The Abolition of Man originated as a lecture series that C. S. Lewis delivered at the University of Durham in 1943, critiquing current methods of teaching English and their implications for broader society. He bases his argument on an English textbook he was asked to review, which he refers to as The Green Book, and he gives its authors the pseudonyms Gaius and Titius. Lewis staunchly attacks Gaius and Titius’s educational approach, because they reject belief in objective reality. In particular, Gaius and Titius do not believe that things objectively merit particular human sentiments (e.g., to them, a waterfall is not objectively beautiful), and, in fact, they attack the value of sentiment in literature altogether. Lewis, on the other hand, believes that proper sentiments—that is, emotions that are in harmony with objective reality—can and must be taught. By evaluating Gaius and Titius’s approach as contradictory to history and reason, Lewis argues that the cultivation of sentiment is not only a valid part of modern education, but critical for the formation of ethical human beings.
Gaius and Titius, according to Lewis, are fundamentally mistaken about the validity of sentiment, or emotion, in education. While they see sentiment as irrelevant to reality and therefore dispensable, Lewis argues that properly trained sentiments are vital for well-educated people. Lewis posits that Gaius and Titius “have honestly misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment.” Whereas Gaius and Titius think that the day’s youth are too sentimental, Lewis has observed the opposite in his own teaching: “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.” The current problem isn’t too much sentiment, in other words; it’s the wrong kind of sentiment.
Lewis goes on, “The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to [propaganda].” Lewis means that eradicating sentiment doesn’t actually defend students against false, manipulative ideas (e.g., in advertising or wartime propaganda). It just makes them less capable of recognizing such false sentiments for what they are. In contrast to Gaius and Titius’s view, then, Lewis believes that students must be trained to hold “just sentiments”—emotions that are trained to be in harmony with objective reality (which Lewis will define more closely later, when he discusses traditional values).
Even if Gaius and Titius were to agree with Lewis that students should be taught “just sentiments,” they would have no basis for teaching such sentiments. This is because they don’t believe that objects inherently merit particular sentiments—an approach that Lewis argues is divorced from history and disastrous for the future. Lewis argues that, “Until quite modern times all teachers […] believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.” In other words, the premodern assumption was that things objectively merited certain emotional reactions. For example, “The man who called the [waterfall] sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.” That is, as opposed to Gaius and Titius’s claim, the man was expressing a just sentiment—the waterfall is sublime—that lines up with what’s objectively true about the waterfall.
By rejecting this older approach, therefore, Gaius and Titius place themselves outside of a perspective that has prevailed throughout history. Lewis names St. Augustine and Aristotle as just two of the venerable predecessors with whom Gaius and Titius find themselves out of accord: “St Augustine defines virtue as […] the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that […] degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Gaius and Titius’s modern approach robs students of the ability to be virtuous—that is, to love the right things in the appropriate measure.
The result of the inadequate modern approach is that students will be incapable of understanding ethics: whereas “the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics,” the one who has not “can make no progress in that science.’’ The ultimate outcome can only be harmful for society. Lewis will develop this idea further in subsequent lectures, but his comments about propaganda effectively preview his point. A student whose sentiments have not been properly trained will be susceptible to propaganda and other forms of manipulation (or even to manipulating and otherwise harming others), because he or she lacks a stable basis for determining what is truthful, good, and just.
Education, Emotional Sentiment, and Ethics ThemeTracker
Education, Emotional Sentiment, and Ethics Quotes in The Abolition of Man
He will have no notion that there are two ways of being immune to such an advertisement—that it falls equally flat on those who are above it and those who are below it, on the man of real sensibility and on the mere trousered ape who has never been able to conceive the Atlantic as anything more than so many million tons of cold salt water. […] None of this is brought before the schoolboy’s mind. On the contrary, he is encouraged to reject the lure of the ‘Western Ocean’ on the very dangerous ground that in so doing he will prove himself a knowing fellow who can’t be bubbled out of his cash. Gaius and Titius, while teaching him nothing about letters, have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane.
The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.
This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao.’ Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is 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.
We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat […] of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments […] these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.
For the whole purpose of their book is so to condition the young reader that he will share their approval, and this would be either a fool’s or a villain’s undertaking unless they held that their approval was in some way valid or correct. In actual fact Gaius and Titius will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, 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. Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough.
The second difference is even more important. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao—a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education.
You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. 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.