Hnau What?: C. S. Lewis on What It Means to be a Person

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What does it mean to be a person? This is one of the central moral questions of our age. Bioethics is particularly engaged with this question. What is human life? When does it begin and end? Does human life have any intrinsic value, dignity, or rights to be protected? Are there any boundaries regarding the manipulation of genetic material, cloning, or embryos? We tend to speak in strong terms about “human rights” and “civil rights” as though there were a secure, generally accepted basis for them to stand on. But is this true? The conversation often seems to ignore the fact that different worldviews lead to widely divergent answers to the question “What is a person?” Most secular modern or post-modern conceptualizations of the nature of personhood are not robust enough to support the notions of human rights and civil rights that we tend to assume.

C. S. Lewis understood well that not all worldviews support the idea of moral obligation. He understood that if persons are simply the chance result of materialist processes in a random and meaningless universe, all bets are off regarding our ability to claim any intrinsic value, dignity, or rights. He also understood that what we call “postmodern” notions of radically subjective and “located” narratives of meaning offer no better hope for preserving the value of persons. He explored these issues many places over the years in books as diverse as Out of the Silent Planet and The Abolition of Man. This paper will survey some of those reflections with a view toward their contemporary implications for ethics and the social sciences.

He is, after all, human

Out of the Silent Planet begins with the shanghaiing of Ransom, the philologist. Out on an extended walking tour, Ransom has sought shelter for the night and has interrupted a kidnapping. Two men had been in the process of taking a mentally retarded country boy with them to Mars as an offering, as they believe, to powerful beings there. Their primary victim gone, Weston and Devine wind up drugging Ransom and taking him instead. We gain some insight into their beliefs about what it means to be a person by the conversation Ransom wakes up to.

Weston, the true believer in science, has been resisting the substitution of Ransom for the boy, primarily because Ransom has some qualities that the boy did not. “‘The boy was ideal,’ said Weston sulkily. ‘Incapable of serving humanity and only too likely to propagate idiocy. He was the sort of boy who in a civilized community would be automatically handed over to a state laboratory for experimental purposes.”

Devine is more utilitarian. The boy was more likely to be missed by Scotland Yard than a professor on a long school holiday walk. He said, “This busybody, on the other hand, will not be missed for months, and even then no one will know where he was when he disappeared. He came alone. He left no address. He has no family. And finally he has poked his nose into the whole affair of his own accord.”

Even yet, Weston has some reluctance, saying, “Well, I confess I don’t like it. He is, after all, human. The boy was really almost a-a preparation. Still, he’s only an individual, and probably a quite useless one. We’re risking our own lives too. In a great cause-”

We see in this little exchange some glimpse of how beliefs affect behavior, how worldviews shape morality. Weston imagined himself to be serving the “great cause” of scientific progress and the evolutionary success of the human gene pool. Actual persons could easily be sacrificed in the service of this “great cause” of abstract humanity, and some persons have more value than others. Devine, brilliant in his own way, but a utilitarian hedonist, takes a much shorter and hard-headed view. The only thing that matters is his personal survival and success, measured by power and prosperity. Persons have no intrinsic value and no rights sustained by moral obligation. When Weston consoles himself with the thought, “I dare say, he would consent if he could be made to understand,” Devine simply replies, “Take his feet and I’ll take his head.”

Hnau What? Ransom’s Martian Education

Upon their Martian landing, Weston and Devine prepare to deliver their human specimen to six tall, spindly, and flimsy things (sorns, we soon learn). They are interrupted by a Martian beast, and Ransom makes his getaway. After spending some time in fearful flight from both his captors and the sorns, Ransom has a strange epiphany, one that perhaps only a philologist could understand. From his hiding place, he sees another Martian creature emerge from the water, six or seven feet tall and looking like a cross between a penguin, a seal, an otter, and a stoat. The creature opens its mouth and begins to make noises, and the text records, “a lifetime of linguistic study assured Ransom almost at once that these were articulate noises. The creature was talking. It had a language.” Suffice it to say that Ransom makes friends with this hross, learns its language, and learns that there are at least three distinct kinds of creatures on Malacandra (as they call Mars) that he must recognize as “persons,” though none of them look like the men and women of earth. There are the hrossa, the sorns (or seroni), and the pfifltriggi, each with unique characteristics or abilities.

Ransom’s hrossa mentors help him understand that personhood, or humanity, or being “hnau” (in their language) does not correlate with looking like earthlings. So what is the distinction between hnau and other creatures, such as hnakra, the dangerous aquatic animal? And between hnau and higher beings, such as Oyarsa (the Malacandran planetary angel), Melildil the Young (the Son of God), and the Old One (God)?


