Book Review: The Abolition of Man – By C.S. Lewis

Lewis Abolition of Man.pngLetter DDuring the past few centuries within discussions of philosophy there has been what might be called a revitalization of skepticism. This skepticism, what many deem free inquiry or free thought, has come to question everything, such that during the early Twentieth Century G.K Chesterton wrote that: “It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself.”

The Abolition of Man is C.S. Lewis‘ answer to this same thought, his answer to the skepticism which has once again begun to run rampant throughout all philosophy and all society since the beginning of modernity. Despite being a well-known Christian writer, in this particular text Lewis is not arguing distinctively for a religious system, but is simply addressing the question of objectivity and first principles.

In short, Lewis’ argument is in favor of what he terms the ‘Tao‘, that is, the “practical principles known to all men by Reason” or in other words “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false.” In rejecting this Tao Lewis argues that mankind has created “men without chests.” They have done away with basic axioms of morality and virtue in attempt to create their own system.

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Yet for Lewis this is impossible, stating that “neither in any operation with factual propositions nor in any appeal to instinct can the Innovator find the basis for a system of values.” In short, in rejecting objective values the ‘Innovator’ has placed themselves in position in which they can have no values at all, and which any attempt to create values is simply a contradiction in which they draw upon the objectivity which they reject. This phenomena, combined with man’s attempts at conquering nature (first through doing away with old moralities and then through more physical means) paradoxically results in the state which the title describes, the abolition of man. Through skepticism they have done away with value and all obligation, leaving only the impulse of nature: “They are not men at all: they are artifacts. Mans’ final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”

Perhaps the summation of Lewis’ argument can be found here:

“If you will not obey the Tao, or else commit suicide, obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere ‘nature’) is the only course left open. At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ – to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammeled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”

In the final analysis The Abolition of Man is a powerful argument for first principles, those basic and universal values which are shared by mankind, standing as self-evident and thereby forming the only foundation upon which anything – even any argument – can be based, for without axioms no progress can be made and nothing can be proven. Finishing out at a nice 81 pages the book can easily be read in one sitting and serves as wonderful food for thought while pondering the basic questions of morality and values.

Memorable Quotes:

-“No emotion is, in itself, a judgment; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.”

-“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.”

“If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is of real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. 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. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color…”

-“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”

Specific Criticisms

Perhaps my only criticism of this text is that I think Lewis sets out on a futile task by denying himself the argument for theism, specifically Christianity. Granted, he does state that “In order to avoid misunderstanding, I may add that though I myself am a Theist, and indeed a Christian, I am not here attempting any indirect argument for Theism. I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason as having absolute validity… Whether this position implies a supernatural origin for the Tao is a question I am not here concerned with.”

Personally, I don’t believe that it is possible to address whether there are “ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason” without discussing (directly or indirectly) whether or not these have a supernatural origin; not only this, but sufficing to refer to these as simply the results of ‘Practical Reason’ is to do somewhat of a disservice to the creator who put them in place. There is no basis for Practical Reason outside theism. Perhaps one might dismiss this as attempt to gain a neutral ground with his audience, designating these axioms as natural reason and using a third party term (Tao) when speaking of them. This may be a valid case, though it still encourages the autonomy of man in such cases (where it is the this rebellious autonomy which is the true issue).

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This isn’t a criticism, but simply an interesting note which I’d never noticed in Lewis before; that is, the presuppositional nature of some of his thought. Two quotes will do well to illustrate this

“But as we have seen, all the values which he uses in attacking the Tao, and even claims to be substituting for it, are themselves derived from the Tao. If the Tao falls, all his own conceptions of value fall with it… Only by such shreds of the Tao as he has inherited is he enabled to even attack it.”

“Unless you accept these without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever. You cannot reach them as conclusions: they are premises… If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all.”

In replacing the Tao with God, in replacing ‘for its own sake’ with ‘due to the nature of God, we begin to have one of the basic arguments of the presuppositional apologetic. That is, that without God one cannot have meaning, nor can one make sense of anything which they see before them. “If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved” and the basis for their self-evidence is the testimony of God, the standards which He has set in place. Any system which is created apart from the Christian one is held up by boards and pillars borrowed from the Christian worldview, that is “Only by such shreds of [Christianity] as he has inherited is enabled to even attack it.” Or as Belloc states “Wherefore, it is said of heresies that ‘they survive by the truths they retain.'”

Compare this to statements made by presuppositional apologist Greg Bahnsen:

“If Christianity were not true, the unbeliever could not prove or understand anything. Only the Christian worldview makes sense out of the logic, science, morality, etc. to which both sides to the dispute appeal — not to mention, alone makes sense out of the very process of reasoning and arguing at all.”

“The unbeleiver is not completely blind to any and all truth, for he shares in common grace – yet this truth that he has is borrowed from us.”

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