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C. S. LEWIS’S The Abolition of Man

William E. May, Ph. D. , Senior Research Fellow

This relatively brief book, published in 1943, includes 3 chapters: 1. Men Without Chests (pp. 1-26), 2. The Way (pp. 27-51), 3. The Abolition of Man (pp. 53-81), an Appendix: Illustrations of the Tao (pp. 83-99), and Notes (pp. 100-113}.

Chapter One: Men Without Chests

Lewis‘s central point in this Chapter is twofold: (1) to show the absurdity of the educational program found in textbooks for pupils in the “upper forms of schools” (=pupils in early teens) leading them (even if not intentionally) to believe that all “sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker and are unimportant” and (2) to defend “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others are really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are…And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason…or out of harmony with reason. No emotion is, in itself, a judgement…all emotions and sentiments are illogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head, but it can, and should, obey it”

Lewis (hereafter L) begins by commenting on “a little book on English intended for ‘boys and girls in the upper forms of schools’”, p.1. On p. 2 he refers to the authors of this book as “Gaius” and “Titius,” in order “to conceal their names,” and on p. 10 refers to the author of a similar text as “Orbilius,” another fictitious name concealing the author’s true identity. In commenting on these textbooks L develops important ideas, points out the confusion characterizing their “thinking,” and reduces their claims to absurdity.  

reflects upon Gaius and Titius’s comments on the story of Coleridge and two tourists by a waterfall. In the story, Coleridge leads the men through a forest to a waterfall, and upon reaching it, the first man exclaims, “This waterfall is sublime!” and the second says, “This waterfall is pretty.” After hearing these two statements, Coleridge admired the man who called the waterfall sublime and rejected the second tourist’s statement with disgust. L agrees that “sublime” is a proper way to describe the waterfall and criticizes Gaius and Titius, who, instead of taking this opportunity to say something about why “sublime” is a better description of the waterfall than “pretty,” proceed to deconstruct the statement about the waterfall (“this is sublime”) into a statement about the man’s feelings.

They say that the first tourist, though he ‘appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall … Actually … was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have sublime feelings associate in my mind with the word ‘Sublime,’ or shortly, I have sublime feeling’. But the authors…add: ‘This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings’.” pp. 2-3.

L identifies the “confusion” in the thinking of Gaius and Titius and eliminates this confusion by reducing it to absurdity

Even on their own view—on any conceivable view—the man who says This is sublime cannot mean I have sublime feelings. Even if it were granted that such qualities as sublimity were simply and solely projected into things from our own emotions, yet the emotions which prompt the projection are…almost the opposites of the qualities projected.  The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feeling, but feelings of veneration. If This is sublime is to be reduced at all to a statement about the speaker’s feelings, the proper translation would be I have humble feelings….the view held by Gaius and Titius…would lead to obvious absurdities. It would force them to maintain that You are contemptible means I have contemptible feelings, pp.3-4.

Continuing, L writes that “Gaius and Titius [and Obilius] may be perfectly ready to admit that a good education should build some sentiments while destroying others. They may endeavour to do so. But it is impossible that they should succeed. Do what they will, it is the ‘debunking’ side of their work, and this side alone, which will really tell”, p. 14. L then shows how their educational predicament differs from that of all their predecessors, and in showing this develops

another important idea. This is the idea that Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects could not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt”  pp. 14-15.

L. then cites St. Augustine, Aristotle, early Hinduism, Plato, the Stoics, and early Christians on education’s need and task to help form young people in virtue (pp. 16-17). The Chinese called this the Tao, the “reality beyond all predicates…It is Nature, it is the Way…in which the universe goes on…the Way which every man should trod in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar….This conception in all its forms….I shall henceforth refer to for brevity as ‘the Tao’…what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect.”


My comment. The Tao’s source is te eternal “law” of God. As L defended in Mere Christianity the Natural Law, which he calls the Tao in The Abolition…governs all creatures, but it not only rules and governs the rational creature, Man, but, because God made man, alone of all material things, in his own image and likeness so that man intelligently participates in His eternal law and can therefore know this law’s fundamental principles of practical reasoning and can thus choose to conform his freely chose acts to the requirements of these objective moral principles.

