Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.
–from Lewis’ title essay, “The Abolition of Man”
The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality consists of three lectures given by Lewis in 1943. Partly because my reading experience was fractured by countless interruptions, I found it a challenge. But in essence, the three essays together develop an argument about the erosion of common consent to the existence of a universal moral law — and what kind of society emerges from that skepticism.
“Men without Chests” focuses on an English textbook for British secondary school students. Lewis takes one example, the textbook’s discussion of Coleridge’s claim that a waterfall is not merely “pretty,” but “sublime.” The textbook authors undermine the idea of objective value by stating unequivocally that Coleridge is really talking about his own feelings, not the waterfall at all. The school boy who reads this passage, Lewis points out, “will believe two propositions: firstly, that all statements containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and, secondly, that all such statements are unimportant.”
Not so, Lewis argues. A central aim of education is to instruct the “chest” — the faculty that mediates between intellect and feeling, head and heart. The point of reference, across many different cultures and throughout history, has been what Lewis calls the Tao: “The doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” He gives examples from Plato, Aristotle, Stoicism, Christianity, and Oriental forms of thought, but makes no attempt to “prove” the Tao, taking it as a doctrine of first things.
My favorite passage from “Men without Chests:”
For every one pupil who needs to be guarded against weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments… A hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.
Today, when our most eloquent cultural critics challenge the undiscerning worship of science and technology that have resulted in part from embracing “head” without reference to the seats of either emotion or morality, they are observing the result of the trends Lewis is focused on in this essay.
“The Way” examines subjectivism and shows how moral relativism ultimately undermines even itself. If all value is subjective, there is nothing authoritative on which to base this claim. Also in this essay, however, Lewis raises another alternative, not subjectivism but nihilism:
The Nietzchean ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgements at all. It is the difference between a man who says to us: ‘You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?’ and a man who says, ‘Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.’
Lewis, explaining that he’ll need another lecture to do justice to this problem, moves on to his culminating final address.
Lecture 3: “The Abolition of Man”
Ultimately the rejection of all value leaves brute force as the only governing power. “In what sense is man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?” Lewis begins. Taking the airplane, the “wireless,” and contraceptives as his examples, he concludes:
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. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane and the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target for both bombs and propoganda. And as regards contraceptives, 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… Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.
This final lecture would have been excellent to read in conjunction with That Hideous Strength. In this lecture, Lewis does in prose what the novel does in fiction: paints a picture of the logical outcome of human society “sanitized” of the Tao in which the law of Nature replaces the humane. (That Hideous Strength gives a vivid picture of this happening to the members of the “advanced” society of the N.I.C.E. — “National Institute for Controlled Experiments”). The Tao, after all, instructs us in right living within the framework of Nature’s order. Humanity may throw out the roadmap, but we cannot escape Nature.
Lewis concludes by coming full circle, making oblique reference to the official skepticism of the school English text he began with and extending it to its resulting moral blindness:
The kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ’seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ’see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ’see through’ all things is the same as not to see.
The final section of the book is an appendix of illustrations from the Tao. Different moral laws are given, with their occurrence in various writings, including ancient Egyptian, Jewish, Norse, Babylonian, Hindu, Chinese, Greek and Roman sources.
I grew increasingly interested as I read. I could see that Lewis was writing prophetically. There are so many present-day trends that illustrate the surrender of the humane to the technological and the scientific, a surrender that could not have happened without the moral preparation Lewis observed in his day.
It’s impossible not to think of the books I’ve read recently by Neil Postman. In Technopoly, Postman discusses the evolution of a culture from tool-using to technological to technopoly, with the power of a shared worldview diminishing with each phase. Lewis is talking about the same phenomenon in more philosophical terms.
At the time I write this, the debate over health care reform is raging in the country. Over the past year, during the presidential campaign, other debates have raged as well over issues of science (abortion, stem cell research, birth control in schools), America’s use of power, and the role and extent of government. When I read this passage from “The Abolition of Man,” I had to stop and consider these things in the light of what Lewis says here about the essential political equations that remain despite how “progressive” humanity becomes:
I am not speaking of particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure: I am considering what the thing called “Man’s power over Nature” must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scientific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people. And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.
It seems to me that our politics and our public discourse reflect what Lewis describes in these lectures. They are not entertaining reading; they take some work. But they provide terms for thinking about our present lives. The terms available to Lewis in 1943 are much more categorical and unequivocal than those considered permissible today. Lewis addressed an audience that might disagree with his view, but would not find the notion of “absolutes” offensive. What a change 66 years have made in the “spirit of the age.”