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The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

The Abolition of Man: Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools was a series of lectures given by C.S. Lewis in 1943, then subsequently published as a book. Although it is still available as a small book, it is included in some of the author’s essay collections.

(HarperOne cover)
(HarperOne cover)

These lectures were triggered by an English textbook in which there is the confusion between objective statements and ones about emotions. Lewis warns that the consequence of reducing things to emotions in effect denies universal objective values (and also the source of said values although he does not comment much on that in this work).

Lewis is generally very good at writing for the laymen without sacrificing precision or over-simplifying the subject. Add his humor to it, and his work is easily accessible. On a relative note, The Abolition of Man is arguably not as easy to read as some of his other works, but in absolute terms is still very easy. He was just that gifted and, either way, this is recommended given its importance.

The text is structured into three chapters (or lectures) and an appendix. In the first chapter, “Men Without Chests”, Lewis identifies the problem by quoting the abovementioned English textbook:

‘When the man said That is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall. … Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime” or shortly, I have sublime feelings.’ Here are a good many deep questions settled in a pretty summary fashion. But the authors are not yet finished. They add: ‘This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.’

Lewis then points out the obvious:

Even on their own view—on any conceivable view—the man who says This is sublime cannot mean I have sublime feelings. Even if it were granted that such qualities as sublimity were simply and solely projected into things from our own emotions, yet the emotions which prompt the projection are the correlatives, and therefore almost the opposites, of the qualities projected. The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feelings but feelings of veneration. If This is sublime is to be reduced at all to a statement about the speaker’s feelings, the proper translation would be I have humble feelings.

This in effect conditions the student to lose that distinction, to lose the ability to think logically, to think merely in terms of feelings and not universal objective values, as well as to potentially despise said feelings instead of balancing them with reason, thereby turning them into “men without chests”:

They may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set. … 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.
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men 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.

The consequence is the denial of objective values that many cultures throughout the ages have believed in, albeit with variations. For the purposes of his essay, Lewis simplistically uses the Chinese term Tao for the sake of convenience.

In the second chapter, “The Way”, Lewis examines the argument in more detail. In short and to put it simply, he points out that any denial of the Tao relies on something derived from the Tao in the first place.

This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, 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. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There never has 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.

Lewis, however, does recognize one implication. If this Tao is considered to be (part of) “nature”, then what if humanity’s “conquest of nature” extends to it? He examines this in the third chapter, “The Abolition of Man”.

If one generation teaches the Tao to the next, they are merely passing it on or any conditioning is still within its bounds. However, if the conditioning is the actual conquest of the Tao, then as each generation conditions the next, the last generation will not be the most powerful as perhaps originally intended. Instead, the last generation will be “most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future”.

The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race. They are the motivators, the creators of motives. But how are they going to be motivated themselves? For a time, perhaps, by survivals, within their own minds, of the old ‘natural’ Tao. Thus at first they may look upon themselves as servants and guardians of humanity and conceive that they have a ‘duty’ to do it ‘good.’ … How can duty help them to decide that? Duty itself is up for trial: it cannot also be the judge. And ‘good’ fares no better. They know quite well how to produce a dozen different conceptions of good in us. The question is which, if any, they should produce. No conception of good can help them to decide. It is absurd to fix on one of the things they are comparing and make it the standard of comparison.
To some it will appear that I am inventing a factitious difficulty for my Conditioners. Other, more simple-minded, critics may ask ‘Why should you suppose they will be such bad men?’ But I am not supposing them to be bad men. They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean. ‘Good’ and ‘bad,’ applied to them, are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforward to be derived. Nor is their difficulty factitious. We might suppose that it was possible to say ‘After all, most of us want more or less the same things—food and drink and sexual intercourse, amusement, art, science, and the longest possible life for individuals and for the species. Let them simply say, This is what we happen to like, and go on to condition men in the way most likely to produce it. Where’s the trouble?’ But this will not answer. In the first place, it is false that we all really like the same things. But even if we did, what motive is to impel the Conditioners to scorn delights and live laborious days in order that we, and posterity, may have what we like? Their duty? But that is only the Tao, which they may decide to impose on us, but which cannot be valid for them. If they accept it, then they are no longer the makers of conscience but still its subjects, and their final conquest over Nature has not really happened. … However far they go back, or down, they can find no ground to stand on. Every motive they try to act on becomes at once a petitio. 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.

Although Lewis’s arguments typically tries to be fair, they are not naïve, recognizing the obvious practical danger:

When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains. It cannot be exploded or ‘seen through’ because it never had any pretensions. The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure. I am not here speaking of the corrupting influence of power nor expressing the fear that under it our Conditioners will degenerate. The very words corrupt and degenerate imply a doctrine of value and are therefore meaningless in this context. My point is that those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse. We may legitimately hope that among the impulses which arise in minds thus emptied of all ‘rational’ or ‘spiritual’ motives, some will be benevolent. I am very doubtful myself whether the benevolent impulses, stripped of that preference and encouragement which the Tao teaches us to give them and left to their merely natural strength and frequency as psychological events, will have much influence. I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the conditioned. Though regarding as an illusion the artificial conscience which they produce in us their subjects, they will yet perceive that it creates in us an illusion of meaning for our lives which compares favourably with the futility of their own: and they will envy us as eunuchs envy men. But I do not insist on this, for it is mere conjecture. What is not conjecture is that our hope even of a ‘conditioned’ happiness rests on what is ordinarily called ‘chance’—the chance that benevolent impulses may on the whole predominate in our Conditioners. For without the judgement ‘Benevolence is good’—that is, without re-entering the Tao—they can have no ground for promoting or stabilizing their benevolent impulses rather than any others.

The appendix “Illustrations of the Tao” provides a small collection of quotations from Eastern and Western sources.


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