How Subjectivism Poisons a Society
Many people know C.S. Lewis as the author and creator of Narnia. A slightly smaller group know him as a remarkably effective Christian apologist. An even smaller group appreciate him as a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature. Fewer recognize him as a prophet of civilizational doom. But he was.
In a number of essays, in his lectures on The Abolition of Man, and then in his novel That Hideous Strength, Lewis clearly, patiently, and methodically identifies and warns his readers about an existential threat to Western civilization, and indeed to humanity as a whole.
This threat is a pernicious error that enables tyrannical power and totalitarianism. It’s a fatal superstition that slowly erodes and destroys a civilization. It’s a disease that can end our species and damn our souls. Lewis calls it “the poison of subjectivism.”
Until modern times, nearly all men believed that truth and goodness were objective realities and that human beings can apprehend them. Through reason, we examine and study and wonder at reality. When our thoughtscorrespond to the objective order of reality, we speak of truth. When our emotional reactions correspond to the objective order of reality, we speak of goodness.
Lewis refers to this as the doctrine of objective value, or, in shorter form, “the Tao.” The doctrine of objective value, Lewis writes, is
the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. . . . And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). (Abolition of Man, 18–19)
The poison of subjectivism upends this ancient and humane way of viewing the world. Reason itself is debunked — or we might say today that reason is deconstructed. Instead of the human capacity to participate in the eternal Logos, reason is simply an epiphenomenon that accompanies certain chemical and electrical events in the cortex, which is itself the product of blind evolutionary processes. Put more simply, reason is simply an accidental and illusory brain secretion.
“Under the influence of this poison, moral value judgments are simply projections of irrational emotions.”
Under the influence of this poison, moral value judgments are simply projections of irrational emotions onto an indifferent cosmos. Truth and goodness are merely words we apply to our own subjective psychological states, states that we have been socially conditioned to have. And if we have been socially conditioned in one way, we might be socially conditioned in another.
Lewis thus refers to the apostles of subjectivism as “conditioners” rather than teachers. Under the old vision of reality, the task of education was to “train in the pupil those responses which are themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists” (22). Teachers accomplished this through initiation; they invited students into the same experience of reality in which they lived.
The new education merely conditions. Having removed all objective value and consideration from reality, they are “free” to shape and mold future generations into whatever they want. Having seized the reins of social conditioning, they will condition for their own purposes (wherever those happen to come from) and with little or no regard for the constraints of custom, tradition, truth, or goodness. Lewis concisely describes the difference in the old and new education:
The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds — making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation — men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda. (24)
Lewis shrewdly demonstrates the subtlety of conditioning in his fiction. In Orwell’s 1984, O’Brien forces Winston to confess that 2+2=5 under the threat of having his face eaten by rats. In Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock is conditioned with both carrots and sticks, lures and threats. He is enticed chiefly by social pressure, as his conditioners work on his desire to be “on the inside,” his “lust for the Inner Ring.” Accordingly, they work on his fear of being left out, cast out, and ostracized. Social pressure, more so than direct threats of physical violence, are the tools of Lewis’s conditioners.
In this, Lewis was remarkably prescient. Who among us can’t recognize the impression-shaping propaganda in social-media algorithms, in Twitter bans, in the cancellation of YouTube channels? What we hear and say daily, what we scroll past and click through, what we see and come to assume — all of these are meant to condition us by detaching us from the Straight, the True, the Good, even the Normal. Such conditioning is meant to aid the sinful human tendency to suppress the truth in unrighteousness.
Richard Hooker, the English Reformer and a hero of Lewis, once wrote of the destructive effect of ungodly customs.
Perverted and wicked customs — perhaps beginning with a few and spreading to the multitude, and then continuing for a long time — may be so strong that they smother the light of our natural understanding, because men refuse to make an effort to consider whether their customs are good or evil. (Divine Law and Human Nature, 43)
The poison of subjectivism removes the ordinary checks to such error and evil by denying that good and evil objectively exist at all. And yet, because we live in God’s world and not the world of our fevered imaginations, we can’t escape the pressure of the objective moral order, pressing upon us both from our conscience and from the Scriptures.
The result, as Lewis again so ably highlights, is a kind of absurd tragi-comedy. It would be funny if it were not so sad. In Lewis’s memorable words, “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful” (27).
As prophetic as Lewis was in his warnings, not even he seemed to have imagined the insanity that subjectivism would lead to. While he clearly saw that such poison would infect our sexuality, the most twisted form that he portrayed was the grotesque femininity of Fairy Hardcastle. But compared to the demented debauchery of the modern LGBTQ+ movement, Miss Hardcastle seems almost quaint.
What’s more, Lewis thought that the practical need for results in the hard sciences would limit the infection of subjectivism when it comes to research. But in the twenty-first century, we are witnessing technological and scientific advances employed in the service of subjectivism. Some of the latest “advances” in medicine are used not to heal, but to maim; not to restore the body to its proper function, but to mutilate the body and render it impotent or barren. In a literal fulfillment of Lewis’s warning, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
What then can be done to stave off civilizational doom, the end of our species, and the damnation of souls? Books could be written (and have been written) in answer to that question. But a simple answer runs like this: we can cultivate communities that, by the grace of God, love God and the objective order that he has made, and are ready to act in a world poisoned by subjectivism.
“We can cultivate communities that, by the grace of God, love God and the objective order that he has made.”
Such communities include churches where the good news of Jesus is faithfully proclaimed in word and deed, where refugees from the world are welcomed in the name of Jesus, and where apostles of the world are refuted by the word of God. These communities include families that glory in God’s goodness in manhood and womanhood, that seek to live fruitfully on God’s mission in the world, and that raise children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
These communities include schools that love the truth and do the good, that explain reality without explaining it away, that seek to form students into mature Christians who live with resilient joy in the midst of this broken world.
Such is the need, and the hour is late. But the readiness is all, and our God is still in heavens, and he does all that he pleases.
Joe Rigney (@joe_rigney) is president of Bethlehem College & Seminary and a teacher for desiringGod.org. He is a husband, father of three, and pastor at Cities Church. His most recent book is More Than a Battle: How to Experience Victory, Freedom, and Healing from Lust.