Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

I have such deep respect for C.S. Lewis, but if I’m being honest, I haven’t really read much of his stuff. Of course the Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity, but that may be it. So when I saw The Abolition of Man as recommended reading on one of my classical education sources, I jumped at the opportunity. Ironically, I already had a copy. 

Now I know another reason why C.S. Lewis is so revered. This book was written in 1944, but it is timeless. He deals with human nature so how could it not be.

His book deals with three separate, but related ideas. The first is the famous “Men without Chests.” This section opens with a discussion of textbooks. I suppose this is why the educators are interested in it. Although the idea he espouses certainly transcends education. 

He discusses the apparently new trend in textbooks to disavow any characteristics intrinsically related to a thing and rather reduce those characteristics to a mere feeling we have about the thing. For example he cites a person saying a waterfall is “sublime,” but the textbook author quickly points out that the waterfall is not objectively sublime, rather the feelings the man gets when looking at the waterfall causes him to feel sublimity towards it. They do this under the context of trying to teach the young not to fall for pretty words, but to analyze what is actually going on. Lewis says they actually “cut out [a student’s] soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane.”

Although he wonders if these kinds of authors really intend to create a “trousered ape,” he does not dismiss the possibility that some do intend to “make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set.” Yet more likely, these authors are simply engaging in some armchair philosophy without realizing the consequences. He muses that the motivation may simply be that actual literary scholarship is hard. They may also feel a pressing need to disabuse the youth of over-sentimentality. Yet Lewis says, if so, they have misdiagnosed the problem and failed to notice most “need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.” As he very succinctly states, “A hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”

Rather, an educator’s job is “to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Rather than be overly critical and reject all emotion, the teacher is to help the student know what emotion to feel, what to praise and what to condemn, what to value and what to disregard. This leads to the conclusion that there exists a kind of truth. A central set of ideas which are not open to interpretation. A waterfall is either sublime or it isn’t, but it is not a subjective opinion. 

He refers to this “doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and other really false” as the “Tao.” The Tao tells us that there are qualities that demand “a certain response from us whether we make it or not.” And he believes that if we do not respond as the Tao would call for, we are in error. The defect is in ourselves. “Therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it)… The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.”

He goes on to state, “The head rules the belly through the chest — the seat, as Alanus tells 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.” (p. 24) He believes those textbook authors are producing “Men without Chests…. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so… You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. 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 honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings to be fruitful.” (p. 25)

The second idea he elaborates on he calls “The Way.”  In this section Lewis seeks to show that those who operate outside the Tao, in fact have their own version of it. They reject traditional idea believing their own ideas are immune from the same debunking process. But in rejecting fundamental truths, they have nothing on which to base their own ideals and values. “The direct frontal attack [on the Tao] ‘Why?’ — ‘What good does it do?’ — ‘Who said so?’ is never permissible; not because it is harsh or offensive but because no values at all can justify themselves on that level. If you persist that kind of trial you will destroy all values, and so destroy the bases of your own criticism as well as the thing criticized.” (p. 48) Those things the Tao holds to be “self-evident” have been debunked. What now is self-evident? Those Lewis calls Innovators stand on sinking sand. They both seek to discredit the Tao and use its axioms simultaneously. To which Lewis replies, “Only by such shreds of the Tao as he has inherited is he enabled even to attack it. The question therefore arises what title he has to select bits of it for acceptance and to reject others. For if the bits he rejects have no authority, neither have those he retains: if what he retains is valid, what he rejects is equally valid too.” (p. 41) In other words, we don’t get to pick and choose our truths or the very concept of “truth” has no meaning at all. 

He  goes on to state the case very succinctly, “This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world.” (p. 43) This doesn’t imply that all values are therefore static. The Tao can develop from within based on its own spirit. But it cannot be superseded by an outsider.

In the third section he moves on to discuss those who would say, “Let us step right out of all that and start doing what we like. Let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that: not on any ground of imagined value, but because we want him be such.”(p. 51) In short, let us make man in our own image.

People will point to man’s increasing “power over nature” to prove we can just as easily obtain man’s power over human nature. Yet Lewis convincingly argues that man’s power over nature is in reality “a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”(p. 55)  In fact, what we call “power over nature” is actually the recognition of the truths within Nature. As we discover more and put those discoveries to use, we are actually adding to the power of Nature. Once we discover how gravity works and put it to use, for example, we are now at the mercy of gravity. Whereas before we discovered the truth, we imagined we could harness it or repudiate it or make it work for us in whatever way we we pleased. Instead we discover we must follow the dictates of gravity. It will not follow our dictates.

As to creating a better form of man going forward, Lewis says, “In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger.” (p. 57) “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”(p.59)

But how will they decide what kind of new man to make. They have rejected the Tao and so all values are necessarily rejected. They have no right to the use of the words “good” or “bad.” Those exist within the Tao. These people, which Lewis calls the Conditioners, “have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artifacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of man.”(p. 64) They have created a redefined man, which leads to a definition-free man as the Conditioners compete for the definition that serves them best. And without a definition, they have undefined man. There is now no such thing. 

Lewis points out the irony of man seeking to control Nature, has now been wholly taken over by nature. That is in rejecting the Tao, he is controlled by impulse. His base nature is all that is left to govern him. And “nature, untrammeled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.” (p. 68) Apparently, reality really is a b—.

Lewis sums up his argument with this, “Either we are rational spirit obliged forever 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.” (p. 73)

Bringing all this up to the issues we face today, we see once again, man trying to remake man in his own image. Or no image at all. We see marriage redefined but increasingly undefined. We see gender redefined and increasingly undefined. These two concepts, which are defined within the Tao, are now rendered meaningless by those who seek to reshape them. Because Truth will always win out, the Conditioners will not succeed. But they will wreak a lot of havoc in their wake. We cannot truly abolish man, but we can almost destroy him. 

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