The Abolition of Man


C. S. Lewis

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Education, Emotional Sentiment, and Ethics Theme Icon
Objective Value, Human Virtue, and Societal Health Theme Icon
Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon
Nature, Science, and the Abolition of Man Theme Icon
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Traditional Values vs. Innovation Theme Icon

After arguing for the existence of the “Tao,” or the objectivity of value and ethics, Lewis goes on, “Let us suppose that an Innovator in values regards dulce et decorum and greater love hath no man as mere irrational sentiments which are to be stripped off in order that we may get down to the ‘realistic’ or ‘basic’ ground of this value. Where will he find such a ground?” Here, Lewis cites two culturally familiar sayings—the first, from Horace, “It is sweet and seemly [to die for one’s country],” and the second from the New Testament, “Greater love hath no man than this, that [he] lay down his life for his friends.” Then, Lewis examines whether a hypothetical “Innovator”—a person who wishes to get beyond the Tao in order to build an alternative value system—can defend the idea of putting one’s life on the line for one’s country without recourse to traditional sentiments, or teachings of the “Tao.” Lewis comes to the conclusion that neither rationality nor instinct can provide the basis for such an alternate value system and therefore that even such an Innovator cannot avoid appealing to the Tao. By demonstrating that neither reason nor instinct alone can motivate action, Lewis argues that belief in traditional value systems like those that make up the Tao is indispensable, no matter how an innovator tries to find alternatives to it.

Lewis argues that pure reasoning isn’t a sufficient basis for a sustainable value system. Lewis contends that, if an Innovator tries to eradicate sentiment from his argument, he will be helpless to defend a value such as dying for one’s country: “Every appeal to pride, honour, shame, or love is excluded by hypothesis. To use these would be to return to sentiment and the Innovator’s task is, having cut all that away, to explain to men, in terms of pure reasoning, why they will be well advised to die that others may live.”

Having shorn his argument of sentiment, an Innovator has no basis to defend either dying or not dying for one’s country: “From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this.” Lewis means that bare, unadorned fact must be supported by sentiment in order to proceed to a clear course of action. In other words, why would someone choose to put his life at risk in order to preserve society, unless he believed that society was worth it? Or conversely, why would he not put his life at risk unless he believed that society isn’t worth the cost of his life? By relying on reason alone, the Innovator can never get where he wishes to go; he can never figure out how to act.

When the Innovator finds that pure reason fails, Lewis argues, the Innovator will then attempt to find a basis for an alternate value system in instinct. Lewis argues that the Innovator will reject the path of reason anyway, because “practical principles known to all men by Reason are simply the Tao [or natural law] which he has set out to supersede.” In seeking alternate grounds for commending a certain value, “he is more likely […] to hunt for some other ground even more ‘basic’ and ‘realistic’. […] This he will probably feel that he has found in Instinct.”

To an extent, instinct seems to serve the Innovator’s purposes much better than mere reason. “We have an instinctive urge to preserve our own species […] that is why scruples of justice and humanity—in fact the Tao—can be properly swept away when they conflict with our real end, the preservation of the species […] For of course sexual desire, being instinctive, is to be gratified whenever it does not conflict with the preservation of the species. It looks, in fact, as if an ethics based on instinct will give the Innovator all he wants and nothing that he does not want.” The Innovator, in other words, finds justification for rejecting social norms where they seem to get in the way of instinct.

The innovator runs into difficulty, however, in that this approach gives him no basis for choosing between competing instincts. In fact, what he is doing is favoring one bit of the Tao over another, with no apparent justification. For example, duty to one’s kin “because they are our own kin, is a part of traditional morality. But side by side with it in the Tao, and limiting it, lie the inflexible demands of justice, and the rule that, in the long run, all men are our brothers. Whence comes the Innovator’s authority to pick and choose?” Once again, according to Lewis, the Innovator who rejects the Tao is at an impasse.

According to Lewis, then, the Tao must be taken or rejected as a whole. Lewis concludes that “This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality […] is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained.” Any single component of the Tao, in other words, can only be understood in relation to and in the context of the rest. Without being properly situated in this way, any bit of the Tao becomes nonsense.

When fragments of the Tao are “arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation,” innovations collapse; “the rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree.” According to Lewis, an innovator cannot reject one bit of the Tao as mere superstition without relegating all of it to the realm of superstition; similarly, he can’t elevate another portion of it above the rest without validating the whole. Ultimately, then, innovation simply isn’t sustainable against the weight and comprehensiveness of traditional morality, whether one calls it the Tao, natural law, or something else.

Finally, it is worth nothing that, by commending traditional morality, Lewis isn’t arguing that no ethical advances are possible. For an example, he argues that the Confucian saying, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you,” was later advanced upon by the Christian teaching, “Do as you would be done by.” That is, the latter could not be advanced without acknowledging the validity of the former, which provides a basis for its own later expansion. By contrast, the ethics of a modern thinker like Nietzsche only work if one accepts that there is no basis for value judgments whatsoever. The Tao, in Lewis’s view, is enduring precisely because it contains the resources for its own creative development.

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Traditional Values vs. Innovation Quotes in The Abolition of Man

Below you will find the important quotes in The Abolition of Man related to the theme of Traditional Values vs. Innovation.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker), Gaius and Titius
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

At this point the Innovator may ask why, after all, selfishness should be more ‘rational’ or ‘intelligent’ than altruism. The question is welcome. If by Reason we mean the process actually employed by Gaius and Titius when engaged in debunking (that is, the connecting by inference of propositions, ultimately derived from sense data, with further propositions), then the answer must be that a refusal to sacrifice oneself is no more rational than a consent to do so. And no less rational. Neither choice is rational—or irrational—at all. From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this. It can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker), Gaius and Titius
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. […] The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

[T]he Tao admits development from within. There is a difference between a real moral advance and a mere innovation. From the Confucian ‘Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you’ to the Christian ‘Do as you would be done by’ is a real advance. […] [This] is an advance because no one who did not admit the validity of the old maxim could see reason for accepting the new one, and anyone who accepted the old would at once recognize the new as an extension of the same principle.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: C. S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis: