The Abolition of Man

by

C. S. Lewis

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The Abolition of Man: Chapter 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Lewis argues that “The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.” He sets out to demonstrate the theoretical reasons that this is the case. Lewis begins by pointing out that, even if Gaius and Titius do not believe in objective value, they obviously do believe in bringing about certain desirable states of mind in students. In other words, they clearly hold that some state of affairs is good for its own sake.
In this lecture, having established the necessity of objective value in the previous lecture, Lewis now argues that the effects of The Green Book and its outlook are disastrous for society. Careful not to assign false motives to Gaius and Titius, he nonetheless points out that they do have goals for what they produce in their students; otherwise, they wouldn’t bother having an educational perspective at all.
Themes
Education, Emotional Sentiment, and Ethics Theme Icon
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Lewis argues that this desirable state is “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.” Gaius and Titius are notably uncritical about these values. And this is typical: many who seek to debunk “sentimental” values don’t critique their own values enough. Such people try to cut “away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos,” in order to make space for so-called real, basic values instead. 
Lewis argues that Gaius and Titius are so immersed in their own context that they are not conscious of it, and so do not question it adequately. The leaning of modern education is to try to dig beneath those values which are seen as being insufficiently rational or as prejudiced; but in doing so, Lewis believes, educators are not attentive enough to the views which influence them.
Themes
Education, Emotional Sentiment, and Ethics Theme Icon
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Lewis next considers what happens when this “cutting away” is seriously attempted. He uses as his example the idea that it is “sweet and seemly” to die for one’s country. He proposes that an “Innovator in values” sought to strip down the ideals of Dulce et decorum to the basic value supposedly underlying it. Such an Innovator might say that its value lay in the utility of someone’s death to his community. But even if this is established, on what grounds can it be established that some should die for others—especially if values like love, honor, and shame are rejected as mere sentiments?
Dulce et decorum is the first part of a line from the Latin poet Horace, which is translated: “It is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.” This is the type of traditional value that many cultures have taken for granted, but which Lewis’s hypothetical innovator sees as inadequate in itself. Lewis sets out to show that this value can’t be understood apart from certain underlying sentiments.
Themes
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
At this point, the “Innovator” would have to ask on what grounds refusing to sacrifice oneself for others is more or less rational than agreeing to do so, or vice versa. If the argument is based solely on fact, then no practical conclusion may be drawn. In other words, Lewis argues, it isn’t possible to move from “This will preserve society” to “do this” except by means of the belief that “society ought to be preserved.” The likely result is that the Innovator will give up his quest for a “rational” basis and hunt for a different “basic” value instead.
In this section, Lewis seeks to show that a belief like Dulce et decorum cannot be established on a strictly rational basis. He argues that there is no basis for concluding that it is rational either to die or not to die for others. If one concludes that dying for society will help to preserve it, then one must likewise prove that society is worthy of preserving. If he cannot, then he cannot exhort someone either to die or not to die for the sake of others.
Themes
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
Related Quotes
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The Innovator will probably decide that Instinct is the answer—particularly the desire to preserve society and the human species. There is no instinctive desire to, say, keep promises, which is why this and other values of the Tao can be swept away when they seem to be in conflict with the preservation of the species. This is also why older sexual taboos have come to be disregarded—contraceptives are more widely accepted now, for example.
If rationality fails the Innovator, the Innovator will next turn to instinct as a value more basic than sentiment. If the Innovator believes that there is an instinct to preserve the species, then he will be willing to disregard values that are not instinctual, like promise-keeping. He will also be willing to reject traditional sexual values that can be shown to have no instinctual basis.
Themes
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
In reality, though, the Innovator hasn’t gotten anywhere, Lewis argues. For one thing, it seems that “Instinct” is being used in the sense of a widely felt, spontaneous impulse. But if it’s the case that such impulses must be obeyed, then why must people be pressured to do so? Or if it’s being argued that obeying instinct makes people happy—how does that help in the matter of dying for one’s country, which, by definition, involves death and the cutting off of all satisfactions?
Lewis argues that the hypothetical Innovator must prove why Instinct should be obeyed. Emotional satisfaction alone clearly isn’t an adequate justification, since a person who dies for their country won’t get any satisfaction at all from doing so—because they’ll be dead.
Themes
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
So why obey instinct, according to the Innovator? Again, it seems impossible to get from “I have an impulse to do something” to “I ought to obey said instinct.” Ultimately, too, there are a variety of instincts, which sometimes seem to be at war with one another. Why should an instinct to preserve the species be elevated above other instincts, like self-preservation or the indulgence of sexual appetite? What is the basis for judgment? Inevitably, a value judgment must be imposed on the instinct from something exterior to it.
