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Three Schools of Thought

1 Three Schools of Thought: Academic Legacy in That Hideous Strength

by Mrs. Teresa Ong, B.A., M.A.


C. S. Lewis is best known in our day as a popular Christian author, but in his own day he was recognized as a leading academician. From that vantage point, in The Abolition of Man1 Lewis critiques twentieth century educational philosophy and practice and predicts reasoned outcomes of misguided education. He fleshes out his critique in the satiric and fantastic apocalyptic novel That Hideous Strength (1 preface THS) and uses imaginative fiction to explore possible societal trajectories.2

Three institutions are presented with very different visions of what their legacy in society should be: Belbury, Bracton College, and the Society of St. Anne’s. By examining these divergent institutions through Lewis’s plot elements, characterizations, and symbolism, this paper explores methodologies used to advance a variety of worldviews, including pragmatism, progressivism, utilitarianism, and Christianity. The effectiveness of methodologies in terms of outcomes is portrayed by Lewis on three levels; personal, institutional, and societal.

As Christian educators and academics in the twenty-first century, we can refresh the urgency of our calling and evaluate the moral effectiveness of our methods by reviewing this important novel and heeding its warnings.

A Synopsis of That Hideous Strength

Mark and Jane Studdock seem to be an ordinary newlywed couple. Mark is a fellow at Bracton College in the English city of Edgestow. He aspires to being an “inner ringer” in the progressive element in the college. His wife, however, has already begun to feel that life as “the little woman” is going to be an empty and lonely life.

Mark is invited to become part of a group of progressives who live and work at a country estate called Belbury. The goal of the organization is a complete take-over of Great Britain through a quasi-scientific/political organization called the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.). The NICE has a tie to Bracton College through shared staff members, and acquires property owned by the college for their headquarters. Mark’s job will be to produce propaganda to be published in local papers that will cause people to accept and even cheer on the sometimes distasteful work of the NICE.

While Mark is away at Belbury, his wife Jane begins having disturbing dreams that seem to relate to the work of the NICE in some way. She is invited to move to a farm at the outskirts of Edgestow with a diverse but congenial group of strangers; there at St. Anne’s she begins to understand the spiritual nature and import of her dreams.

As the NICE begins taking over the city, the leadership group at Belbury is plotting ever more evil activities. The other group at St. Anne’s, meanwhile, awaits instructions for how to carry out counter-measures that will supposedly come from unseen heavenly authorities.

As the story progresses, Mark becomes more and more disillusioned with the group at Belbury and is finally convinced of their evil intentions. At the same time, Jane is convinced of the reality of God and the spirit realm and decides to cooperate on the side of goodness. The story ends in all out spiritual warfare with the forces of “deep heaven” literally battling Satanic principalities and powers to the death.

Let’s look at the three model institutions as imagined by Lewis.

Institution # One: Belbury: Institutionalized evil

A. The Description

In the tradition of Spencer and Bunyan, Lewis uses symbolic names to convey information about the nature the institutions. Belbury, meaning “death of beauty”, is run by Frost, Wither, and Fairy Hardcastle, who represent the authoritarian side of the institute. The very names are cold and stultifying. Also assembled at Belbury are a number of college professors, top scientists, medical men, an apostate minister, and a member of the House of Lords. Belbury, as such, is a cross-section of earthly authority, wisdom, and prestige.

While Frost and Wither have an experiential understanding of the reality of the spirit realm from the Satanic point of view, most of the others at Belbury are operating in the humanistic framework of their pet philosophies. Most of them are materialists or logical positivists who are working to move mankind to the next stage of his evolution. Lewis portrays them as highly utilitarian. They will use whatever and whoever they need to gain their desired ends, and destroy or discard whatever stands in their way.

At Belbury great stock is placed in human technology. Most of the underlings believe they are using scientific and technological methods to ensure the survival of the human race, but Lewis makes it clear that the group is doing all it can to defy natural design.3 The group succeeds, or so they think, in keeping the severed head of a criminal alive. By keeping his consciousness alive artificially, they hope to achieve everlasting life. At the same time they hope to cleanse the earth of everything organic and make it as “pure” as the moon. All of their efforts serve diabolical ends.

Belbury and the NICE use a variety of educational methods in the process of achieving their ends. They produce propaganda in the respectable media to cause the masses to accept what they are doing by using what Chesterton called “evil euphemisms”4 to put a positive spin on their evil deeds, such as performing experiments on prisoners and calling it “rehabilitation” or “retraining.”5

Everyone in the Institute is kept in line through fear and intimidation. When one scientist changes his mind about participating, he is murdered before he ever gets home. Mark Studdock’s wallet is stolen by someone inside the Institute, and then turns up at the murder scene. Even though his enthusiasm for the Institute is waning, he is kept in line by the threat that he could be linked to the murder. Others are kept in check by threats of losing their supervisory status and/or income.

