The Abolition of Man

by

C. S. Lewis

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The Abolition of Man Summary

In the first of three lectures, “Men Without Chests,” C. S. Lewis begins by critiquing a secondary English textbook, which he calls The Green Book and whose authors he dubs Gaius and Titius. Lewis criticizes Gaius and Titius’s treatment of emotion in literature. He says that the authors reduce all statements of value to emotion, or sentiment, and give students the unintended message that all expressions of emotion are worthless. He criticizes another author, Orbilius, on similar grounds—Orbilius rejects all anthropomorphic language as irrational, without distinguishing between good and bad uses of the literary device. Both these approaches deprive students of certain riches of their literary heritage.

Lewis thinks that authors like Gaius and Titius are misguided in their excessive fear of sentimentalism. The real problem with modern students, he believes, is that their sentiments have not been properly trained. Lewis believes that this is because modern educators no longer believe in objective value. That is, they do not believe that objects (like a beautiful waterfall) intrinsically merit certain human responses. Thus any expression of a human response is regarded as a statement merely about the speaker’s psychology, not a statement of an objectively merited value.

Lewis cites a range of traditions—Platonic, Aristotelian, Christian, Hindu, and Taoist—which he sums up as the “Tao.” The Tao is a repository of beliefs in which objective value is upheld: objective value being “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.” Modern education, as exemplified by Gaius and Titius’s Green Book, rejects the Tao. Moreover, it rejects the ancient, Platonic conception of the human being as one whose reason rules the appetites by means of the emotions, or sentiments—“the head rules the belly through the chest.” Today’s educational system, consequently, produces “Men Without Chests.”

In his second lecture, “The Way,” Lewis argues that modern educators are dangerous for society because they try to get beyond the Tao in order to discover supposedly more basic values beneath the traditional ones. He discusses a hypothetical Innovator who seeks a rationalistic basis for the belief that it is good to die for one’s country. He argues that, even if the Innovator could prove that it is more rational to die for the sake of society than to refuse to die, he would still need to prove that society is worth preserving. Bare rationalism, in other words, will not get the Innovator where he desires to go. Similarly, the Innovator will not find much help in instinct as a way of getting underneath traditional values. Because all people wrestle with conflicting instincts, there must be some external basis for distinguishing between them.

Because neither rational propositions nor instinct provide a stable alternative to the Tao, the best the Innovator can do is to select bits and pieces from the Tao, without being able to justify the elevation of one bit over another (for instance, how can he choose between duty to one’s children and duty to one’s parents?). Lewis concludes, therefore, that the Tao is the basis for all value systems, and that it must be accepted or rejected as a whole. This does not mean that the Tao can never change or develop. However, a development from within—by someone who already understands and accepts the Tao—is different from an innovation imposed from without.

In the third and final lecture, “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis considers what happens when people think of the Tao as just one among many aspects of “Nature” that humanity now has the power to conquer. What, in fact, does the “conquest of Nature” mean? Lewis argues that in the case of technologies like airplanes, the radio, or contraception, power over nature really means “a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” Eventually, this means that a select group of people will succeed in shaping others—through such means as eugenics and propaganda—into whatever they wish. While oppression has always been present in societies, modern governments and technologies wield the potential for far greater oppressive power. And unlike past generations, they are unfettered by any sense of fidelity to the Tao. By stepping outside the Tao, such people are no longer recognizably human in any traditional sense. By achieving victory over humanity itself, they have attained “the abolition of man.”

Lewis argues that modern humanity cannot have it both ways: we must either have rational spirits which are subject to the Tao, or we are raw material to be manipulated at will by select masters who are subject only to their natural impulses. Perhaps modern science can still be salvaged, such that it can harness the powers of nature without itself being conquered. On the other hand, perhaps modern analytical methods inherently destroy things in the process of trying to examine them. Lewis concludes with the warning that the whole point of trying to see through something is so that one can see something beyond it—like a garden through a window. Trying to “see through” things, like objective values, for its own sake is nonsense—it leads to a world in which everything is transparent, and in which seeing is therefore the same as not seeing.