The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools, or a Defense of Objective Truth and Natural Law against Moral Relativism

(New York: HarperCollins, 1943), 128

Page numbers referenced are from The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, (New York, HarperCollins, 2002), 746

1: Men Without Chests; 2: The Way

Summary: Lewis uses an actual literature book he anonymizes as The Green Book by Gaius and Titius to demonstrate the moral relativism of the age. Against this he holds up the Tao, or Natural Law.

  • The Green Book by Gaius and Titius is representative of the modern sensibility of moral relativism:
    • "We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something out our own feelings." (694)
    • The Green Book suggests that 1) all values statements are about the emotional state of the speaker (cf. 2020-11-18-After Virtue), and 2) such statements are unimportant
    • "The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is 'doing' his 'English prep' and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all." (695)
    • Gaius and Titius have slipped into performing amateur philosophy, as have many others in the realms of science, literature, etc. (698)
    • The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is not infallible protection against a soft head. (699)
    • "The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it." (705)
    • "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...A great many of those who 'debunk' traditional values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process." (706)
    • Lewis spends several pages (708+) refuting an appeal to Instinct to make value judgments
  • Against this moral relativism, Lewis holds up The Tao (i.e. Natural Law): "the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false" (701), and "the sole source of all value judgments" (713-714)
    • St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate love appropriate to the object (700, cf. The City of God xv. 22, ix. 5, xi. 28)
    • Aristotle says the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought (700, cf. Nicomachean Ethics 1104 B.)
    • Plato says we need to be trained to appreciate beauty and goodness, "All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears her." (cf. The Republic 402 A.)
    • Our emotions can be in or out of harmony with reason, "The heart never takes the place of the heat: but it can, and should, obey it." (701-702)
    • "The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat as Alanus tell us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest—Magnanimity—Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests...In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful." (704)
    • "If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all." (712)
    • The Tao admits development from within, not innovation like Nietzsche: "the Nietzschean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgments at all." (715)
    • "An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or of Practical Reason is idiocy." (715-716)

Chapter 3: The Abolition of Man

Summary: Lewis illustrates the "Abolition of Man" as the logical end of a progressive conquest of nature where we throw off the Tao and surrender freedom for power.

  • "What we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument." (719)
    • The Magician's Bargain: "that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power." (728)
  • "Man's final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man." (723)
  • "We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may 'conquer' them...We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls." (726)
  • "Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own 'natural' impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery." (727)
  • "For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique." (728) ^633723
  • Against Scientism Lewis hints at a "regenerate science": "It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it was born in an unhealthy neighborhood at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required." (729)
  • Progress & History: "the fatal serialism of the modern imagination—the image of infinite unilinear progression which so haunts our minds..." (730)
  • ...this all reminds me of Player Piano


Source: Dan Gibson, FT Thomist

Created: 2022-01-01-Sat
Updated: 2023-02-01-Wed