A key word at the Institute is “elasticity.” Nothing is ever put in writing; instructions are never issued without equivocation. Workers are expected to show initiative, but make sure they never are cross-purposes with the vague and slippery deputy director. The whole atmosphere mitigates against any idea of right and wrong, black and white. When Mark proves to be less and less cooperative, he is forced to enter a re-education program designed to remove vestiges of objectivity and sentimentality. Moral, aesthetic and ethical judgments are de-bunked through exposure to perverse art and architecture and through the performance of childish obscenities.

Those who cooperate are rewarded with fine food, wine, cigars, etc., but those who don’t suffer isolation, social stigma, and even death.

B. Lewis’s Evaluation

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis described a “new” type of education in which the purveyors seek “to produce certain states of mind in the rising generation…because they think them to be the means to some state of society which they regard as desirable.” They would like to refrain from calling things “good”, and prefer “necessary,” “progressive,” “efficient.”6 He described the type of education which he “fleshed out” in That Hideous Strength:

Their skepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values: about the values current in their own set they are not nearly skeptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge.7

Through his imaginary institution, Lewis demonstrates possible answers to the questions he poses in The Abolition of Man: “necessary for what?, progressing towards what?, effecting what?” The progressive educators at the NICE are conditioning a population to support their vision of human autonomy and ultimate rebellion against God. Even the noted atheist Bernard Shaw admitted, “…in 1860 the men who thought they wanted to substitute scientific knowledge for superstition really only wanted to abolish God and marry their deceased wives’ sisters.”8 Those who have set themselves in positions of authority have in mind cosmic evil – revenge against God in a Miltonian sense9. Since Satan is ultimately behind this type of rebellion, and Satan never has man’s good or happiness in mind, the outcome of cooperation with such anti-God conditioning is that man will become “food” for Satan.10

Lewis calls this type of education “a villain’s undertaking.”11

C. God’s Evaluation

But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.

James 3:14-16

Institution # Two: Bracton College: Appearance of Neutrality

A. The Description

Lewis relates the college name in the story to “Bragdon Woods” – which adjoin the college property. Buried in the woods is the body of Merlin, a symbol of the time in Britain when people believed in the reality of the spirit realm and spiritual power. The main feature of those in the college is self-promotion (bragging), even though they try to hide it. In reality, however, any spiritual or moral authority the professors might have has been buried for a long time.

The basis of life is playing politics with things that are unimportant.12 One of the professors admits, “There’s nothing extraordinary in the Fellows of Bracton talking all afternoon about an unreal issue.” 13 The professors feel greatly burdened with the “work” of discussing how to raise money, what sanitation repairs to make, and faculty salaries. In many respects, faculty members are naive about what is happening in the world outside the college. Lewis writes, “At Bracton the Progressive Element, having to face only scholars, had passed for very knowing fellows, but here at Belbury, one felt quite different.”14 They easily become the dupes of political operators with a bigger agenda because they will sell out for money.

Competition and a party spirit develop as various professors make petty political alliances that will help them advance their own self-interests. No matter what individuals say they espouse, the prevailing philosophy is pragmatism; the academes will do whatever they can to achieve their goals of personal peace and affluence, with a dash of significance if they can get it.

Lewis casts an air of neutrality in Bracton College and in Edgestow University at large. Mark Studdock is an example of this shade of gray:

It must be remembered that in Mark’s mind hardly one rag of noble thought, either Christian or pagan, had a secure lodging. His education had been neither scientific nor classical– merely “Modern.” The severities of abstraction and of human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither peasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honor to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge…15

Lewis gives the impression for all this that any of the players could have gone either direction– toward the good or toward the evil. Several professors are tapped for jobs in the NICE. One of them sees through their schemes and is murdered trying to leave. Another is a member of the society at St. Anne’s. One tries to position himself so that he will have the political advantage no matter how circumstances turn out. Some of the professors are seeking cosmic significance, some historic significance, but most are concerned more with personal security. In the end, there is no neutrality allowed.

B. Lewis’s Evaluation

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis makes the case that there is no such thing as neutral or valueless education. The very process of debunking certain (usually traditional or religious) values requires that some other values must be brought to the fore. They are doing what they are doing to achieve some end, “And this end must have some real value in their eyes.”16 However, values that are outside of what Lewis calls the tao [the moral law of God universally written in the heart of man] are flawed and inconsistent and lead to education being “a fool’s undertaking.” 17Such was the education at Bracton College.

