Work I can be trusted to do

This is the last post of Blogging Year 2018 and I would like to spend it in the company of Andrew MacPhee, the resident skeptic at St. Anne’s in C. S. Lewis’s novel, That Hideous Strength. [1]  MacPhee is a “member” the of the company gathered at St. Anne’s in the same way that Satan is a member of the heavenly host in the book of Job or that “the Devil’s advocate” is a part of the Catholic church’s process of confirming people for sainthood.

MacPhee is not a nay-sayer, exactly, but he is way out of his depth in this novel.  Ransom,macphee 4 the director of the community at St. Anne’s, has been to Mars and Venus, he has learned to speak the Old Solar language, and he is in contact with the eldila [2] who represent “the Masters” in their plans to save the planet Earth from domination by evil forces.  MacPhee has seen things at St. Anne’s that his frame of reference cannot accommodate, but the best he can do is to continue to allow for the possibility that such things are possible.

That is an achievement for MacPhee, because the really does not want them to be possible, but he is a very old friend of Ransom’s and his has a fierce loyalty to him.  That doesn’t make him believe in the things Ransom says are true, but it keeps him open to the possibilities.

That takes MacPhee to the outer limits of his abilities as a lifelong skeptic and it is not enough.  Just how and why it is not enough is what I want to explore today.  This is not just a literary exercise for me.  I have a substantial streak of Andrew MacPhee myself and I wonder, from time to time, what work I cannot be trusted with because the character of my commitment is, like MacPhee’s, hypothetical.

Why is it not enough

Several members of the community at St. Anne’s are being recruited to go out and look for Merlin, who has just returned to consciousness after 1500 years of suspended animation.  MacPhee wants to go, but no one knows what kinds of powers Merlin has at his disposal and MacPhee is “unprotected.”

Here’s what that exchange between Ransom, the Director, and MacPhee looks like.

‘I have already repeatedly urged,’ said MacPhee, ‘the absurdity of sending out an older man like yourself, that’s done a day’s work forbye, when here am I, a great strapping fellow sitting doing nothing.’

‘It’s no good, MacPhee,’ said the Director, ‘you can’t go. For one thing you don’t know the language. And for another – it’s time for frankness – you have never put yourself under the protection of Maleldil.’ [3]

‘I am perfectly ready,’ said MacPhee, ‘in and for this emergency, to allow the existence of these eldils of yours and of a being called Maleldil whom they regard as their king. And I—’

‘You can’t go,’ said the Director. ‘I will not send you. It would be like sending a three-year-old child to fight a tank.

And later, the Director adds, [For the last time…] “You can’t go, MacPhee.  He’d put you to sleep in ten seconds.”

Merlin shows up at St. Anne’s that night in the middle of a rainstorm.

His eyes rested on Ransom for a second or two with no particular interest. Then he turned his head to his left, to where the door was flung back almost against the wall. MacPhee was concealed behind it.

‘Come out,’ said the Stranger [Merlin] in Latin…But what surprised Ransom much more was the fact that MacPhee immediately obeyed. He did not look at Ransom but at the Stranger. Then, unexpectedly, he gave an enormous yawn. The Stranger looked him up and down and then turned to the Director.

The Stranger argues that he has, in fact, already crossed the threshold of the Director’s house.

‘I value that at a straw,’ said Ransom. [in Latin]. ‘Shut the door, Mac-Phee,’ he added in English. But there was no response; and looking round for the first time, he saw that MacPhee had sat down in the one chair which the scullery contained and was fast asleep.

The others discover MacPhee in that chair hours later.

MacPhee, who had just been refuting both Ransom and Alcasan’s head by a two-edged argument which seemed unanswerable in the dream but which he never afterwards remembered, found himself violently waked by someone shaking his shoulder.

That’s the story.  I have already praised MacPhee for going as far as he can go without letting go of his very strict empirical frame of reference.  I want to look now, and just how inadequate MacPhee’s offer is.

macphee 3The evil forces have arisen and are on the move.  The time for action has arrived.  Someone has to go to find Merlin.  MacPhee points out that he is “a great strapping fellow” and well rested and younger than the men who are to be sent.

Not good enough, says the Director.  You have not put yourself under God’s protection.  Full commitment to God and to His purposes has a kind of protective function here.  This protection has nothing at all to do with MacPhee’s abilities.  Dr. Dimble, who does get sent out, has no more abilities that MacPhee has but Dimble has committed himself unreservedly to God’s purposes and that commitment serves as a kind of shield.  Dimble, in the scene we saw above, would not have been put to sleep by Merlin when he shows up because Dimble is protected and MacPhee is not.

MacPhee tries again.  He is perfectly ready—in this emergency only—to allow for the possibility that eldila [4] actually exist.  He is willing to allow that there might be a being called Maleldil.  He is willing to identify that the eldila think of Maleldil as their king.

But that is as far as he can go.  He cannot even get himself to say that he is willing to allow—in this emergency only—that Maleldil IS the king of all the eldila.  Only that the eldila think that.

This is the kind of situation that drives empiricists crazy.  Nothing counts as evidence that something is actually true or not.  What it would mean to support a hypothesis like the existence of Maleldil has no clear meaning and MacPhee, having gone as far as conscience and friendship will allow him to go, is still way short.

How short is he?  Merlin shows up and looks at MacPhee and MacPhee sits down in the chair and goes instantly to sleep.  The Director didn’t do that.  Dimble would not have done that.  Both are “protected.”

I admire MacPhee’s skepticism, even while I note its limits, because I share it to some macphee 2extent.  On the other hand, I also know that what you can see is dependent to a considerable extent on what you believe to be possible.  You can look right at a brown King of Hearts, for instance, and insist that you don’t know what you are looking at.  You don’t know because you know that what your eyes are telling you is not possible.  Your eyes and your brain cannot come to detente.

On the other hand, I wonder what work I cannot be safely given to do because my own loyalty is too thin.  There may be no work I cannot be trusted with because of my skepticism, but there is no way for me to know that.

I do hope that I will post an essay on December 1, the first day of the 2019 Blogging Year, that addresses that concern, but I won’t know if I am willing to post it until I have written it.  So…we’ll see how it goes.

[1]  Some scholars of the life and work of C. S. Lewis see the character of MacPhee as a redemption of sorts for Lewis’s tutor, a brilliant former headmaster and family friend, William T. Kirkpatrick. 

[2]  Angels, for the purposes of this essay.

[3]  Maleldil is God, for our purposes.

[4]  “Eldila” is the plural form of “eldil” in the Old Solar language, which both the Director and Dimble has learned to speak.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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