Ransom’s first lesson was that being hnau was not the same as being “man.” These Malacandran creatures were undeniably “other.” It was impossible to think of the hross as mankind, Ransom reflects, “But starting from the other end you had an animal with everything an animal ought to have-glossy coat, liquid eye, sweet breath and whitest teeth-and added to all these, as though Paradise had never been lost and earliest dreams were true, the charm of speech and reason” (p. 58). “Sweet reason” is not limited to creatures that look like us.

Although each kind of hnau is rational, each kind makes a unique contribution to rationality. This is something that Ransom learns later when he meets his first sorns. They explain the unique attributes of each kind of hnau on Malacandra and are curious to learn what the human contributions might be. The sorns are struck by the fact that earth has only one kind of hnau. “[T]hey thought this must have far-reaching effects in the narrowing of sympathies and even of thought. ‘Your thought must be at the mercy of your blood,’ said the old sorn. ‘For you cannot compare it with thought that floats on a different blood'” (p. 103). Ransom ultimately discovers that, although each kind of hnau on Malacandra has its own language, they have all learned the speech of the hrossa. When he asks why, wondering if the hrossa once ruled the others, the answer given by the pfifltrigg is a puzzled, “I do not understand. They are our great speakers and singers. They have more words and better” (p. 114).

Moral Order

Hnau apprehend moral truth that is obligatorily binding, not just personally or culturally preferable. Ransom muses, “On Malacandra, apparently, three distinct species had reached rationality, and none of them had yet exterminated the other. It concerned him intensely to find out which was the real master” (p. 69). He is taught that the hnau on Malacandra are ruled not by each other but by spiritual beings and the moral order that originates ultimately from the Old One. Ransom quickly finds himself embarrassed to say too much about human hnau, because it becomes evident that they have somehow become “bent” and are clearly morally inferior to the creatures on Malacandra. Of course, Ransom’s embarrassment is evidence that humans are hnau, even though bent, since he has some apprehension of the moral order and that humans have violated it.

Malacandrans know that it is wrong to kill other hnau and cannot imagine that any hnau would do it. It is a most difficult moment for Ransom when he must tell his hross friend that he must hide from Weston and Devine because they have already killed another hross. “Why would they kill him?” the hross asks. “They would not know that he was hnau. I have told you that there is only one kind of hnau in our world. They would think he was a beast. If they thought that, they would kill him for pleasure, or in fear, or (he hesitated) because they were hungry. But I must tell you the truth, Whin. They would kill even a hnau, knowing it to be hnau, if they thought its death would serve them” (p. 82).

Belief, Trust, and Obedience to God

The moral order is not a utilitarian one, nor is it subjective or socially constructed (though it is adapted to each kind of hnau). Being hnau involves belief, trust, and, rightfully, obedience to God. Whin’s explanation of the trouble they are having is that they have not been promptly obedient to the eldil who had told them Ransom must be taken to Oyarsa. When Ransom fears that if he leaves, the rest of the hrossa will think he has run away because he was afraid to face them after Hyoi’s death, Whin says, “It is not a question of thinking but of what an eldil says. This is cub’s talk” (p. 83). At that point, Ransom chooses faithful obedience, regardless of his feelings and questions. Almost immediately the fears and doubts awake with a vengeance, but he is able to keep going. The text records, “Now, in the clear light of an accepted duty, he felt fear indeed, but with it a sober sense of confidence in himself and in the world, and even an element of pleasure” (pp. 86-87).

Ransom later finds himself having to honestly answer embarrassing questions about humans concerning aspects of human history that astonish the sorns, such as war, slavery, and prostitution. “He had decided from the outset that he would be quite frank, for he now felt that it would be not knau, and also that it would be unavailing, to do otherwise” (p. 102). He understands that hnau-ness is related to virtue and character. The sorns respond to his revelations by perceiving human isolation from and rejection of spiritual order. “‘It is because they have no Oyarsa,’ said one of the pupils. ‘It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself,’ said Augray. ‘They cannot help it,’ said the old sorn. ‘There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau and hnau by eldila and eldila by Maleldil. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair…” (p. 102).

When Ransom is finally in the presence of the Oyarsa of Malcandra, he learns the bitter truth that Thulcandra (earth) is the “Silent Planet,” quarantined from the rest of the planets. The Oyarsa says, “it was not always so. Once we knew the Oyarsa of your world-he was brighter and greater than I-and then we did not call it Thulcandra. It is the longest of all stories and the bitterest. He became bent. That was before any life came on your world. Those were the Bent Years of which we still speak in the heavens, when he was not yet bound to Thulcandra but free like us. It was in his mind to spoil other worlds besides his own…There was great war, and we drove him back out of the heavens and bound him in the air of his own world as Maleldil taught us. There doubtless he lies to this hour, and we know no more of that planet: it is silent. We think that Maleldil would not give it up utterly to the Bent One, and there are stories among us that He has taken strange counsel and dared terrible things, wrestling with the Bent One in Thulcandra” (pp. 120-121).

