In his final lecture, Lewis finally arrives at the idea of “the abolition of man.” So far, he has argued for the indispensability of reason-based sentiments in education, the continued validity of objective value, and the emptiness of innovations that are not grounded on traditional principles. Now, in his climactic lecture, he builds on these ideas by describing modern science as an attempt to conquer nature and thereby to mold humanity to the conquerors’ liking. Lewis diagnoses the drive to harness nature as ultimately being about the arbitrary power of select human beings over others. In other words, Lewis argues that when “science” replaces morality as the basis for human motivation, civilization will be fundamentally dehumanized.
In Lewis’s view, power over “nature” really means the power of some people over others. As an example, Lewis discusses contraception: “By contraception simply, [future generations] are denied existence; […] From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” In other words, talking about the conquest of “nature” is a euphemism for the dominance of some people over others. In this case, Lewis believes that speaking of contraception as a form of power over nature is a euphemism for the fact that, by controlling the existence or nonexistence of future generations, contraception is an exertion of power by some people over other people.
Such “conquest,” however, won’t stay abstract forever—Lewis says that he is “only making clear what Man’s conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man.” Lewis means that little by little, people will apply science—or manipulate nature—in ways that seek to shape, control, and dominate other people, in increasingly tyrannical ways.
Ultimately, Lewis posits, humans exerting power over nature will inevitably lead to an attempt to manipulate human beings into the shapes desired by the powerful—resulting in the loss of what makes them essentially human. Lewis explains, “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: […] This will be changed.” When values are mere “natural phenomena,” then “[j]udgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. […] It is one more part of Nature which [the conditioners] have conquered.” In other words, teachers used to see their job as inducting students into a tradition that predated both the students and the teachers themselves. Lacking this guide, teachers will try to produce students according to their own unrestrained whims.
Lewis argues that this situation is dangerous for humanity: “The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will […] produce in the Human race. They are the motivators, the creators of motives. But how are they going to be motivated themselves? […] At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, […] to their irrational impulses.” When victory over nature is followed to its logical extreme, then, according to Lewis, it is finally just a power play. When the “conditioners” of humanity aren’t subject to any external, objective motivations, they will end up controlling humanity according to unpredictable, ungovernable whims.
Lewis concludes, “It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. 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.” In other words, from producing “men without chests,” modern education goes on to eradicate those objective values that make human beings what they are meant to be—removing from humanity the things that make it enduringly human.
Lewis adds that a supposedly scientific attempt to get beyond “first principles” is a fool’s errand: “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. […] 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.” He is not rejecting the importance of science wholesale. Rather, he is arguing that science oversteps its bounds when it reduces the world to scientific principles that can be manipulated and controlled. When the world is flattened out in such a way, it ceases to be recognizably human.
Nature, Science, and the Abolition of Man ThemeTracker
Nature, Science, and the Abolition of Man Quotes in The Abolition of Man
Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.
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.
From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them. We are always conquering Nature, because ‘Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same.
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.