“Progressive” so-called “Experts” and “Intellectuals” regard our created condition as something to be overcome so that we can redesign culture (feminism, gay liberation), our bodies (transgenderism), or even our humanity (transhumanism), in accord with what they imagine to be our better, more just, and more humane conceptions. They deem that which is to be wanting and use the powers they possess to bulldoze and build anew. “It must all be undone” they demand. These Overlords seek to “queer” speech about human beings, who have bodies that are either male or female. This queering prepares our imaginations for the hormonal, surgical, and eventual genetic remaking of the human race. Life must be smashed—so that life can be remade.
BY R.R. RENO FOR FIRST THINGS
I’m becoming an N. S. Lyons fan. “A Prophecy of Evil: Tolkien, Lewis, and Technocratic Nihilism” is the latest installment in The Upheaval, the mysterious author’s Substack. (He writes under a pseudonym.) This extended essay provides an arresting account of the deepening crisis in the West. By Lyons’s reckoning, Lewis and Tolkien were right. We are in the grip of a grim, despairing rebellion against reality that imagines itself to be the engine of moral progress.
Lyons notes “the disenchantment and demoralization of the world produced by foolishly blinkered intelligentsia” and “the catastrophic corruption of genuine education.” Our public culture provides ample evidence of “the inevitable collapse of dominating ideologies of pure materialist rationalism and progress into pure subjectivity and nihilism.” The transformation of the thin truths of scientism into something dark and despairing has daunting political consequences. It’s tempting to avert our eyes and read another book on the genius of our Founders. But dark powers are abroad, and their grip is strengthening. We ignore at our peril an “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.”
Lyons devotes the main body of his long meditation to an exposition of C. S. Lewis’s dystopian sci-fi novel, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups, with side references to Tolkien’s world of elves, hobbits, and malevolent forces. Lewis wrote the novel to give narrative form to his 1943 lecture series that became The Abolition of Man, which warned of the nihilistic trajectory of modern rationalism.
Lyons lays out Lewis’s argument. Rationalism stipulates that we can believe only that which can be proven. This intellectual rigor promises wonderful and transformative social consequences, delivering us from the uncertainties and conflicts that characterize our common life. After science purifies our discourse, everyone will affirm truths certified by fact-checkers (peace!), and we will enjoy the fruits of technological progress (prosperity!).
We are told, furthermore, that rigorous objectivity eschews moral and metaphysical judgments, to say nothing of theological claims. No more comforting myths! We must recognize that empirical reality is all of reality. This raises the obvious question: By what lights shall we navigate as we build our new Kingdom of Reason? Our efforts will be in accord with what we “value.” This widely used word points inward to what the self feels strongly about, not outward to conformity with what is real. And so, we’re oddly poised between an inert world of facts and an ethereal world of subjective “values.” Thus our present age: We have acquired tremendous technical mastery over nature, including human nature, while falling back on feelings and desires as the authorities that guide this mastery. As Lyons summarizes: “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.”
The slide toward Sade is not automatic. We are created in the image of God, which means we have what a disciple of St. Thomas might call a built-in “connaturality” with reality. As Lewis recognizes, we need to be subjected to a great deal of propaganda in order to be turned from the natural human impulse to affirm the Tao, the moral order of things, or what Lyons calls “the Normal.” As they say in literature departments, everything needs to be “queered,” and the best tool for queering is language, which can be distorted, manipulated, and subverted. Ideally, children will be trained to use words against their natural meanings.
Consider the notion of one as opposed to many. (This is my example, not Lyons’s.) The distinction is fundamental. What is singular is not plural; an individual is not a multiplicity. By any reckoning, affirming this distinction is indispensable for anyone who seeks to adhere to the Normal, which begins with the proposition that things are what they are, and not what they are not. Now imagine a seemingly innocuous shift in language, one in which people start to use plural pronouns (they, them, their) to refer to a single individual (he, him, his). That would be a tremendous advance in “queering” our imaginations.
Why would educators encourage children to misuse language in this way? Although Lyons does not directly consider today’s imperatives of inclusive language, he outlines themes in Lewis and Tolkien that suggest an answer. Although the English language is an unruly organism, and “they” has an interesting and varied history, there can be no doubt that its pervasive use in the singular today stems from the fact that “he” and “she” speak a truth about our humanity: the fact that we are men and women, rather than generic human beings. From time immemorial, this fact has been regarded as joyous (see Genesis 2:23). But the Normal is not simplistic, nor does it always meet our desires; it is not happy-clappy make-believe. Put simply, the Normal is not “utopian.” It is concerned with the way things are, rather than with how we imagine they might be made better. Therefore, the Tao recognizes that the reality of the sexes is fraught, and our relations are often sour, bitter, and tragic.
