The Abolition of Man

by

C. S. Lewis

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The Abolition of Man: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Lewis begins his first lecture by saying that he doubts that we pay enough attention to the importance of introductory textbooks. Therefore, he will base his lectures on an English textbook intended for students in the upper forms, of which he received a complimentary copy from the publisher. He warns in advance that he will not have much good to say about the authors. He will refer to the authors as Gaius and Titius and to the book as The Green Book.
The “upper forms” in an English school correspond roughly to secondary or high school education in the United States. Lewis uses an upper-form textbook as the jumping-off point for his lectures because it establishes the formative, though often implicit, function of such books for young people, and thus more broadly of society. The particular book to which he refers is Ketley & King’s A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing.
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In the second chapter of their textbook, Gaius and Titius quote “the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall.” In this story, Coleridge overhears two tourists commenting on a waterfall—one calls it “sublime” and the other “pretty.” Coleridge agrees with the first comment but rejects the second as unworthy of its object.
Lewis refers to British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose tour of Scotland with poet William Wordsworth was recounted by Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy and is paraphrased by Gaius and Titius. Coleridge’s assessment is based on his philosophy of aesthetics, which saw “sublimity” as a much elevated description of beauty.
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Gaius and Titius, in turn, comment that when the first tourist calls the waterfall “sublime,” he is not actually making a remark about the waterfall; he is making a remark about his own feelings—that is, “I have feelings associated in my mind with the word sublime […] I have sublime feelings.” Gaius and Titius go on to say that such confusion is common in English usage: a person appears to be saying something important about something, when in fact one is only talking about one’s own feelings.
Gaius and Titius don’t address Coleridge’s distinction between the fittingness of different words. Rather, they see the use of descriptive language as saying more about the speaker than about the object being spoken about. Lewis’s primary critique of Gaius and Titius will emerge here.
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As an aside, Lewis argues that Gaius and Titius’s claim isn’t really an accurate way of talking about feelings. When someone calls an object “sublime,” he or she is expressing feelings of veneration for the object, not sublimity. In other words, the admirer of the waterfall would more accurately say, “I have humble feelings”—the sort of feelings a sublime object evokes—not “I have sublime feelings.”
Though it isn’t a main part of his argument, Lewis argues that Gaius and Titius altogether misunderstand the way that feelings work in relation to objects—that is, “sublimity” is not a feeling to begin with.
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When a student reads The Green Book, he or she will believe two things as a result: first, that all value statements are really statements about emotion; and, second, that such statements are unimportant. Gaius and Titius may not have intended to impart such ideas at all, and indeed, a young student may not be conscious of picking up on them. After all, a student won’t suspect that ethics, theology, and politics are all wrapped up in studying English. Nevertheless, Gaius and Titius’s implications will continue to operate in the student’s subconscious for years to come.
Lewis argues that Gaius and Titius mislead students in a number of far-reaching, if unintentional, ways. They begin a process of devaluing sentiment in students’ eyes, which, Lewis will argue, is fundamentally harmful—all the more because their philosophical ideas are implicitly wrapped up in the ostensible study of English.
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Before considering Gaius and Titius’s position about value in greater detail, Lewis seeks to show the practical results of their position on education. He critiques Gaius and Titius’s own critique of an advertisement for a pleasure cruise. Lewis agrees with Gaius and Titius that the advertisement contains bad writing. However, if Gaius and Titius wish to demonstrate that the advertisement’s writing is bad, Lewis says they should place the advertisement alongside examples of writing in which emotion is well-expressed.
Lewis argues again that Gaius and Titius fall short in their efforts at literary criticism, in this case because they don’t offer a positive alternative to what they consider to be bad writing. This will later feed into Lewis’s criticism that the authors fail to present a vision of objective value altogether.
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Lewis argues that Gaius and Titius’s critique of the advertisement fails, because all they do is criticize its use of metaphorical language and its association of the cruise with certain historical figures (like Drake sailing the Atlantic). This approach is inadequate because it doesn’t really address the advertisement’s lack of literary merit.—all it does is teach students that any appeal to emotional associations is unreasonable and to be rejected. Their approach, then, teaches more about being a shrewd consumer than about being a discerning reader of literature.