In the end, Bracton College was not judged innocent for all their show of neutrality; they taught the philosophies that allowed Belbury and the NICE to happen. When Mrs. Dimble asks if all of Edgestow deserved to be wiped out, Denniston, one of the members of St. Anne’s, points out,

One’s sorry for a man like Churchwood. I knew him well; he was an old dear. All his lectures were devoted to proving the impossibility of ethics, though in private life he would walk ten miles rather than leave a penny debt unpaid. But at the same time… was there a single doctrine practised at Belbury which hadn’t been preached by some lecturer at Edgestow? Oh, of course, they never thought anyone would act on their theories! No one was more astonished than they when what they’d been talking of for years suddenly took on reality. But it was their own child coming back to them: grown up and unrecognisable, but their own.” 18

C. God’s Evaluation

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members?…You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility towards God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. James 4:1,4

Institution # Three: The Society of St. Anne’s: Cosmic Good

A. The Description

The society at St. Anne’s lived together in an ordinary farm house where part of their daily activity included raising animals and growing vegetables; a stark contrast to the “club” atmosphere at Belbury. The name St. Anne’s carries the meaning “sanctified grace.” The group assembled there is much more diverse than at Belbury, and includes two college professors, housewives, farmhands, a psychologist, a cleaning woman, and an ex-convict. Some are believers, some are seekers, and one is an open skeptic.

The head of the group, Dr. Ransom, maintains a lifestyle consistent with his heavenly testimony. Some of the names in the group again symbolically reflect the contrast with Belbury; Ivy, Camilla, Mother, Grace Ironwood, which suggest life in harmony with nature..

The atmosphere at St. Anne’s is one of peace, harmony, and cooperation. No one is intimidated or coerced; everyone is free to come and go as they please, though the situation is so pleasant and commodious that everyone wants to be there. Life is lived in Christian perspective and in harmony with the nature of God’s design. Everything at St. Anne’s is living, growing, and procreating.

Dr. Ransom teaches the members of his house through personal testimony, example, and patient discipleship. The basis of his authority is relational– top down from “Maleldil” (God) through him relationally to the members of his household.

Jane Studdock, even though she is a little embarrassed, first begins to consider spiritual reality because she rooms with Mrs. Dimble, who “says prayers.”19 In another scene, Ransom is explaining the harmonious hierarchy that she witnesses at St. Anne’s. He has just eaten some bread and has made some crumbs. He asks Jane if she is afraid of mice. He then signals for the mice to come, who instantly oblige him by cleaning up the crumbs. He uses the teachable moment:

There,” he said, “a very simple adjustment. Humans want crumbs removed; mice are anxious to remove them. It ought never to have been a cause of war. But you see that obedience and rule are more like a dance than a drill– specially between man and woman where the roles are always changing.”20

Ransom gives Jane an unforgettable object lesson illustrating the truths they have been discussing about the joy of submission to the will of God.

Besides direct one-on-one discipleship, the household at St. Anne’s also values “old books” such as George MacDonald’s “Curdie” stories, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare 21. Lewis was adamant about the value of mentorship by those in previous generations.22

B. Lewis’s Evaluation

The education that Lewis pictures at St. Anne’s he calls the “old” education23. He astutely contrasts the old with the new:

Where the old initiated, the new merely “conditions.” The old dealt with its pupils as a grown bird deals 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

This contrast is established by Lewis between life at Belbury and life at St. Anne’s. The very atmosphere of St. Anne’s literally and symbolically reeks of propagation, as Belbury stinks of propaganda. “By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.” 25 So what is the solution? Lewis reminds us, “St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.”26 The characters at St. Anne’s are continually in a position of either teaching or being taught right sentiments about life in God’s universe and their place in it.

Emotions or “sentiments” are just or right when they are in harmony with reason based on objective truth. Lewis, in fact, calls this the “doctrine of objective value, 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.”27 Ultimately, objective value can only come from a knowledge of God and a relationship to Him. This type of education leads to cosmic good – the eternal glory of God.

C. God’s Evaluation

Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom… But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy, and the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. James 3:13, 17-18

What can we learn in summary?

We, as Christian academics, are immersed in the great ideas– ideas of cosmic importance, foremost being who God is and what man is in relation to God. We are immersed in The Book as well as in other important books of human origin that bear on The Book of God. We know how to recognize and avoid the evil pitfalls of the Belburys; generally, we can even steer our lives clear of the feigned respectability of the Bractons. But do we always live in that state of “sanctified grace” that can make a difference in the lives of real people?

Even though That Hideous Strength was intended to be hyperbolic satire, Lewis admitted that he had real people in mind as he developed his characters.28 He understood that not many wise are called by God (I Cor. 1:26); but from those He has gifted with intellect, He requires more (I Cor. 4:1-2). In the humble and unassuming Dr. Dimble, Lewis gave us a picture of an academic who gave more.

