.

[7] Owen Barfield, “The Fall in Man and Nature” in Romantacism Comes of Age (San Rafael, CA: Barfield Press, 2006), 214.

[8] C.S. Lewis, Abolition of Man, 79-80.

[9] Owen Barfield, “Man, Thought and Nature,” in Romantacism Comes of Age (San Rafael, CA: Barfield Press, 2006), 238-9.

[10] “In some sense, the Gnostics avoided any ‘scandal’ to the mind and soul. The stones they offered fitted the corners of many temples; only not the City of Christendom. God was not really responsible for the appalling putrescence of misery which we cal the world. The soul and the body (so to divide them formally) were not responsible for each other. Men were not responsible for each other. The Gordian knot of the unity was cut, and the bits fell radically apart. Toothache, cancer, women’s periods, frustrated sex-love, these and other ills were without relation to the activity of the celestial spheres,”Charles Williams, Descent of the Dove (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), 25-6.

[11] ibid., 50.

[12] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 83-4.

[13] Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1974), 190.

[14] ibid., 204.

[15] Tolkien, Letters, 419-20.

[16] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 127.

[17] Charles Williams, The Image of the City (Berkley, CA: The Apocryphile Press, 2007), 138.

[18] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 71.

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