Lewis argues that Gaius and Titius’s critique of the advertisement is superficial. It doesn’t teach students the purported goal of evaluating literature, because it only evaluates language as an expression of the writer’s psychology. This doesn’t help students understand what good literature is, or—the argument Lewis is building toward—what enduring values are.
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Lewis critiques a second book, by an author he names Orbilius. Orbilius criticizes an anthropomorphized treatment of animals—in which horses are praised as “willing servants” of early Australian colonists—by saying that horses aren’t literally interested in colonial expansion. Orbilius doesn’t mention the weeping horses of Achilles, or even Peter Rabbit. He doesn’t offer students a means to distinguish between good or bad anthropomorphic expressions. Thus, students reading Orbilius haven’t learned anything about English, and a bit of “the human heritage” has been taken from them without their knowing it.
Orbilius is Lewis’s pseudonym for E. G. Biaggini, author of The Reading and Writing of English. His criticism of Orbilius is more limited, but pointed. Orbilius’s failure to engage with a broader literary tradition, according to Lewis, deprives students of the chance to learn something deeper about the use of anthropomorphism, instead remaining on the level of a facile literalism. This critique anticipates Lewis’s broader argument about the value of tradition.
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Lewis doubts that Gaius and Titius set out to instill any philosophy in their readers. They have simply taken an easy way out of proper literary analysis—rationalistically attacking emotion, rather than attacking poor writing. What’s more, Lewis argues, Gaius and Titius misdiagnose the most pressing educational needs of the moment. They see the day’s youth as excessively sentimental, so they teach students to guard against emotion. Based on Lewis’s own background as a teacher, however, he believes that Gaius and Titius are misguided on this point. He believes that for every student who needs to overcome “a weak excess of sensibility,” there are three who are captive to “cold vulgarity.”
Lewis doesn’t attack Gaius and Titius’s motives. In his view, they simply misunderstand what students need the most. Lewis disagrees that today’s students are actually overemotional; it’s more likely that their emotions aren’t sufficiently formed. Thus Lewis is building off of his earlier criticism of Gaius and Titius’s handling of emotion in other people’s writing, moving on to establish a larger case for the proper role of emotion, or sentiment, in people’s characters.
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Lewis argues that the best way to guard against false sentiments is to instill just sentiments. If educators don’t train students’ sensibility, then students simply become susceptible to propaganda. A hard heart doesn’t protect against a soft head, Lewis warns.
For Lewis, as opposed to Gaius and Titius, the problem is not the existence of sentiment, per se. It’s rather that sentiment must be properly trained. Here Lewis is saying that a lack of sentiment doesn’t inherently protect a student against the threat of propaganda, any more than an excess of sentiment does.
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But, Lewis says, there is a third reason for Gaius and Titius’s approach. He sets out to show that Gaius and Titius are in a different educational predicament than any of their predecessors. Until quite recently, Lewis argues, everyone believed that human emotional reactions could be either congruous or incongruous to the universe. In other words, it was assumed that objects didn’t just receive, but could merit our approval or disapproval. For example, the reason that Coleridge—as Gaius and Titius cite him—objects to a tourist calling a waterfall “pretty” (as opposed to “sublime”) is that he believes certain responses to nature are more “just” or “ordinate” than others.
Lewis approaches the heart of his argument—that sentiments have always been assumed to correspond to reality in some way. That is, sentiments aren’t simply an interior, psychological event; they are reflective of something in the object that’s provoking the sentiment. This, according to Lewis, is the more proper reading of Coleridge’s remarks—Coleridge believed that “sublimity” was more befitting the inherent beauty of the waterfall. Gaius and Titius do not capture this.
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St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris—a condition of the affections in which objects are given the degree of love that’s appropriate to them. Aristotle, likewise, describes education as training a pupil to like and dislike what he ought. A student who’s been trained in these ways, Lewis says, will be suitably prepared to understand ethics; a student who hasn’t will be helpless to understand that field.
Augustine was a North African theologian of the late fourth and early fifth centuries whose views on ethics were foundational for Western culture. Aristotle (Greek philosopher of the 300s B.C.) likewise viewed education as a process of training young people in virtue. Lewis will claim that these approaches are no longer taken for granted in Western culture.