Chapter Two: The Way
The central point of this Chapter is to contrast the “reasoning” employed by Innovators of new values  (=authors of textbooks examined in Chapter One and their modern sources) with the “reasoning” common to immemorial generations of men shaped by the Tao and obliged to conform their freely chosen acts to the Tao’s rational and reasonable principles.

 L begins by articulating the purpose of Chapter Two. He writes: “Gaius and Titius [and Obilius] “must have an end [in writing their text]….And this end must have real value in their eyes” p. 28.

In fact Gaius and Titius hold uncritically as dogma “the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars. Their scepticism 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 sceptical enough. …many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘‘sentimental” values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge. I will now try to find out what happens if this is seriously attempted. p. 29.

L says that he will continue using Chapter One’s example of “death for a good cause.” He then supposes that “an Innovator in values regards dulce et decorum (it is sweet and proper)  and greater love hath no man as mere irrational sentiments which are to be stripped off in order that we may get down to the ‘realistic’ or ‘basic’ ground of this value. … But the death of the community is not useful to the community—only the death of some of its members. What is really meant is that the death of some men is useful to other men. But on what ground are some men being asked to die for the benefit of others?” p. 30.

Gaius and company “may ask why, after all, selfishness should be more ‘rational’ or ‘intelligent’ than altruism” , p. 31. L shows that if the reasoning used by Gaius et al. is employed,  “the answer must be that a refusal to sacrifice oneself is no more rational than a consent to do so.  And no less rational. Neither choice is rational—or irrational—at all. From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn…The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative out of premises in the indicative mood…he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible”, pp. 31-32.

Some may think that L is wrong here and that we can draw moral conclusions from facts.To use an example he does not give, someone might say “Wheaties are good for you, therefore you ought to eat Wheaties. This conclusion follows only on the presupposition that one ought not choose to do thingsthat deliberately have as their proximate, i.e, immediate end or object the damaging, impeding or destroying of a true good of human persons,.e.g., their bodily integrity or very lives, depriving them of existence.

 L’s Alternatives: the Sophistry of the Innovators vs Practical Reasoning or The Tao  or The Way

“We must,” he writes, “ therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved…are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and forever, the attempt to find a core of rational value behind all the sentiments we have debunked. The Innovator will not take the first alternative, for the practical principles known to all men by Reason are simply the Tao which he has set out to supercede”,.p. 32.

 After rejecting the Innovator’s attempt to identify the Tao with irrational Instinct, L. notes that we do have an “instinctive drive to preserve our own species” L goes on to say, after speaking of the “instinctive drive to preserve our own species…That is why men ought to work for posterity. We have an instinctive drive to keep promises or to respect individual life…That is why the modern situation permits and demands a new sexual morality….contraceptives have modified ‘the old taboos.’ For of course [according to the Innovators] sexual desire, being instinctive, must be gratified …”, p. 33.

On p. 36 we find the following very important text: “Our instincts are at war….If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them. And that knowledge cannot itself be instinctive: the judge cannot be one of the parties judged.”

 “The truth,” L writes, “finally becomes apparent that neither in any operation with factual propositions nor in any appeal to instinct can the Innovator find the basis for a system of values.  None of the principles he requires can be found there; but they are all to be found somewhere else….All the practical principles ….are there from time immemorial in the Tao. But they are nowhere else” pp. 39-40.

 Chapter Two’s Conclusions

From all this L draws

the following conclusions: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 values are rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and to raise a new system of values 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.What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies,’all consist of fragments from the Tao itself., arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation…, pp. 43-44.

Does the Tao Develop? The Crucial Difference between Development from the Outside and Development from Within

In the final ages of Chapter Two L takes up the very important issue of “change” or, better, “development”, of t the Tao. He had many times in Chapter Two, emphasized that the Tao  is timeless, the same today as in time immemorial. But does this completely exclude change or development? Ia the Tao something static or dead? After all, living things change continually because all living things change and grow.

