This is the 10th in the series on words that C.S. Lewis made up. In his tinkering with ideas, and in his letters and essays, Lewis would sometimes create new turns of phrase when it was needed. Today we go low and we go high.
The title character of The Screwtape Letters is neither “a suave and subtle Mephistopheles with red cloak and rapier and a feather in his cap, [nor] even a sombre tragic Satan out of Paradise Lost” (Perelandra, ch. 10). Instead, Screwtape is quasi-sophisticated smoking room boor. If he made himself visible locally, he would take on the arrogant posture of the Ivy League or Cambridge elite, slouching in a comfortable chair while others sat at attention, waxing philosophically while he looked at his wine by the light of the fire, secretly enjoying the Château Léoville-Las Cases but wishing it was the ’96. Screwtape is the commensurate utilitarian, and thus makes an excellent bureaucrat.
As a good bureaucrat, he both relishes in his own strong position in the bureaucracy of hell and is deferential to those “below” him: “this question is decided for us by spirits far deeper down in the Lowerarchy than you and I” (Letter XX). In the inverted perspective of the anti-spirituality of Screwtape, low is the new high in hell. This is no mere ambiguity: the levels of hell are not like the notes on a scale, so that the lower, more resonant note compliments the clarity of notes higher up (as our best hierarchies do). In Screwtape’s hell, all strong seek to devour the weak:
Rest assured, my love for you and your love for me are as like as two peas. I have always desired you, as you (pitiful fool) desired me. The difference is that I am the stronger. I think they will give you to me now; or a bit of you. Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on (Letter XXXI).
Though “hierarchy” comes from the order of priests and temple workers rather from the word “higher,” the linguistic ring is probably what helped the word shift to its current meaning. Moreover, the play on words is tempting. “Lowerarchy” has been picked up as a term in systems management, and according to Urban Dictionary is since the ‘90s the “scale on which one measures one’s social standing among the hipsters; working-and paying-less often than all your friends, getting more comps, mooching more smokes, diving more dumpsters.” Lithe minds have no doubt reached for this word dozens of times over the generations.
When we think of the lowerarchies and hierarchies of everyday culture, I think even Lewis would admit that he sat awkwardly at the top of the social ladder with his appointment to a boutique-designed Cambridge Professorship in 1954. Liking his new environment, Lewis’ speech to the Cambridge University English Club a year later, on Nov 24th, 1955, was filled with humour (see “On Science Fiction” in On Other Worlds). It is a polemical piece, poking at the hidden presuppositions of those who think that realistic fiction is the only critically appropriate form of storytelling. Lewis turns expectations upside down, putting canonical writers like Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Coleridge in the speculative fiction category with Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke.
Hidden within the speech are a number of great throwaway points that later readers of the printed version have the time and space to enjoy. One of them is the neologism “aristocratophobe.” In talking about books that certain kinds of people are sure to dislike, Lewis admits that he dislikes SciFi based on scientifically precise worlds in the way a pacificist is going to dislike war stories and an aristocratophobe will dislike Sidney’s Arcadia. American literature is aristocratophobic in that it has in it since WWII the desire for the institutions of the elite to rust and rot beneath them. It pulls down leisurely heroes from their high places, whereas Sidney delighted in them.
These days we are in love with the suffix “phobia.” Like Lewis, we use it not to describe irrational fear, like “phobia,” or even like the Greek root of “fear” or “respect.” Now it is a general dislike or visceral prejudice against someone or something. As a culture we are constantly breeding social media-phobes, technophobes, acrophobes, homophobes, transphobes, Islamophobes, Christophobes, commitmentphobes, germophobes, xenophobes. Perhaps “aristocratophobia” would have hung on as a term if we still used “aristocrat” for the elite—the 1%, the financial noble class, the plutocracy, the wolves of Wall Street and Pennsylvania Ave.
But we don’t, and the word didn’t catch. And probably almost no one is reading Sidney anyway–except the literary 1%.
- Part 1 and Introduction: Bulverism
- Part 2: Charientocracy
- Part 3: Rebunker
- Part 4: Jollification, Uglification, and the Miserific Vision
- Part 5: Grailologist
- Part 6: Curialisation
- Part 7: Viricidal
- Part 8: Disredemption
- Part 9: Re/Anti/Un/Ness
- Part 10: Aristocratophobia and Lowerarchy