Against The N.I.C.E. Conditioners
Whatever you do today, make sure to set aside time to read this long, very powerful essay by the pseudonymous foreign policy and cultural analyst N.S. Lyons. It's about the nature of contemporary evil, and it's one of the most important essays I've read since time out of mind. Lyons says that of all the dystopian seers, none foresaw more clearly what was to come than C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I cannot begin to do this essay justice here, but I'll put some key quotes here.
The disenchantment and demoralization of a world produced by the foolishly blinkered “debunkers” of the intelligentsia; the catastrophic corruption of genuine education; the inevitable collapse of dominating ideologies of pure materialist rationalism and progress into pure subjectivity and nihilism; the inherent connection between the loss of any objective value and the emergence of a perverse techno-state obsessively seeking first total control over humanity and then in the end the final abolition of humanity itself… Tolkien and Lewis foresaw all of the darkest winds that now gather in growing intensity today.
But ultimately the shared strength of both authors may have also been something even more straightforward: a willingness to speak plainly and openly about the existence and nature of evil. Mankind, they saw, could not resist opening the door to the dark, even with the best of intentions. And so they offered up a way to resist it.
Lyons talks about Lewis's great little book The Abolition of Man. More:
In Abolition, Lewis zeros in on one seemingly innocuous passage in The Control of Language to begin illustrating this point. It relates a story told by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in which two tourists visit a majestic waterfall. Gazing upon it, one calls it “sublime.” The other says, “Yes, it is pretty.” Coleridge is disgusted by the latter. But, as Lewis recounts, of this story the authors of the textbook merely conclude:
When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… Actually… he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word ‘sublime’, or shortly, I have sublime feelings… This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.
For Lewis, this “momentous little paragraph” contains all the seeds necessary for the destruction of humanity.
“No schoolboy,” Lewis writes, “will be able to resist the suggestion brought to bear upon him by that word only…” He “thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology and politics are all at stake.” For while the authors may “hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him,” in fact, they have put into his mind “an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.”
That controversy is the reality of any objective value independent of the self.
As Lewis argues, the assertion that the waterfall only produces subjective and arbitrary feelings in the viewer is a revolutionary one, because, “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it – believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.” That is, feelings were a response (a fitting or ill-fitting response) to an objective or transcendent reality. To feel awe at something is to recognize the independent existence of a magnificence beyond the subjective interpretation of one’s own head:
The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feelings but feelings of veneration. If This is sublime is to be reduced at all to a statement about the speaker’s feelings, the proper translation would be I have humble feelings… To say that the cataract is sublime means saying that our emotion of humility is appropriate or ordinate to the reality, and thus to speak of something else besides the emotion; just as to say that a shoe fits is to speak not only of shoes but of feet.
This “something else” that exists as a reality independent from and prior to the subjective is what Lewis – drawing deliberately on a non-Christian tradition to point to its universality – labels as the Tao (or “the Way”). The Tao represents an independent reality of values just as concrete as the independent reality of objects.
This point, by the way, is absolutely critical to my re-enchantment book, so thank you, N.S. Lyons, for putting it so sharply.
Lyons moves on to Lewis's novel That Hideous Strength, and combines discussion of its plot with analysis of Tolkien's work. Again, the essay is long and complex; I'm only quoting key parts of it in an effort to get you to read the whole thing. There's not a wasted paragraph in it. More:
In his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism, the Belgian clinical psychologist Mattias Desmet breaks down how generalized anxiety, often produced in part by overly mechanistic thinking, can lead to a (narcissistic) psychological need to exert more and more control over the external world – and ultimately to the delusional need to control all of reality itself. An individual or society’s “flight into [this delusion’s] false security is a logical consequence of the psychological inability to deal with uncertainty and risk.”
For Sauron, the “confusion” and “friction” he could not tolerate was the product of the unpredictability of the free will of other living beings, and so it was all “the creatures of earth, in their minds and wills, that he desired to dominate.” This led him to forge his own technological devices of total control: the rings of power and the “One Ring to rule them all.” His single-minded need for order – “swollen to madness” in its isolation – had cut him off from humanity, and from the Tao.
Sauron is of course hardly the only one, including in our own world, tempted by the Faustian dream of perfect order and control. Lewis had a name for these would-be Saurons: “The Conditioners.”