 L’s perceptive—and correct—answer to this challenging issue reminds me of John Henry Cardinal Newman’s answer in 1845 to the question of the development of doctrine n his famous and brilliant work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. L clearly distinguishes “development” from the outside from “development” from within His first illustration of this capital difference is the different ways between changes in a language, e. g. English, are explained by a “theorist” about language and a great poet e. g. Shakespeare, who “has loved, been well nurtured in, his mother tongue” and makes changes in the language  “in the spirit of the language itself: he works from within” p. 45. L then illustrates this development from within (a moral advance) as opposed to a “mere innovation” by comparing the Confucian “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you” and the Christian “Do as you would be done by” “is a real advance. The morality of Nietzsche is a mere innovation. The first [from the Confucian to the Christian] is a real advance because no one who did not admit the validity of the old maxim could see reason for accepting the new one, and anyone who accepted the old would at once recognize the new as an extension of the same principle….But the Nietzschean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error …´p. 46.

Chapter Three: The Abolition of Man

The central point of this Chapter is to show the absurdity of the great cry of the “scientists” of L’s day that “Man had conquered Nature.” L shows that this is utterly absurd. He sums this up magnificently rather late in the chapter (on p. 73 of the chapter ending on p. 81) where he writes: “Either we are rational spirits 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…have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses….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.”

 L begins by asking “In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature,” as most of the educated people of his day were convinced? His answer: What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not allow, other men to profit by”, p. 54. He illustrates this with contraception, writing: “And as regards contraception, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence [does this mean that contraception is an anti-life act?]; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding [as is frequently done in or culture today], they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation …may choose to prefer. From this point of view, 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”, pp. 54-55.

 In order to understand fully what Man’s power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction….And we must  remember that…the later a generation comes—the nearer it lives to that date at which the species becomes extinct, the less power it will have in the forward direction, because its subjects will be so few. There is no question then of a power vested in the race as a whole steadily growing as long as the race survives…..Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions of billions of men, pp. 56-58.

“The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself.   Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man”, p. 59. Continuing, L stresses that “In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao—a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart….they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike….[But] Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of conditioning…The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given etc…The Conditioners are to chose what kind of artificial Tao they will…produce in the Human race. They are the motivators…But how are they going to be motivated themselves?”, pp.60-62.

 One motive does not fail them—The Conditioners …must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure …By the logic of their position they must just take their impulses [to have pleasure however they might understand it] as they come, by chance. And Chance here means Nature….At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’, to their irrational impulses. Nature…rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out…to be Nature’s conquest of Man, pp. 65, 68.  

 L goes on in an insightful passage to reflect on the meaning of “Nature” for the Conditioners, the “scientists” of his day.

The Natural is the opposite of the Artificial, the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, the Supernatural. The Artificial does not now concern us. If we take the rest of the list of opposites, however, I think we can get a rough idea of what men have meant by Nature and what it is they oppose to her. Nature seems to be the spatial and temporal, as distinct from what is less fully so or not so at all. She seems to be the world of quantity, as against the world of quality; of objects as against consciousness; of the bound, as against the wholly or partially autonomous; of that which knows no values as against that which both has and perceives values…Now I take it that when we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of ‘Nature’ in the dense  that we suspend our series of judgements of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any) and treat it in terms of quantity. The repression of elements in what would otherwise be our total reaction to it is sometimes very noticeable and even painful…From this point of view, the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them, pp. 69, 71.

But “as soon as we…[reduce] our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same (my emphasis)….Traditional values are to be ‘debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the [arbitrary] will…of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it. The belief that we can invent ‘idiologies’ at pleasure , and the consequent treatment of mankind as mere hule [=matter] …begins to effect our very language [remember Gaius and company?], p.74

L takes care, after distinguishing ‘magic’ (never practiced in the Middle Ages or by followers of the Tao but widely in the 16th and 17th centuries) to affirm that “real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive} will know that in attacking the pseudo “scientists” who have forgotten the Tao he is not attacking the value of knowledge of the truth (see pp. 75-77).

In the Appendix L  gives fascinating examples from various sources throughout history of the Tao.

Copyright ©; William E. May 2013

Version: 16th July 2013

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