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Lewis also cites Plato’s Republic, in which a “well-nurtured youth” is one who is trained from a young age to hate the ugly and praise the beautiful. Then, when he reaches an age to be receptive to Reason, the youth will already have an affinity for it. Similarly, in early Hinduism, good conduct was understood to consist in conformity to the cosmic order.
Greek philosopher Plato was Aristotle’s teacher, and his dialogue, Republic, was foundational in Western culture for its ideas on the just individual and the just city. Here Lewis also begins to show the breadth of his approach to ideas of ethics and values, not only limiting himself to Western works and thinkers.
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Lewis also cites the Chinese belief in the Tao, a reality that precedes creation. The Tao is the “Way” or “Road” in which the universe goes on. Human beings are to walk in imitation of that cosmic progression.
The Tao, although rooted in Chinese philosophy, will become the basis for Lewis’s concept of absolute value. Here, he simply names it as another example of the common belief that human lives are meant to be lived in correspondence to deeper realities.
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Such ideas—whether Platonic, Aristotelian, Western, Christian or Eastern—will henceforward be described by Lewis simply as “the Tao.” What these conceptions have in common is an idea 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.” Such an approach, in other words, holds that things demand reactions from people that are objectively true, that are not merely psychological facts. So, while human emotions are, in themselves, “alogical,” they can conform to Reason or fail to conform to it. This outlook is exactly what The Green Book rejects.
Lewis introduces his idea of the Tao, which is not fundamentally a religious idea, but rather a kind of summary of the central posture of major Western and Eastern worldviews. That is, in Lewis’s view, all these traditions believe in objective reality and call upon human beings to live accordingly. This is what Lewis has been getting at with his preceding discussion of rightly formed emotions, and The Green Book’s failure to address this idea.
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Thus, one’s relationship to the Tao determines one’s view of the educational task. To one who stands within the Tao, the task is to train a pupil in appropriate responses. To one who stands outside of it, all emotions are equally non-rational, so the task is to remove all emotions altogether, or else try to instill emotions in a way that has nothing to do with their “ordinacy.” The old kind of education, then, seeks to initiate pupils into a tradition—a transmission of something. The new kind just conditions students to receive propaganda.
The point of Lewis’s discussion of the Tao is to connect it back to the educational task. One’s attitude toward the Tao shapes the way one educates. By this measure, Gaius and Titius stand outside of the Tao, because they do not consider the question of the fittingness of emotions in the way the Tao calls for. The advantage of the Tao, for Lewis, is that it provides an objective basis for evaluating things; Gaius and Titius’s approach does not, and because it ignores emotion, it leaves students vulnerable to propaganda.
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Even though Gaius and Titius may set out to oppose propaganda, Lewis argues, their approach is ultimately no better. Without a belief in objective value, and hence having had one’s emotions properly trained, it isn’t possible to train a human being in virtue. Without such training, “the crudest sentimentalism” will serve better than a theoretical justification.
Lewis connects human virtue to the training of sentiment which, in his view, is only possible with a belief in objective value. He also holds that unsophisticated sentiment will tend to be more naturally connected to the Tao than the imposition of a bare theory.
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Lewis explains that, long ago, Plato taught that human Reason must rule the appetites. In other words, “The head rules the belly through the chest,” by “emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.” Such trained sentiments, Lewis says, are the crucial factor that mediates between people’s minds and their instincts. What The Green Book and similar books do is produce “Men Without Chests.” It’s not that Gaius and Titius, then, are too intellectual—it’s that they lack “fertile and generous emotion.”
Lewis draws here on the tripartite view of the human person which one finds in Book IV of Plato’s Republic. This view sees sentiment as a kind of middle ground between the cerebral part of a person and the lower appetites—in other words, the heart. When this part of a person remains undeveloped, his or her intellect or appetites will rule unchecked. Letting the intellect take over is, Lewis indicates, the greatest risk for people educated according to Gaius and Titius.
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Even as modern education buys into the kind of training that Gaius and Titius offer, society “[continues] to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.” People demand things like dynamism and creativity while having cut out the human capacities for such things: “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
When the “heart,” or sentiments, of a person remain undeveloped, many of the traits ostensibly valued by society remain out of people’s reach. His metaphor here refers to horses, framing human society as similar to a horse that has been castrated and then told that it must nonetheless reproduce. From his critique of a single textbook, Lewis has built an argument that an education devoid of sentiment produces inadequate “fruit” for society as a whole.
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