Named one of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century and recognized as an astonishing and prophetic defense of universal values, C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, originally a three-part lecture at the University of Durham and published in 1943, while World War II raged in Europe, addresses the danger that a devaluation of traditional morality presents for society.
Lewis divides his discussion into three chapters: in the first chapter, titled “Men Without Chests”, he evaluates what sort of man results when education removes stable sentiment; in the second chapter, “The Way”, he describes the character of the pattern of human reality and conduct from which all value judgments stem; and in the third chapter, which bears the same title as that of the book itself, he reasons that the removal of sentiment and of the Tao cannot help but lead to the destruction of man as man.
Men Without Chests
Commenting on the story of Coleridge admiring the majesty of a waterfall, two schoolmasters whom Lewis names “Gaius” and “Titius” clarify in their textbook for upper school students, “When this man said This is sublime… he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feeling. What he was saying was really… I have sublime feelings” (2). Such thought reduces all predicates of value to statements about emotions. Later, when Gaius and Titius speak of the words as “only saying something about our own feelings”, they imply, perhaps without intention, the subjectivity and triviality of such predicates of value, and therefore the insensibility and contemptuousness of emotion.
Debunking emotion, Lewis believes, will create a society of “trousered apes” or “urban blockheads” – beasts by appetite and spirits by intellect without stable sentiments to ground them as men. The education of Gaius and Titius removes the chest – the just sentiments – from man.
In a few pages, Lewis overviews affirmations through history from various philosophies or religions supporting the existence of congruous and incongruous emotional reactions, opposing Gaius and Titius’s implied belief in the needlessness of emotion. In Christian thought, Saint Augustine upheld ordo amoris, “the order of love”, which held that one should dealt to each object the degree of love appropriate to it. In ancient Greece, Plato attached to the well-nurtured youth knowledge about what is ill in ill-grown or ill-made things and what is beautiful in well-grown and well-made things. Early Hinduism upheld as good that which accorded with Rta, the pattern of nature and supernature.
From the Chinese, Lewis identifies the Tao, a term that he borrows to refer to the universal traditional values he discusses through The Abolition of Man. The Tao, which means “the Way”, is that by which “every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar” (18).
In the classroom of Gaius and Titius, ordo amoris, Rta, the Tao- they are all excluded. Rather than encourage some sentiments for pragmatic purposes, which would require a degree of demeaning propaganda, they “remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind” (21). Lewis somberly remarks, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise” (26, emphasis added).
The pattern that Lewis calls the Tao is composed of the Indemonstrable Principles of Practical Reason, which also go by the names “Natural Law” and “Traditional Morality.” It includes general beneficence, such as legal and social bans on murder and slander and encouragements to show kindness; duties to one’s elders and posterity; and laws of justice, good faith, and veracity.
Apart from the Tao, Innovators – those men who try to create new systems, or ideologies, of values attempt to ground the values in the utility of sacrifice or in instinctive urges, but neither explanation accounts for principles like preservation of society or regard for posterity that the Tao includes and which men generally accept. The inclination toward self-preservation nullifies sacrifice-based value systems; the common indifference toward those not one’s own (in addition to the conflicting urges of instincts) nullifies instinct-based systems.
“The truth finally becomes apparent,” Lewis decides, “that neither in any operation with factual propositions nor in any appeal to instinct can the Innovator find any basis for a system of values” (39). Ultimately, all systems of values come from the Tao or some extension of it. The Innovators face an impossible task in trying to create new systems of values while avoiding the Tao.
The Abolition of Man
As extrapolated in Chapter 1, men not trained to develop just sentiments become men without chests. As realized in Chapter 2, attempts to create non-Tao-based systems of values must end in failure.
Separate from Gaius and Titius and Innovators, Lewis in Chapter 3 defines a new type of man: the Conditioners. Honestly, though, the Conditioners should not rightly go by the name of men. Conditioners, rather than craft a new value system, determine to rid of all value systems and to shape a new humanity. They have stepped outside the Tao, in whose confines alone man is human. As Lewis puts it, they are “men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean” (63).
From airplanes that defy gravity to wireless networking that defy limitations of space, science has accomplished much in subjugating Nature to man, or at least scientists believe. Lewis does not adopt so positive a stance. Rather, he sees in man’s conquest of Nature a give and take arrangement, for “[e]ach new power won by man is a power over man as well” (58). This is so because eventually, through the subjugation of Nature and the activity of natural science that heralds “eugenics, pre-natal conditioning…[and] perfect applied psychology”, man will have the tools to conquer himself – his human nature.
Once man has lost his nature, the Conditioners step forward to define good and bad; no Tao will stand to check their actions and, as history shows, no man who “having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently” (66). If we do not operate as rational souls under the Tao, we wait as bricks of clay that Conditioners may knead and cut (73). It, according to Lewis, can be no other way.