When Ransom has to explain the bent designs of Weston and Devine, the Oyarsa wonders if they are wounded in their brains, but concludes, “If you were my own people I would kill them now, Ransom, and you soon; for they are bent beyond hope, and you, when you have grown a little braver, will be ready to go to Maleldil. But my authority is over my own world. It is a terrible thing to kill someone else’s hnau“(p. 123).

Hnau Are Both Rational Animals and Spirit

Ransom gets to experience the honoring of the three dead hnau, learning that hnau are not only rational animals; they are spiritual beings as well. Ten of the hrossa begin to sing. The text records, “Through his knowledge of the creatures and his love for them he began, ever so little, to hear it with their ears. A sense of great masses moving at visionary speeds, of giants dancing, of eternal sorrows eternally consoled, of he knew not what and yet what he had always known, awoke in him with the very first bars of the deep-mouthed dirge, and bowed down his spirit as if the gate of heaven had opened before him” (p. 131). The song speaks of the body falling away and the hnau rising from it, a second and better life more real than the first. Then, as the song ends, Oyarsa says, “Let us scatter the movements which were their bodies. So will Maleldil scatter all worlds when the first and feeble is worn” (p. 132).

We Can’t Have It Both Ways: If Values Aren’t Real, Persons Have No Inherent Value

Most modern and postmodern accounts of what it means to be a person are not robust enough to support the meaning and values that their proponents seem to claim, yet they would find the account portrayed by Lewis to be quaint, if not laughable. My field of social work tends to hold either modernist materialist or postmodern subjectivist explanations of human nature and values, yet at the same time proclaims the inherent dignity and worth of each person as one of its core values. You really can’t have it both ways.

As Lewis pointed out in The Abolition of Man (1962), if human beliefs and behavior are only the result of environment and conditioning and values are only personal preferences, the jig is up. Nature has the last laugh. We may think that we are extending our control by developing ways to make human beings whatever we want, but in the end it is nature, not humans, that will have won. After we have “seen through” all the values and the motivations, the remaining motivations can only be the ones that can’t be seen through-whatever itch, desire, or lust we happen to be experiencing at the moment.

Yet, in spite of our philosophies, human beings continue to speak and act as though persons are more than products and values more than preferences. I know that it is true for me. Values and meaning have always been very important to me. I realized early on that not all understandings of the nature of the universe and the nature of persons are compatible with persons having inherent dignity and value, or with the words “love” and “justice” having any morally obligatory power. I understood the abyss of absurdity, meaninglessness, solipsism, and raw power that yawned before me, and that it could very well be true.

When I encountered C. S. Lewis’s writings as a freshman or sophomore in college, his theme of ultimate, real values immediately resonated deeply with me. I understood when he said that we can’t have it both ways. We may ultimately live in a purely materialistic and naturalistic universe, and our experience of that universe may ultimately be only radically subjective and bounded by cultural conditions. But if so, we must be honest and realistic enough to kiss love and justice goodbye.

Yet, bent as we are, human beings steadfastly persist in seeking some real meaning to love and justice. Notions and theories about human nature and behavior that ignore our tendency to shape our behavior, our communities, and ourselves based on beliefs and values are fatally reductionist. On one level, there will be new evidence every day that love is only lust, if we ignore the “inside” knowledge we have regarding human motivation and behavior. Lust may be present, but it is rarely the only thing. So, in spite of the considerable difficulties of believing in God, that morality is rooted in something really true about the universe and that it imposes real imperatives on me, I have always found the difficulties of believing that there is no God and that values have no real meaning even greater. This is what Elton Trueblood called the principle of “comparative difficulties” (1957, p. 13). In Mere Christianity, Lewis described his struggles with this:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?…Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too-for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. (1960, pp. 45-46)

That sounds right to me. Competing worldviews all have their difficulties and their prices. Love and justice could be only private fancies. But, finally, I find that very hard to believe.

Moral, Believing, and Spiritual Animals

My field of behavioral and social sciences has favored theories of human nature and behavior that explain away or “see through” morality, spirituality, and religion-from Freud’s psychoanalysis (The Future of an Illusion), through Skinner’s behavioral determinism (Beyond Freedom and Dignity), to Wilson’s sociobiology or evolutionary psychology (“The Biological Basis of Morality,” 1998). Peter Singer (1996), the Princeton bioethicist, is a prime example of how these kinds of ideas have consequences. On the basis of his materialist and utilitarian assumptions, he argues that humans have no more innate value than any other animal and that any “right to life” they might have is tied to their capacities of self-awareness and agency-their self-conscious capacities to anticipate the future, to make choices, and to take action based on that awareness. On this basis he justifies infanticide for those creatures which, upon proper testing, do not show themselves to have the potential for full development of these capacities, and euthanasia for those creatures which, for whatever reason, have lost the exercise of those capacities.