As Lyons explains, Lewis and Tolkien understood that the deepest perversions of modernity stem from the conviction that we can and should “fix” the human condition. Wouldn’t it be better if we had the joy without the tragedy, the happiness without the hardship? Shouldn’t we use our reason (and our social and political power) to improve our imperfect humanity? To stay with my example of inclusive language, which, though not a grave moral matter, is telling in its logic: Why can’t we alter the significance of the male-female difference, making it into something that does not matter? Many think we can effect that transformation, which is why they speak of “partners” instead of boyfriends and girlfriends, or husbands and wives. Now we see those on the cutting edge of progressive linguistic protocol putting their “preferred pronouns” in their email signatures and using such terms as “pregnant people” and “chestfeeders.” The ambition behind these changes is to create a new world with words, a constructed world in which our biological, embodied existence recedes into irrelevance.
A constructed world is an artificial world, and Lyons does a marvelous job of drawing out the progressive preference for the artificial. Dr. Filostrato, one of the characters in That Hideous Strength, aims to replace living trees with artificial ones. He insists upon the improvements this substitution will bring: no messy leaves to rake, always green, no need to worry that the tree might die. Why not improve society in the same way? Shouldn’t we allow experts to guide social relations rather than relying on old norms? Parents ought not to repeat the ways of their own fathers and mothers. We need scientific approaches to childrearing! Indeed, why are we satisfied with the human genome? It’s prone to birth defects; worse, our DNA dooms us to death. Wouldn’t it be better if we replaced human beings with artificial persons confected by genetic engineers?
It would be easy to dismiss this question as absurd. Lyons is not so naive. The great power of“A Prophecy of Evil” rests in the extensive quotations Lyons provides from prominent contemporary “post-human” theorists who, far from marginal, are well-funded and feted by establishment institutions in the West.
The World Economic Forum is popularly known as “Davos,” the name of the Swiss town where oligarchs, technocrats, and Masters of the Universe gather for its annual meeting. The Forum’s founder, Klaus Schwab, has been emboldened by pandemic lockdowns, which he regards as dress rehearsals for an epochal transformation. He argues that we must gather our strength for the “Great Reset,” an expert-led global initiative that will “finally” change “not only what we do but who we are.”
Yuval Noah Harari offers a more fulsome account than does Schwab, who is largely satisfied with sweeping claims. The bestselling author regards the expansion of new technologies that allow for biometric surveillance as a fait accompli, and he foresees their extension to all aspects of life. Expanded technological control will allow for experts not just to reinvent society, but also to redesign the human condition. “We are probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens,” Harari writes, “because in the coming generations, we will learn how to engineer bodies and brains and minds.” This engineering project aims to transcend God’s creation. “Science may enable life, after being confined for 4 billion years to the limited realm of organic compounds, . . . to break out into the inorganic realm.” This transformation of living things (including humans) into artificial designs entails a paradoxically immanent divinization, Harari argues. “We are really acquiring divine powers of creation and destruction. We are really upgrading humans into gods.”
One pauses over the “we.” Who, exactly, is the agent? And who is the patient? There is a word for a society in which a few—the experts—act upon the many with the aim of transforming their very being. It’s “totalitarianism.”
And then there’s the super-rich Martine (né Martin) Rothblatt. Lyons draws attention to his 2011 book, From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Form. Rothblatt is straightforward in affirming that the fulfillment of the promise of freedom means acquiring the ability to overcome God’s creation. Why accept the limitations of male and female? Why allow the body’s mortality to limit us? We will be in bondage until we become authors of our own psychological and biological condition. Freedom means overcoming reality’s power to define us.
As I’ve already noted, this aspiration may be delusional, but it is more commonplace in our society than we often allow ourselves to admit. The regular use of “they” as a singular pronoun, as well as other “inclusive” terms, establishes a verbal freedom from reality. “Partner” and other substitutions seek to avoid reference to the male-female difference; they are minted and insisted upon because they promote feminist and queer-liberationist goals of equality. In the main, proponents of inclusive language are not advocates of Rothblatt’s radically libertarian conception of freedom. But there is less difference than one imagines, for they, too, seek to erase in order to write anew. Both parties treat our created condition as something to be overcome so that we can redesign culture (feminism, gay liberation), or our bodies (transgenderism), or even our humanity (transhumanism), in accord with what we imagine to be our better, more just, and more humane conceptions. We deem that which is to be wanting, and we use the powers we possess to bulldoze and build anew.
The desire to bulldoze, to annihilate, turns the various -isms into nihilism. The rage of negation arises from a sentiment that deems it better not to be than to exist under God’s terms. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan puts it succinctly: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Better to walk the path toward nothingness than to live under the limitations of being a creature.
By Lyons’s reckoning, the glamor of evil has gained a strong hold on the imagination of the West. He provides a remarkable quote from the transhumanist Zoltan Istvan, who, though not as famous as Harari or as rich as Rothblatt, says boldly what a growing cohort implicitly thinks. The context is a public conversation with Paul Kingsnorth:
I’d like to bring to your attention an issue with nature and biology that transhumanists have: that it’s fundamentally flawed, and likely even immoral to perpetuate, given its tendency to predation, disease, and death. Simply said, all nature and biology, from plants, to wildlife, to people, are something to be overcome and totally replaced with the synthetic. No one with even the slightest bit of compassion would ever create a world like ours, filled with so much suffering. It must all be undone, and remade with technology, justice, and equality.
