Humanism is, ironically, humanity’s greatest enemy in Out of the Silent Planet.
When C. S. Lewis was writing this Space Trilogy, one of the fastest growing movements was humanism. While a sort of Catholic himself, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin Of the Species is commonly said to be the origin of humanism, a new manifestation of modernism. Humanism, generally defined, seeks the good of man through our growth in the sciences and mathematics. Its telos, then, is man’s eternal life apart from God, rather coming from within himself or his own innovations. Darwin’s views led some to believe that there were advanced people groups, due to either their genes or their knowledge or their social standings. Though it may not have been his design, there is a reason some of these ideas are known as “social Darwinism”. The survival of the fittest, of course, defined by what makes us the most fit. For Lewis, humanism viewed the sciences as the ultimate good, the best form of fitness.
One of the two antagonists of the book, a professor, Weston, is said to be the pinnacle of man’s scientific achievements. “‘The Weston’, [Devine, the other antagonist] added. ‘You know. The great physicist. Has Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schroedinger’s blood for breakfast.” (15) On earth, this devotion to science is a mark of his social standing. He is well known around the earth, and Devine expects Dr. Ransom, the main character, to know who he is by his name alone.
This extensive devotion to science proves to be his blindspot, in retrospect. Devine and Weston explore Malacandra after discovering the physics of space travel. Their hope? To use their scientific knowledge to advance the good of the human race. They hope to colonize Malacandra, which they know as Mars, to extend the life of the human race. They view themselves as higher beings, telling the Oyarsa as much (134). “Your tribal life […] has nothing to compare with our civilization – with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time.” (ibid.)
In the Space Trilogy, Space is an allegory for heaven. Images of God’s throne are applied to space: “There were planet of unbelievable majesty, and constellations undreamed of: there were celestial sapphires, rubies, emeralds and pinpricks of burning gold[.]” (33) As Ransom explores space on the journey to Malacandra, he reflects on the poets who referred to space as the “heavens”. “Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens-the heavens which declared the glory- the ‘happy climes that ly where day never shuts his eye up in the broad fields of sky.'” (34)
That space itself is an explicit allegory for heaven makes Weston and Devine’s sin especially egregious. Yes, it is true that physics have taught man how to “annihilate” the problems of crossing space and time, but it has made them arrogant, Oyarsas unto themselves (137-38). In their arrogance, they look down upon the Malacadrans, no matter which of the three major species they are. As Weston begins his conversation with the Oyarsa, the leader of this particular planet, he thinks it to be a trick because he cannot see the Oyarsa. Pretending to be bigger and more dangerous than they actually are through trickery is “Quite common among savages.” (125)
The second sin of humanism is that it makes them blind to love and goodness. While on the planet, the Oyarsa contacts them, wanting to establish contact with humanity. The two men completely misunderstand the Oyarsa’s intention. They meet the sorn, impossibly tall, slightly humanlike creatures, and think they are evil creatures. They view them as impossibly primitive and savage, so they think that the aliens are reaching out for a human sacrifice. Their devotion to science blinds them to true benevolence.
The march of science, as it is supposed to follow in the ineffable path of life, moves, apparently, only forward with death. Death can be the only end point to so much unbridled arrogance and lack of benevolence. Weston does not believe that wiping out the Malacandrans in order to take their planet is morally bent, or wrong. Rather: “Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower.” (134) It would be morally bankrupt, in his mind, to NOT use his scientific knowledge to promulgator the growth of a higher being. This allows him to morally justify continued murder of more hnau as is needed by man: “He says that if he can kill you all and bring our people to live on Malacandra, then they might be able to go on living here after something had gone wrong with our world.” (135) If something were to happen with Malacandra? Then they would move on and repeat the cycle.
Ransom is able to break out of the cycle of humanism because of his love for fellow hnau and his compassion. The Oyarsa notes that Weston’s greatest sin is that he has allowed the prince of the air to bend his view on love (134-35), forgetting to love the ones around him and only looking to the future. Humanism is a ruinous eschatology, only looking to the future will ignoring the means of attaining that future. This lack of love allows him to kill indiscriminately. This may not have bent him entirely out of the shape of the Maledil, but it has solidified his evil.
Ransom reverses Weston’s sin by having compassion on his fellow hnau. Where Weston looked down on the hrssi, he was left to survive the planet on his own. By trusting in his new friends, and learning from them, Ransom was brought to the Oyarsa and spared. Had he went on his own, he would have suffered the same fate as Weston and Devine. Rather, his love let him stand as the ideal man who would break the cycle.
So, for Lewis, what is the answer to humanism? It is compassion, grounded in now. It is letting go of our arrogance which lets us view ourselves as more important than others, and to learn from and love them. It is opening our arms to life, natural life as guided by the Maledil, Ransom is allowed to return home. The Oyarsa is able to teach Ransom the error of the physicist’s ways, a trap that Devine and Weston would have fallen into, dooming humanity. In the end, humanism is not the answer: it only leads to more death. It is only by embracing the “alien” that we can be saved.