As with most of C.S. Lewis’ books, I first read The Abolition of Man at least a decade ago and then decided recently to read it again. In the case of this book, recently means today. And yesterday. And the day before. I keep going back to this book because I have the urgent sense it is saying something very, even desperately important, but the message is difficult to grasp– rather like a dream you had that told you the meaning of life. You know you “had it” for a moment and in the morning you drive yourself crazy trying to remember what “it” was. I may never remember that dream, but I think I finally get this book. And like a hidden picture, once you see it you can’t not see it.
It’s not that the book is at all dry or boring. Whether you get the full impact of the message on your first reading or not, Lewis writing is always flowing, cogent, warm, entertaining, and full of clear examples. The subject is no less than what it means to be a human being and how our choices and beliefs can destroy or “abolish” our own humanity and possibly that of our children and descendants.
Central to C.S. Lewis case is the concept of a natural moral law, a sense of what is good and what is bad than all humans have always sensed or known throughout human history. Different cultures have different names for this, but Lewis adopts the Chinese word Tao to describe the universal moral law to which human nature is subject. Originating with the ancient philosopher Laozi, Tao means “doctrine” or “principle” and is used to describe the essential pattern of the universe, the “eternal nameless,” the self-referential bottom-line truth that undergirds and circumscribes reality but cannot be justified or explained by anything but itself.
Lewis’ primary point is that if there is a Tao or universal moral law, and if humans are designed to live according to its dictates, then we as a species can get ourselves into really big trouble if we disregard it, especially on a systematic level, such as in the education of children. To separate ourselves from the Tao would be like a branch that decides to separate itself from the tree. The branch might initially feel ecstatic with its newfound freedom but is destined to soon wither and die.
Like the tree, the Tao is the generator of life, the roots, and the gateway through which we access the very source of what we are as a species . In this book, Lewis makes the case that modern humanity is in the process of consciously or unconsciously separating itself from this source of life and purpose. When we decide to operate outside of the Tao or attempt to modify it to better suit our desires or teach our children that is not important, the potential consequences are that we and future generations could lose our ability to make moral choices – in other words, lose access to the Tao, the inner sense of right and wrong, good and bad. Since the ability to make moral choices is at the heart of what makes us human, the loss of such ability would mean…. well….the abolition of humanity as we know it.
How Lewis goes about making this case is quite interesting. He begins with a searing indictment of a text book in use at the time for boys and girls in the “upper forms” forms of elementary school. Too gracious to publically skewer “two well-meaning schoolmasters” (the authors), Lewis does not give the real names of the authors or the real title of book; instead he calls it “The Green Book” and refers to the authors as “Gaius and Titius.”
“Gaius and Titius” become, throughout the book, the representatives of the modern false philosophies as they are understood by the general populace. The “Green Book”, which is supposed to teach grammar and the proper use of the English language, instead teaches children that they should be suspicious of any language that attaches a value judgment of any kind to a subject, such as to call a waterfall sublime or a horse noble. The underlying message is that values are “only” our own feelings about a thing and are therefore not important.
According to Lewis, the problem with such a philosophy is that that young people are taught to disregard their own feelings before they know which feelings are accurate and appropriate and which are not. This makes them sitting ducks for whatever someone in power (or a “conditioner”) wishes to make of them. If you can make a child believe that his own feelings about an object or event have no reality outside of the individual, then how is he to judge the rightness or wrongness of a propaganda campaign once he becomes an adult?
Since his own value judgments have no validity in the “real” world, he is compelled go to some other source – either his gut (animal) “instinct” or an “expert” (probably the propagandist) – to know what to believe and how to react. The problem with instinct is that not all instincts are good, and since the person has not been taught an objectively valid system of values, he has no basis to judge which are appropriate and which are not. Children are deprived of the very tools they need to become a thinking moral human being before they have the developed the body of knowledge and maturity to make value judgments for themselves. To use our tree metaphor, the branch of moral understanding has been nipped in the bud.
Lewis also shows how the idea that humans, through science, can ultimately “conquer” nature is a joke on us. Part of controlling nature is controlling human nature including the attempt to control people’s instincts, teaching them what to believe and not to believe according to the agenda of whoever has the power to do so. The supposed power over nature is really just the power of some people over other people; and ultimately the continued arrogance of trying to control (rather than working within) nature will lead to all of us becoming slaves to nature. Lewis’s argument and demonstration of how this must inevitably come to be (given a certain course of action) is brilliant.
Maybe you see why I had to read this book several times. However, The Abolition of Man is a very short book, a pleasure to read, and well worth the effort of fully understanding its message. Even though it was published in 1943, it is full of ideas you can observe being expressed with a vengeance in your community, schools, and government. It prompts you to think: Is there a “Tao” – a pre-existing moral law, pattern, and purpose for human life in the universe? If we believe there is such a thing how do we react to it? Do we commit to aligning ourselves with it or do we try to cheat the system and go our own way hoping for the best? Or do we prefer to believe there is no such thing as a Tao, that we are free to be existentialists and make up any purpose, pattern, or rules we please? Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the more prominent proponents of the latter belief. How have such ideas worked out so far for the human race? (See 20th Century history.)
Lewis makes a pretty good case that there is such a thing as the Tao and that the consequences of disregarding or not believing it are potentially fatal to the human race. He further works his ideas on the disregarding moral law, especially in the field of science, in his space trilogy, especially in the third and scariest book, That Hidden Strength.
Welcome to my blog….This is where I try out ideas for essays and possible books. I write about literature, life, and mostly end up in the places where life meets literature. I love comments!
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- Review of The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist by Matt Baglio August 24, 2014
- Blogging From the Heart Tour: In which I answer a few questions about my writing life August 19, 2014
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