“It must all be undone.” As Tolkien recognized, these are fighting words. Life must be smashed—so that life can be remade.
Heretofore, revolutionary utopianism aimed to undo society so as to prepare the ground for its remaking. The feminism that drives us to use “partner” operates in this Jacobin tradition. Now, however, our postmodern age has its eyes on our bodies, even on our humanity. The shift from “he” to “they” seems innocent enough. It came suddenly in a collective spasm of anxiety about inclusion. But the verbal change is not innocuous; it greases the slippery slope. It “queers” speech about human beings, who have bodies that are either male or female. This queering prepares our imaginations for the hormonal, surgical, and eventual genetic remaking of the human race.
My friends often express the conviction that transgenderism has “gone too far.” They’re confident that women will not put up with males competing against them in sports. I’m not so sure. There are some feminists who have courageously spoken against transgender ideology. But for the most part, progressives endorse transgenderism. They may have misgivings. I have a hard time believing that Ivy League presidents don’t harbor doubts. But they affirm transgenderism nonetheless, confident that it marks the next stage in the battle for liberation. And establishment liberals are right. Transgenderism underscores the logic of abortion on demand and physician-assisted suicide, techniques by which we refuse the limitations imposed by our bodies. Thus, solidarity on the left is not simply the usual practice of mutual support in a political coalition. It flows from a deep philosophical agreement in favor of “queering” the Normal so that we can build back better.
I don’t want to overstate the existence of a conscious agreement among progressives. Few manifest Istvan’s explicit hostility to reality. But they are captive to talk of “the social construction of reality” and other postmodern nostrums, all of which manipulate and transform what is into something we can manage. Because reality is “constructed,” we are instructed that we must take hold of the process and engineer a better world. If our preoccupation is with “social justice,” we’ll aim for what we’re told is a more equitable reality. If freedom is our priority, we’ll set out to construct a more “open” reality. These ambitions seem like the pinnacle of idealism: inclusion, freedom, a better future! But appearances can deceive. The slate is not blank, which means that erasure—destruction—is the essential first step toward a “better future.” Lyons sees that today’s progressive ideologies nourish a dark nihilism.
Consider the 1619 Project. It’s naive to imagine that this initiative aims to correct the historical record. As its proponents readily admit, the 1619 Project is an engine of destruction. The goal is to discredit our inherited historical consciousness, which is deemed “white,” so that something new can take its place. But the “new” does not exist, so the emphasis of the 1619 Project falls on negation: That which exists should not exist. We are thrust over an abyss of nothingness, deprived of something real, a collective memory we have inherited, for the sake of what will never come, a “pure” history that can be true only for perfect beings, which is to say for something other than human beings.
Note well that statue topplers have erected nothing to take the place of the heroes now deemed offensive. The 1619 Project and the various progressive social movements operate in the same metaphysical neighborhood as transhumanism. One could easily revise Istvan’s blunt statement:
I’d like to bring to your attention an issue with history and society that black activists (or feminists, or gay liberationists, or proponents of other progressive causes) have: that it’s fundamentally flawed, and likely even immoral to perpetuate, given its tendency to predation, injustice, and oppression. Simply said, all history and society, from nations, to marriage, to every aspect of morality, are things to be overcome and totally replaced with the synthetic. No one with even the slightest bit of compassion would ever create a world like ours, filled with so much injustice. It must all be undone, and remade with diversity training, justice, and equality.
1619 Project propagandist Nikole Hannah-Jones and Zoltan Istvan share a nihilistic sentiment: “It must all be undone.” And the diversity consultants and those who train us in multiculturalism, like the transhumanists, promise to engineer a synthetic, artificial world.
Lyons calls for courage in the face of a growing nihilism. He’s right; we need that virtue. Too many of us want to believe that things are not that bad. We use preferred pronouns, thinking that to do so is just simple kindness—niceness. We look back at the lockdowns and regard them as basically well-meaning and necessary, if perhaps a little excessive. We don’t think much about what is going on in Canada, where physician-assisted suicide has been expanded. We refuse to entertain the obvious explanation for the shocking regularity of brutal mass shootings, overdose deaths, declining birth rates, and rising rates of depression and suicide: that a disordered, nihilistic society produces disordered, nihilistic souls. I find myself quoting Charles Péguy, as I have a number of times in these pages: “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”
To courage I’ll add wisdom. That’s a tall order, for wisdom entails understanding the highest truth of things, which we can attain only as a gift from the Holy Spirit. So I’ll revise my counsel. We should aspire to wisdom, which, as Scripture teaches, begins with fear of the Lord, not hostility toward his good works. If we’re to defend ourselves against modern nihilism, we must attend to what is real: seek it, see it, savor it. Instead of raging at what God has created and regretting what his providence has caused and allowed to transpire, we should tremble in awe. The great antidote to nihilism is gratitude. It does not preclude critical reflection or efforts to reform society. But it brackets them with love’s affirmation: It is good that you exist.