To Lewis, the Conditioners are the inevitable product of the ideology of “pure objectivity” promoted by the likes of the authors of the Green Book: the belief – absent the existence of the true objective value of the Tao – that any moral feelings or pangs of conscience are merely subjective experiences and what would today be called “social constructs,” while the real world is purely material, and therefore purely mechanistic. To be “purely objective” is therefore, in this view, to focus only on the material, and dismiss the rest as non-existent.
“For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue,” Lewis writes. “For magic and [today’s] 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…”
But because in this “objective” view there is nothing whatsoever to separate man from the material of the natural world – nothing that man permanently is – man himself becomes material available to be manipulated and reshaped at will, just as the natural world can be manipulated and reshaped. And while it “is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will,” Lewis warns that indeed, “if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be…”
In such a world, in which techniques of technological control must come to be applied to man just as they are applied to tree or iron, it is not “Mankind” as a whole that will gain such power. Rather, inevitably, “the power of Man to make himself what he pleases” means in truth “the power of some men to make other men what they please.”
This brought to mind the work of the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa on the concept of "resonance" -- his word for what we might call "enchantment." To live in a world of resonance is to live in a world in which one feels that there is objective meaning embedded in the material world. It is only achievable, though, if you permit mystery to exist -- that is, if you don't push incessantly to analyze a thing ("we murder to dissect" -- Wordsworth) until you have exhausted all value from it. Rosa says that our obsession with control causes us to disenchant the world around us by instrumentalizing it. To bring something under your power and make it serve you is to suck all the meaning out of it. I once wrote a blog post about Rosa's theory. Excerpt:
Here is Rosa’s diagnosis of our disenchantment. I marked out these quotes on my Kindle, which doesn’t allow you to see where the breaks are. I’m just guessing. Rosa writes:
The driving cultural force of that form of life we call “modern” is the idea, the hope and desire, that we can make the world controllable. Yet it is only in encountering the uncontrollable that we really experience the world. Only then do we feel touched, moved, alive.
My hypothesis is this: because we, as late modern human beings, aim to make the world controllable at every level—individual, cultural, institutional, and structural—we invariably encounter the world as a “point of aggressions” or as a series of points of aggression, in other words as a series of objects that we have to know, attain, conquer, master, or exploit. And precisely because of this, “life,” the experience of feeling alive and of truly encountering the world—that which makes resonance possible—always seems to elude us.
The first guiding thesis that I would like to develop in this essay is that, for late modern human beings, the world has simply become a point of aggression. Everything that appears to us must be known, mastered, conquered, made useful.
A modern society, as I define it, is one that can stabilize itself only dynamically, in other words one that requires constant economic growth, technological acceleration, and cultural innovation in order to maintain its institutional status quo.
This game of escalation is perpetuated not by a lust for more, but by the fear of having less and less. It is never enough not because we are insatiable, but because we are, always and everywhere, moving down the escalator.
Our life will be better if we manage to bring more world within our reach: this is the mantra of modern life, unspoken but relentlessly reiterated and reified in our actions and behavior. As I would like to demonstrate in this essay, the categorical imperative of late modernity—Always act in such a way that your share of the world is increased—has become the dominant principle behind our decision-making in all areas of life and across all ages, from toddlers to the elderly.
This really resonates (no pun intended) with [Iain] McGilchrist’s writing about how we in the modern West have become slaves to the left-hemisphere view of reality. As you will recall from my past writing about McGilchrist, the left brain is where our capacity for analyzing our experience of the world and construing it for the sake of control is located. To refresh your memory, McGilchrist, a psychiatrist, believes that this faculty is necessary for a full human life, but if we give it dominance — as we have, on a culture-wide scale — we will live in unreality, and lose our capacity for a healthy, reasonable life. We only thrive when the insights of the left hemisphere are returned to the right hemisphere — which is the part of our brains where our intuitive, noetic faculties are located — for integration into the broader picture.
As you will see, what McGilchrist holds as the ideal state is pretty much what Rosa means by resonance.
What does Rosa mean by expanding our share of the world? He’s talking about processing experience in such a way that brings it as a phenomenon under our control, or at least potentially so. He says that the experience of being able to communicate with many people globally, instantly, via smartphones is an example of this. More:
Not only are all our friends and acquaintances, our loved ones and our not so loved ones, now always just a “click” away, we also have all the knowledge in the world—every song, every film, every image, every bit of data that has been digitized—in close proximity at all times. We literally carry it on our person. The world is now at our fingertips in a historically unprecedented way. The idea, or rather the conviction correlated with these processes —that life comes down to bringing the world within reach—is inscribed in our bodies and in our psychological and emotional dispositions.
