Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Warning: Who's Got the Power? C. S. Lewis and the Natural Law

THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION HAS USHERED IN WONDERS of scientific knowledge and technical prowess and the seeming unceasing "conquest" of nature has eased the condition of mankind in so many ways. To be ungrateful as to the physical good which science has given us seems obscurantist. To be unappreciative of the sacrifices made, and the contributions to our well-being by the likes of Isaac Newton, Carl Linnaeus, Louis Pasteur, Jonas Salk, or Albert Einstein . . . the list could go on, and on, is to be an ingrate. But there is another side to science, there is a cost, both moral and physical, to it, and there is a very danger that we may be enslaved, even abolished, as science begins its seeming ineluctable effort to control--not just physical nature--but our physical nature. There is a difference between man's conquest of nature, and man's conquest of man's nature.

Before Lewis goes into this in his last chapter of the Abolition of Man, he backtracks. He asks a question which at first seems so silly that we wonder why he asks it. What does it mean that man has conquered nature, that man has power over nature. It means, C. S. Lewis cautions, that man has power, and an ever increasing power, over man. C. S. Lewis makes his point by selecting three examples: the airplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive, all modern devices.*

What Power Does Contraception Give Us Over Future Generations?

The first thing that C. S. Lewis notes is that these "powers" over nature are not owned by men in common. They are obtained only by payment, which means that title to them is owned by someone other than men in general. "Any or all," of modern technological gadgets, or conveniences, or medicines or inventions, "can be withheld from some men by other men--by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources of production." Abolition, 54. Some men hold the power, some men sell that power, other men have to buy that power.

The second thing that C. S. Lewis notes is that men are both beneficiaries and maleficiaries of these powers. We can be "patient or subject" as much as "possessor." Man is as much a passenger on a plane as he is the target of aerial bombing. Man can be informed by television, and he can be propagandized by television. By means of its unique target, however, contraception makes living men its subject, but it also has a particular deleterious effect on future generations. As a result of using contraceptive methods we control the future generations. And we do this without their choice, without their informed consent, without what such future generations may have chosen to prefer.

It is apparent, then, that man's power over nature can be viewed, and ought to be viewed more accurately, as "a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument." Abolition, 55. This observation has nothing to do whether the possession of that power, much less its use or abuse, is moral or immoral. Wherever we place this power--in private hands, in corporate hands, in national government's hands, in world organizations' hands--it will be controlled by some and suffered by others. This means that the power is exercised, and "all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones." Abolition, 56.

Sociologists have tended to forget or at least to neglect time in their analysis of the effect of certain phenomena. They have also tended to forget the fact that our present choices affect the future options of generations as yet unborn.

Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors.

Abolition, 56. What may therefore appear to be a "progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power," may in fact be something vastly different if the dimension of time, and the effect on future generations, is considered. We neglect those that come after us, though what we do now affects them, often by limiting their options, their existence, or even how and who they may be. This is particularly true in the area of the manipulation of birth: of contraception, of eugenics, of genetic engineering. We have power over future generations, which means, of course, that future generations will have less power over themselves, and in fact there will less of the future generations than would otherwise have been. As we march forward, then, the "last me, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future."** Abolition, 57-58.

In short, if both the title to power over nature and the time element are considered, there "neither is nor cannot be any simple increase of power on Man's side." We have to come to realize that "[e]ach new power won by man is a power over man as well." This means that every advance makes him stronger in one sense, but weaker in another. This forebodes particularly ominous in birth technology and in genetic engineering:
The final stage [of Man's conquest of nature] is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have 'taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho' and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be.
Abolition, 59.

The warning seems prescient, if ignored: "For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please." Abolition, 59. The warning seems positively ominous when we realize that modern man, to whom some power has been given (or who has seized this power) does not recognize the moral bounds of the Tao. This power, then, is unconstrained by any objective law. Can man resist this Ring of Gyges? If he thinks himself invisible to the Tao, to the natural law, what sorts of temptations will he succumb to?

Those with their hands on the reins of power--Lewis calls them the "Conditioners"--will chose "what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race." Abolition, 61-62. They will say among themselves (most of us will not be included in their intimate conversation): "Nice customs curtsy to great kings . . [and] you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashion. We are the makers of manners . . . and the liberty that follows our places stops the mouth of all find-faults." (Shakespeare, Henry V, v.2.)

By what shall they be motivated? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes if it be neither God nor Tao?

*This is not entirely true for contraception, as contraceptive methods and devices have been available to men and women since ancient Egypt. The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (also Kahun Papyrus, Kahun Medical Papyrus, or UC 32057), found El-Lahun by Flinders Petrie in 1889, dated about 1800 B.C., deals with a variety of women's health—gynaecological issues, including contraception, etc. But the efficacy of such methods under the hands of science has been, without question, improved.
**One can think also in terms of debt. To the extent current generations live beyond their means so as to incur trade imbalances or government debt as a result of deficit spending, future generations will have to pay for it. Even if defaulted upon by the debtor, the holder of the debt will then have to pay for it.

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