The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis
I have already read this book once. But it did not fully make sense to me, so I’m reading it again and grappling to understand the ideas. After reading the book, reading some summaries, and then re-reading the book, I think that I grasp Lewis’s argument. Now let me try to re-articulate. The first chapter is titled, “Men Without Chests.” In this chapter, Lewis criticizes “Intellectuals.” These are people who focus on science and reason but refute emotion. It’s not that their intellectual abilities (the head) are swollen/greater, but it is more like their emotional capacity (the chest) is atrophied. Men without chests are against sentiment. Lewis argues that the educators of our children are doing a dis-service by teaching moral subjectivism. These teachers imply that emotions are unnecessary and that reason (the head) should guide our actions entirely. According to Lewis, these teachers are perverse. We should be teaching our children about virtues and objective morals. There is a fundamental value system that all cultures, spanning across all time, have recognized and taught. The Chinese call it the Tao. The Tao is the way that all men should act and walk to ensure harmony in nature and the cosmos. Only recently (Lewis was speaking in the 1940s when he said this) teachers have begun to disavow moralistic teachings. They encourage students to express no sentiment, where sentiments are feelings that arise from reasonable observations. By teaching the Tao, we teach students the definition of right and wrong, and we establish their values. When these children mature and learn to reason for themselves, then they can independently, on their own choose to align their scientific observations with their moral understanding, and when they do this, emotions will arise in response to their surroundings and in align with their fundamental values. These emotions will support good. These emotions will support ethical and virtuous decisions. Without the Tao we cannot expect students, and eventually grown men, to make ethical decisions. Yet, we do not teach objective morals and expect men to make the ethical choice. We expect a certain level of moral correctness from men, but we fail to teach them fundamental values; we discourage emotions. We must encourage emotions, and we must teach/educate about the Tao. Without these teachings, we will have “men without chests.”
Reflecting on Lewis’s argument, I am in full agreeance. Why do we need to teach “ethics” classes in universities? Because we never taught objective morals in the first place. Now, we try to teach ethics in the university classroom and fail at it miserably. Why do we have so many corrupt CEOs and politicians and men in authority? Because they have no chest! They are guided by reason only and have no emotions to test their deductions against. Making decisions without emotions based on objective, absolute values will eventually lead to disaster. I have been learning to trust my emotions. When I face a decision at work, I think reasonably and rationally through it, but also seek guidance from that inner voice which stirs my emotions. I trust that through my religious beliefs, and the objective values that those beliefs establish, that the emotions stirred within my chest will lead me to make the most informed/ethical decision. I have been learning to listen to, and trust, my emotions. They have been a good guide thus far, and I have no reason to distrust them. In fact, I think that I need to allow my emotions to speak more loudly. I trust that they are built upon a firm foundation, and when speech is influenced by emotions, it is a powerful tool. I understand Lewis’s argument, and I could not agree more.
In the second chapter, Lewis argues that moral subjectivists make a critical error when attempting to debunk the Tao. In their arguments, these men fail to recognize that they have their own values in the background, and they assume that these values are impregnable. Lewis explores the values that men try to replace the Tao with. We may try to replace Tao with posterity or instinct, but ultimately these values are derived from the Tao. There is not any new value system that is not fundamentally based on the Tao. Man cannot invent a new value system, just like man cannot invent a new primary color. Any attempt to create a new value system outside the Tao is a contradiction. But does that mean our fundamental value system is immutable? No. Within the Tao, we can more clearly define it. But before we can manipulate the Tao from within, we must first have a firm understanding of it. Just like Shakespeare had a firm understanding of the English language before he manipulated it to create a more beautiful string of words and phrases. Likewise, we must clearly understand Tao before we can enhance it. Attempting to create an alternate value system, outside of Tao is a contradiction and not possible. There is only one absolute value system. We refer to it as the Tao, but other may call it Natural Law, First Principles, or First Platitudes.
The next question is, what if we reject the concept of value altogether? What if we assume that no fundamental value exists? This complete rejection of value is the topic that Lewis explores in the last chapter called, “The Abolition of Man.” The fundamental argument is that across the entire history of the human race, there will be a generation that exercises power over all the past and future generations, and that within this select generation, a few men will have the power. Thus, the entirety of humanity will be controlled by a few powerful men. And these few powerful men will have no values. They must base their decisions on something. Regardless of how these men make their decisions, they have demonstrated complete power over nature and humanity. These men, who we will call the Conditioners, will influence every act of every human across all of time. The Conditioners have successfully conquered all of nature. They have complete victory and total control over the creation of some artificial Tao that all of humanity will be based upon. In this situation, humans have fully conquered nature and reduced everything to being devoid of value. In doing so, humanity has conquered itself. In obtaining absolute victory, humanity has conquered itself. This is absurd. It is a contraction that makes no sense. By following the string of logical events, we reach an absurd conclusion. By trying to imagine a world without values, we see nothing. We can try to see through values, but the result is an invisible world. Absurdity. Nothingness. In a world where the Tao exists, we cannot picture an artificial world deprived of value.
Man, that’s good! And it feels good to wrap my head round Lewis’s arguments. At the end of the book, Lewis provides examples of the Tao:
The law of general beneficence
The law of special beneficence
Duties to parents, elders, and ancestors
Duties to children and posterity
The law of justice
The law of good faith and veracity
The law of mercy
The law of magnanimity