Reading this, I recalled how when I was a young teenager, I wrote off to a penpal agency asking for a penpal in Europe. They connected me to a teenage girl in the Netherlands. We struck up a wonderful epistolary friendship. At one point, we decided to connect by telephone (this was the early 1980s). I can still recite from memory her family’s phone number, because I pondered it anxiously for a long time before I mustered the courage to call it. Talking on the phone with Europe back then was such an exciting thing! It wasn’t cheap, and I paid my parents back for the cost of those calls. But it was glorious, at least to me. It was entering into a mystery.
Today, my kids can FaceTime or WhatsApp the kids of my Dutch friends, like it’s no big deal, not only speaking, but communicating with visuals too! All the mysterious pleasures of those friendships with faraway people no longer exist. Do I wish we didn’t have the technology to make that ease of communication possible? No, I am grateful for these technological developments. But it has come at a cost, as Rosa helps me to understand. It is no longer a special thing. Europe — and really, anywhere in the world — is not as much the mysterious Other, not like it was. And therefore, it is, and cannot help being, less enchanting.
The sociocultural formation of modernity thus turns out to be, in a way, doubly calibrated for the strategy of making the world controllable. We are structurally compelled (from without) and culturally driven (from within) to turn the world into a point of aggression. It appears to us as something to be known, exploited, attained, appropriated, mastered, and controlled. And often this is not just about bringing things—segments of world—within reach, but about making them faster, easier, cheaper, more efficient, less resistant, more reliably controllable.
Making the world controllable means, first, making it visible, that is, making it knowable, expanding our knowledge of what is there. Making the world controllable means, furthermore, making it physically reachable or accessible.
Inextricably linked with this is the third dimension of bringing the world under control, namely by making it manageable.
… Distinct from this mode of conquering the world technologically and politically, at least in analytical terms, is a fourth dimension of making the world controllable, namely by making it useful, pressing it into service. Here the point is not simply to bring the world under our control, but to make it into an instrument for our own purposes.
So, the four parts of this process:
Make the world visible.
Make the visible world accessible.
Make the visible, accessible world manageable — meaning, increasing our control over it.
Make the visible, accessible, manageable world do what we want it to do.
Reading this, I thought, “He’s talking about how we disenchant the world.” And then, lo:
Max Weber, the other great “founding father” of modern sociology, likewise finds it highly irrational that human beings do not work in order to live, but live in order to work and accumulate (in my terminology, to grow, accelerate, and innovate). Yet he understands this relation to the world as part and parcel and the result of a great “western process of rationalization” that unfolds over the centuries and the core of which consists in making life and the world calculable, manageable, and predictable—scientifically, technologically, economically, legally, politically, and finally also in everyday life. This means nothing less than making the world controllable… .
Weber identifies this as the flipside of rationalization as a process of progressive alienation, of the world’s falling mute, which he describes as a “disenchantment.” Weber’s at times deeply pessimistic diagnosis is that the world made manageable and predictable has lost not only its color and its magic, but also its voice, its meaning. It has “cooled” into a dull “steel-hard shell,” within which economic and bureaucratic reason blindly and soullessly advance escalatory processes to the point where human beings have become “nonentities” who “imagine they have attained a stage of humankind never before reached.”
Yes! McGilchrist says the same thing. The left brain is performing its natural function when it engages in this process — and this is not necessarily a bad thing. It turns bad, though, when we allow the left brain to triumph over the right, and convince ourselves that the left brain has figured out the truth of the world, and that “this is all there is.” Our right brains know that this is not all there is, that there is in the phenomena of the world more than we can every fully grasp. Modern Western culture has taught us, however, to downplay our noetic intuitions, and to dismiss them as “subjective,” meaning mere opinion.
In truth, as Kierkegaard said, “truth is subjectivity.” He did not mean that there is no such thing as objective truth. He meant rather that all the truths for which one would live or die can only be known subjectively. For example, you cannot objectively prove that God exists — but God’s existence does not depend on our being able to prove it objectively. The nature of the phenomenon we call “God” is such that He can only be known subjectively. Similarly with love. You cannot prove objectively that you love your spouse. Even if you made a long list of all the things you have done that demonstrate your love, it will always be possible to say that you use the word “love” to refer to selfish acts.