When it became plain to the leaders at Belbury that one of the professors at the university was responsible for Jane Studdock going permanently to the side of good, the Belbury spies were assigned to cover three professors who were known to be Christians to find out precisely where she had gone. The first two are heavily shadowed because they were considered the most likely candidates to do something momentous for the Christian cause: one of them had written a number of Christian books and was involved in national church conferences; the second was involved in a Christian education commission. But Dimble escaped notice because

Dimble is quite a different type. Except that he’s a Christian, there really isn’t much against him. He’s purely academic. I shouldn’t think his name is much known, except to other scholars in his own subject. Not the kind that would make a public man. Impractical… he’d be too full of scruples to be much use to them.” 29

Dimble was the kind of man who went to work every day, kept all of his office hours, and was interested in the lives of students and others around him. He could recognize when he fell into the sin of pride, and would repent when convicted of it. He was a good family man. Living Christianly was what made him useful to God’s kingdom– even though he was not “high profile.”

Great Christian ideas and ideals will only matter to most of the world as we translate them through our lives as Dr. Ransom and Dr. Dimble did. It is the only way to be as relevant to the Ivy Maggs (cleaning woman) as to the Mark Studdocks (college professor). It is the only way we can hope to persuade the skeptical McPhees. People must see in us the reality of our spiritual strength and vigor.

We are all authoritarian in epistemology to some degree. We make decisions about what to believe based on information from sources we judge to be the most trustworthy. The Apostle John wrote, “This is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his witness is true.” (John 21:24) The legacy of Christian scholarship is in being that trustworthy source in the lives of those around us.


Works Cited

Bentley, Eric (ed.). Shaw on Music. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955.

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.

Chesterton, G. K. Stories, Essay and Poems. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Limited, 1941.

Lewis. C. S. The Abolition of Man. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.

_________ George MacDonald: An Anthology. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

_________ That Hideous Strength. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996.

Works Consulted

Burson, Scott R. And Walls, Jerry. C. S. Lewis & Francis Schaeffer. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1998.

In chapter 6, “Strategic Apologetics,” the authors discuss “four key facets of his [Lewis] apologetic: the centrality of truth, the need for fair argument, the comparison of worldviews and the art of persuasive communication.” These elements are all demonstrated and exemplified in That Hideous Strength

Chesterton, G. K. Heretics/Orthodoxy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000.

Chapter two “On the Negative Spirit,” is an insightful essay on discussing “progress” in society as a way to dodge the issue of “good”. Progress, however, implies progressing towards something better, which in the end requires value judgement based on objective truth.

Chapters four and five also contain discussions of flaws in modernist thought that bear distinct similarities to Lewis’s depictions in That Hideous Strength.

Glaspey, Terry. The Spiritual Legacy of C. S. Lewis. Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 1996.

In the section “C. S. Lewis: His Thought,” Glaspey summarizes Lewis’s views on several topics of interest in this paper: “Faith and the Intellect,” “Subjectivism and Relativism,” “Scientism and Reductionism.”

Markos, Louis. Lewis Agonistes. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003.

The chapters “Wrestling with Science” and “Wrestling with the New Age” were helpful in the preparation of this paper.

1C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man [AOM], (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996 edition).

2C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength [THS], (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1996), p. 7.

3THS, p. 354.

4See the essay “On Evil Euphemisms” from Come to Think of It (1930) by G. K. Chesterton. His essay, though humorous, is very relevant to 21st century euphemisms such as “free love” and “pro-choice.” G. K. Chesteron, Stories, Essays & Poems, Everyman’s Library ed. by Ernest Rhys (London: J. M. Dent and Sons Limited, 1941), pp. 208-11.

5THS, p. 69.

6AOM, p. 42-23.

7Ibid., p. 43

8Shaw gives a scathing analysis of “scientism” as it was developing late in the 19th century. His warning is especially powerful coming from his vantage point as a religious sceptic. Bernard Shaw, “Preface to London Music in 1888-89,” Shaw on Music (Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1955), p. 20.

9John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, lines 101-116.

10THS, p. 197.

11AOM, p. 42.

12THS, p. 39.

13Ibid., p. 58.

14Ibid., p. 119.

15THS, p. 185.

16AOM, p. 42.


18THS, p. 371.

19THS, p. 77.

20Ibid., p. 149.

21Ibid., p. 163.

22See C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books” in God in the Dock and Lewis’s “Preface” in George MacDonald: An Anthology for a discussion of the Christian legacy in old books.

23AOM, p. 34.


25Ibid., p. 27.

26Ibid., p. 28.

27Ibid., p. 31.

28Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979), p. 198.

29THS, p. 237.

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