People are filled with competing instincts. So in order to demonstrate that one instinct is more worthy to be obeyed than another, one must have some means of judging between them. In this way Lewis builds his argument that mere instinct is not a better way of getting “beneath” the Tao than mere rationality is.
Themes
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
Finally, Lewis doubts whether there really is a commonly observable instinct for the preservation of the species. People naturally have an instinct to preserve their own offspring; those who believe in the Tao would say this is how people ought to feel, but those who take instinct as their basic value do not have the option of saying that. Ultimately, the Innovator won’t find a firm basis either in factual propositions or in instinct. The principles he seeks can only be found in the Tao.
Ultimately, the so-called instinct to preserve the species is too abstract for Lewis. He argues that traditional values have rightfully located instinct in loyalty to kin, which is something for which the Innovator can give no explanation.
Themes
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
In the end, when the Innovator tries to attack the Tao, he can only do so by using principles that are themselves derived from the Tao. Once the Tao is rejected, the Innovator cannot find any principles that will help him support the claim that it’s right for someone to die for his country. He can only try to pick and choose bits that he deems useful, while lacking any governing basis for those choices. For instance, the Tao has always transmitted belief in duties to both children and parents. On what basis can one be favored over the other?
Whenever the Innovator tries to undermine the Tao, Lewis argues, he can’t find an adequate weapon in rationality, instinct, or anything else. There is, finally, nothing “beneath”—that is, more essential than—the Tao that enables him to defend a principle like Dulce et decorum. Lewis is trying to prove that the Tao is ultimately inescapable; it’s impossible to make sense of anything without embracing it in full.
Themes
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
Since Lewis can find no answer to these questions, he draws the following conclusions. The Tao (which others might call Traditional Morality or Natural Law) isn’t just one among a series of value systems. It is, rather, the source of all value systems. It must be accepted or rejected as a whole. There will never be a new such system. Anything that purports to be a new one is really just bits and pieces “wrenched from their context […] and then swollen to madness in their isolation.” A new ideology is just the rebellion of branches against the tree. 
The Tao—or whatever term one might want to use—is a set of objective values, Lewis argues. No matter how an Innovator searches, he will not find an alternate value system, much less a superior one. More likely, he will just create a distortion of some aspect of the Tao, since what he’s really doing is taking certain pieces out of context and losing their meaning in the process.
Themes
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Lewis concedes that, when lumping together Western and Eastern traditional moralities in this way, there will inevitably be contradictions. In light of that, it will be necessary at times to adopt a critical attitude. But Lewis holds that there are different types of criticism: criticism from without and from within. Criticism from within is able to admit the difference between “a moral advance and a mere innovation.” For instance, the Christian “Do unto others” can be seen as an advance on the Confucian “Do not do to others…” A true advance can only occur when one already accepts the older maxim as valid. Only those who accept the Tao and find it intelligible, according to Lewis, are in a position to modify it. In other words, the burden of proof never rests on the Tao itself, and only one who understands and operates within it can be a “legitimate reformer.”
Lewis does not argue that the Tao is unchangeable. But there are proper and improper ways of going about modifying the Tao. When he notes that a Christian teaching is based on an older Confucian one, he’s arguing that only someone who accepts the older Confucian teaching as valid is in a position to develop the later, more positive Christian position as a superior alternative. Lewis is not trying to offer a historical genealogy of ethical teachings, but rather to argue that there is a difference between internal development and tearing something down from the outside.
Themes
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Lewis maintains that although he is a Theist and a Christian, he is not trying to make a defense of Theism. He simply wants to argue that the values of the Tao must be accepted as having absolute validity, and that any attempt to uncover more basic, “realistic” values cannot succeed. He is not concerned with the supernatural origins of the Tao, or the absence thereof.
Lewis is not trying to offer a religious apologetic for the Tao, or even to claim that it cannot be altered from within, but rather to show that there is no way of stepping outside of this body of traditional teachings. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, he says; the important thing is that it’s valid.
Themes
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
Lewis acknowledges that “the modern mind” has a hard time assenting to the Tao. In fact, modern people might assume that the Tao is one more aspect of nature that humans now have the power to control. Why not consider the Tao as a mere “psychological survival” and move beyond it in order to become masters of our own destiny? Lewis acknowledges that this rejection of the concept of value is a more intellectually respectable position than the position of those who hope to dig up some more basic value underneath the Tao. But he will need another lecture to consider it.
Now that he has argued for the existence and importance of objective value as expressed in the Tao, Lewis considers the Tao’s tenuous position within contemporary society. To the modern person, there’s no apparent reason why the Tao with its objective values should not be superseded, as human beings have come to control so many aspects of nature. He will explore this question in the next lecture.
Themes
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
Nature, Science, and the Abolition of Man Theme Icon