See what I mean? God may or may not exist, and your love for your spouse may or may not be real, but the point is that you will not be able to demonstrate that in the same sense that you can demonstrate a mathematical proof, or a physical law. You can only demonstrate the truth of these claims by being willing to live by them, and even die by them. McGilchrist points out several times in his book that this can be a difficult thing for English speakers to grasp because we have only one verb for “to know,” whereas other languages — like French and German — have different verbs to describe knowing as possessing knowledge of things, and knowing as a relationship. To know about a man is not the same thing as knowing a man personally.
Rosa says that gaining mastery over the world — conquering it — can lead us to despair:
None of this means anything to me. It doesn’t matter to me, it doesn’t affect me, and I’m not having any effect on the outside world. This experience is characteristic of a depressive condition, when all axes of resonance have fallen mute and “nothing speaks to us anymore.” This feeling of a loss of world exists independently of the question of how expansive one’s share of the world is. It can arise, individually and collectively, even where—in fact especially where – we have the world technologically, economically, and socially largely in our grasp. Everything out there is dead, gray, empty, and cold, and everything within me is mute and numb, too.
Taking all the above reflections and observations into account, we can note that the individual and institutional efforts of modernity to make the world controllable, in all four dimensions and with an ever wider reach, have yielded paradoxical side effects, which can be described as disenchantment as opposed to ensoulment (Weber). Modernity stands at risk of no longer hearing the world and, for this very reason, losing its sense of itself. This is the conclusion of my sociology of our relationship to the world. Modernity has lost its ability to be called, to be reached.
Modernity has lost its ability to be called, to be reached. What a powerful line, reflecting a profound insight. And it goes right to the heart of my new book project, which is about restoring to us the ability to be called, and reached — by God.
OK, back to the N.S. Lyons essay. He goes on to talk about how the scientific elites in That Hideous Strength attempt to reprogram human nature, something that has never before been possible. In the novel, the elites want to re-program man for the sake of improving his lot. They hate the organic order, and want to use their intelligence and technology to "improve" it, to make it rational, to free Man from the fetters of Nature.
According to Lewis, says Lyons, if the Conditioners -- those who take it upon themselves to form Man -- no longer believe in the Tao (his word for self-evident, objective moral truths that have been expressed in different ways across civilizations, while remaining remarkably consistent), then they must inevitably become nihilists who believe in no morality outside of human will. Here's Lyons:
Unlike the reason of the mind or a belief in objective value, the force of mere appetite “cannot be exploded or ‘seen through’ because it never had any pretentions.” The Conditioners will therefore “come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure.” Ultimately, “those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.” And so, “Their extreme rationalism, by ‘seeing through’ all ‘rational’ motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behaviour.”
Here then is one of the most brilliant and important points that Lewis produced: starting from the insistent attempt at pure objectivism we arrive at pure subjectivism. From Modernity, we derive Post-Modernity. From the Goddess of Reason we receive the Marquis de Sade.
If there is any Tao (objective values or base truths that do not change based on our feelings and opinions) then there must be a Normal, a proper and right ordering of things. Indeed the Normal and the Tao are the same thing. To be able to discern this Normal is to be able to exercise what we call “common sense,” or what the Greeks called phronesis, or practical wisdom: to be able to know and choose – or at least be drawn toward – the good, the true, and the beautiful by experienced instinct. And to be able to recognize through the same cultivated moral instinct when someone or something has departed from the Tao.
Therefore the first step to degrade the Tao must be to sever man from his common sense by undermining the very idea of the Normal – or, even better, to successfully deny its existence entirely. To do this (to break the human moral and aesthetic instinct) requires a form of re-education or conditioning: a perversion. Originally meaning an “action of turning aside from truth,” or a “corruption [or] distortion,” the word “perversion” derives from the Latin perversionem, “a turning about.” It is an intentional inversion of the Normal.