However, other voices are being raised that take a more holistic approach to understanding what it means to be a person. A prime example is Christian Smith, Professor and Associate Chair of sociology at the University of North Carolina. He has written a courageous (in the light of the academic culture) and ground-breaking work by telling the old, old story that Lewis tells in Out of the Silent Planet in the language of contemporary social sciences.

In his book, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (2003), Smith argues that there is no way to be human except through moral order. He says,

One of the central and fundamental motivations for human action is to act out and sustain moral order, which helps constitute, directs, and makes significant human life itself. Human persons nearly universally live in social worlds that are thickly webbed with moral assumptions, beliefs, commitments, and obligations. (p. 8)

He argues that until this is recognized and built into sociological and psychological theories and analysis our understanding of human action and culture will be impoverished and inadequate (p. 11).

And by this, he does not mean that “moral” is another way of saying personal preferences, self-interested utilitarian behavior, or internalized socialization. He argues that “Science as we know it can only ever proceed by first placing faith in a set of unprovable cosmological, metaphysical, and epistemological assumptions and commitments…Nothing human, not even science, escapes moral order” (p. 25). Smith argues that moral order is external to and objectively existent for human actors, but it finds imperfect expression in human actors (pp. 27-27).

Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which require a remarkable faith in the ability of genes to stimulate behavior that perpetuates the genes but not necessarily the carrier of the genes, do not provide a plausible account of actual human behavior. The logical conclusion of this explanation eliminates any shred of belief in human morality-freedom, dignity, choice, rights, and responsibility. Smith, like Lewis, observes that,

When human morality is redefined entirely in relation to reproductive fitness-so that morality is no longer driven by natural law or the will of God or self-evident inherent moral values-then we lose any real standard to judge actions. Genetic survival and extinction in a competitive environment is all that is. Beyond that we can have nothing evaluative to say about which genes successfully reproduce or how they do it. Indeed, we no longer even possess standards for value judgments about what constitutes progress in evolution. It is finally of no more value that humans survive than do bacteria. (p. 37)

I happen to believe, with good reason, that Smith’s thinking has been directly influenced by the writings of C. S. Lewis. His office was across the hall from me once upon a time when he was a newly minted Ph.D. and we both taught at Gordon College. Now Chris is a one of the most widely published and important sociologists of religion of our time. Lewis did not claim originality for his ideas and Smith is radical only for being willing to publicly bring the old ideas to the contemporary academic arena. He is skilled in the tools and language of the academic guild and a remarkably capable thinker and writer who may be disagreed with, but cannot simply be ignored. I hope I have said enough about what he wrote to stimulate your interest in reading more. Academia needs more such voices.

Ideas and beliefs matter. What we believe about what it means to be a person will profoundly affect the way we treat people, as Weston and Devine clearly show. As Ransom learned, a person is not simply someone who looks or thinks like me. A person has inherent dignity and value. Hnau are moral, believing animals, no matter where they are found or what they look like. They understand that they are accountable to a transcendent and real moral order.

Works Cited

Freud, S. (1989). The future of an illusion. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Lewis, C. S. (1960). Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

__________. (1962). Out of the silent planet. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

__________. (1962). The abolition of man. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Singer, P. (1996). Rethinking life and death: The collapse of our traditional ethics. New York:

St. Martins Griffin.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York. Knopf.

Smith, C. (2003). Moral, believing animals: Human personhood and culture. New York:

Oxford University Press.

Trueblood, D. E. (1957). Philosophy of religion. New York: Harper and Row.

Wilson, E. O. (April 1998). The biological basis of morality, Atlantic Monthly, 65.

Selected Materials of Related Interest

Brown, W., Murphy, N., Maloney, H. N. (Eds.). (1998). Whatever happened to the soul?

Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Dupre, J. (2001). Human nature and the limits of science. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, G. F. R. (1993). Before the beginning. London: Bowerdean Press/Marion Boyers.

Evans, C. S. (1977). Preserving the person: A look at the human sciences. Downers Grove, IL:

InterVarsity Press.

Etzioni, Amatai. (1988). The moral dimension. New York: Free Press.

Meilaender, G. (1996). Bioethics: A primer for Christians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing


Murphey, N. (1997). Anglo-American postmodernity: Philosophical perspectives on science, religion,

and ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Murphey, N., & Ellis, G. F. R. (1996). On the moral nature of the universe: cosmology, theology, and

ethics. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

O’Hear, A. (1997). Beyond evolution: Human nature and the limits of evolutionary explanation.

Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Polanyi, M. (1946). Science, faith, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

__________. (1958). Personal knowledge: Toward a post-critical philosophy. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press.

Polkinghorne, D. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Albany: State University of

New York Press.

Taylor, C. (1998). Sources of the self. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wuthnow, R. (1987). Meaning and moral order. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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