Which brings us to today. Lyons points out that changing the meaning of words is one fundamental way to destroy a society's concepts of Normal. This is a truth that has been known for a very long time:
Confucius (c. 551-479 BC), would certainly have understood this. Asked at one point in the Analects what he would do as his first and most urgent task if appointed governor, he replies that it would be to “rectify names” of things to correspond to reality. Asked how this could possibly be the most important priority during a period of war and famine, he stresses that, “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things,” and, “If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, [any] affairs cannot be carried on to success.” The mythical first sage kings of China were said to have selected names (名) of things that directly corresponded to actuality (實), but over time these names had been replaced or perverted to such a degree that this was no longer the case, and so people could no longer distinguish true from false or right from wrong; the natural results were alternatively chaos or arbitrary tyranny.
This is why the pronoun thing is not merely annoying, but profoundly evil. More Lyons:
Again and again it is the Lie, the Dragon of Chaos, which turns up as the enemy of Man. I suspect Lewis would doubtless explain that the reason this idea is something of a universal in the traditional human experience is straightforward: any conceivable ordered reality – physical or rational or moral – is only possible through unchanging laws; that which is good must conform to this Tao, and so that which is good must by definition first be that which is true. To pervert or obscure the truth of words, or anything which is true, is to attack the Truth writ large, i.e. the Tao, and thus to begin to melt away all solid ground from which any stand at all can be mounted against the encroach of total meaninglessness and total disorder. In the end, no conception of human value – or any fixed truth – can then withstand this assault, and so we abolish ourselves along with our perception of reality, inhumanity triumphs over man, and the void devours.
Lyons talks about how goodness is not the same thing as niceness, and how goodness sometimes has to take up the sword to defend truth. He kindly cites my book:
In his counter-totalitarian manual Live Not by Lies, the author Rod Dreher recounts the experience of Czech and other Eastern European dissidents who lived under Communist rule and told him that they quickly came to esteem above all others those among their fellow men and women who possessed genuine courage. No other virtue was more valuable in the fight against the regime of lies they faced, nor more rare. No matter their nationality, religion, political leanings, or personal failings, all those who demonstrated real courage were a fellowship of priceless worth.
I was just giving a talk about this earlier this week -- about how Kamila Bendova told me that courage was the most important quality they looked for in allies. She said that she and her husband, both strict Catholics, knew it was far better to stand with the hippies who shared few if any of their political or religious values, but who had courage, than to ally with fellow Catholics who kept their heads down and their mouths shut to avoid trouble.
Lyons concludes with a discussion of transhumanism and the plans of globalists like Klaus Schwab, of "Great Reset" infamy, to conquer Nature and make everything controllable. We don't pay nearly enough attention to these people and their plans, for they have extremely rich backers, including governments. Lyons ends with a call to battle:
I suspect the great god Artificial Intelligence probably isn’t arriving anytime soon, and neither will his heaven. But it seems to me that in a way Istvan is right: a war is indeed coming… A war to defend the Normal from the Lie. A war for the freedom to remain human. A war that can and will be won only by Men with Chests. This and no other is the true great war in our time – and indeed it is already here. We have no choice but to muster our courage and fight it, or perish.
Please, read the whole thing, and share it widely. And you should strongly consider subscribing to Lyons's Substack, The Upheaval, where this essay first appeared.
I read this essay before sitting through a presentation at a conference I'm attending, in which a German presenter showed examples of the kind of material that publicly-funded German broadcasters put on television and, more frequently, through social media channels aimed at children. As bad as you know it is in the US, Germany is way, way ahead of us on the way down into hell. The presenter showed us screenshots of all kinds of pornographic stuff for kids, showing them how to masturbate, positions in which they can have sex, various perversions ("My Papa Is Poly", "I Had A Sexual Disease And Am Not Ashamed", "What It Was Like To Be Raped By My Grandfather", "What Drinking Blood Tastes Like"), and, of course, pro-trans propaganda. For children. With taxpayer funds.
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That's Germany, but our Conditioners are at it too. This is what Drag Queen Story Hour is for. These angry parents we see reading aloud in school board meetings from filthy sex books provided by public school systems are standing up against the N.I.C.E. Conditioners. In so doing, they are taking on the school authorities, the media, and all the Great and Good in our perverted society. And this (NSFW!):
The Conditioners are busy destroying any idea of Normal in the hearts and minds of these children. They will not stop here, these N.I.C.E. totalitarians. I've said my bit about resisting them in The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies. This new book I'm working on will be about re-enchantment, which Lyons makes me realize is a way of re-awakening to the reality of the Tao, of objective value, embedded by the Logos in the world. Mere moralistic Christianity is not going to give us the strength we need to turn back these hideous ghouls.