A Year of Reading Lewis: The Abolition of Man

I have never read Abolition before. I knew it was an important work, but it’s subtitle, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools, didn’t inspire me much. In my research on  C.S. Lewis’ third book of his Space Trilogy, I discovered that That Hideous Strength  was often touted as the working out in fiction of the philosophical argument proposed in Abolition of Man. So, while the That Hideous Strength was still fresh in my mind, I figured I would tackle Abolition at last.

The influential National Review ranked The Abolition of Man #7 on its  list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century.  I felt quite intimidated by it, but I needn’t have been. Yes, it was a mental workout, but an invigorating one, not an impossible slog. It felt good to get my brain thinking, to follow along with Lewis in the presentation of his arguments. I forgot just how readable Lewis can be, especially when he presents big ideas.

Not to say that this is easy reading, or fluffy. Far from it. And I’m sure that my understanding of it only scratches the surface. But I did get food for thought out of it, and a whole new appreciation for C.S. Lewis’ unique genius.

The book, originally three lectures given in February of 1943,  was inspired by a textbook on English that Lewis was sent for review, which he titled, The Green Book, in order to disguise it’s true name, which  was The Control of Language, A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing. In reading the textbook Lewis found something alarming: the authors were not only attempting to teach critical reading and writing, but in doing so, were imparting a subtle but deadly philosophy, one which states that there are no objective values (ones which are true in and of themselves) and that students should consider statements of value as ones of subjective feeling instead. e.g. “The waterfall is sublime” means only that “I have sublime feelings about the waterfall.”


It is the discussion and debunking of this philosophy and the description of what a society would look like if it held to it, that makes up the content of Abolition.

Every culture has some universal values to which all of them agree. Lewis gives a listing of some of these in the back of the book as an Appendix, values found in Ancient Egypt, Greece, Japan, Israel, etc. They include things such as duties to children, the law of justice, “do unto others”, etc. Lewis calls this common ground of shared values the Tao. 

In the first chapter, entitled “Men Without Chests”, Lewis uses The Green Book to illustrate the philosophy that he finds there, in a book that is, on the surface, a text to teach high school age students English. This philosophy  promotes  stepping outside of the Tao, in order to live by “Reason” alone, eschewing all value judgments as mere sentimentality and irrelevant. This is the land of moral relativism – my “truth” is just as good as your “truth”, for we have no other, objective truth by which to measure either of them.

In this morally relativistic culture at times I feel as if I am foundering in a sea, seeing the waves rising above my head but unable to grasp at anything solid that will help me ride the storm out. And the proponents of this philosophy that are fanning the waves are the ones who are seen as the reasonable and rational ones. Here Lewis comes to my rescue. As he says, “It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them lacks intelligence. It is not so. ….it is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”

Lewis adheres to Plato’s view that Reason must rule man’s appetites by way of the Chest – the seat of emotions “organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.”  To remove these sentiments  will result in Men Without Chests  who lack the mediating Heart between the Intellect and the Appetite.

The second chapter, entitled, The Way, is a closer examination of the perils of stepping aside from the Tao in order to find a more “basic” set of values. In other words, what happens when “the ‘parasitic’growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos are cut away, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge?” (pg 706) He uses the value of “dying for a good cause” as his testing ground, because he feels it will show the different systems of thought in the clearest light. So, what happens when the “innovator” tries to strip this idea of irrational sentiments in order to get down to the ‘realistic’ or ‘basic’ ground of this value?

He examines “utility” (i.e. utilitarianism – the death of some men is useful to the community) and “reason” (is selfishness more rational or intelligent than altruism). But neither of these work – in the first case, you come to the reasonable question of why should I be the one who sacrifices themselves for the community’s sake, and in the second, you end up going in circles, for “a refusal to sacrifice oneself is no more rational than a consent to do so.” In both these cases you end up having to look to another reason for sacrificing yourself, which brings you squarely back to the Tao, and this the Innovator cannot allow.

In the search for the more basic ground the Innovator comes, usually, to instinct – “We have no instinctive urge to keep promises or to respect individual life: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.” But as Lewis points out, why ought we obey “instinct’? Is there some other instinct of a higher order directing us to do so, and another of a still higher order directing us to obey it? This soon becomes impossible as well, for our instincts are at war, and for what reason should we obey one over the other? You are then appealing to a higher court than instinct itself.

Which brings us back to the Tao. 

The third chapter, The Abolition of Man, examines the final, more serious argument, which is the rejection of the concept of value all together. What happens when we do this?

Lewis begins by describing the final, logical result of man’s power over nature: “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. The battle will then be won.” And when we eliminate from this development the norms of the Tao, what arises is the Conditioners, who marry political power and science in order to shape future generations as they see fit. And as Lewis points out, “when all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

Here is where we can think back to That Hideous Strength and find  N.I.C.E., taking over one small University, and then the police, and then the press, conducting experiments that supposedly will enhance mankind’s future at the terrible cost of the present race of men.

And as Lewis says, “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.”

Lewis has brought us logically into a glimpse of that dystopian future, and it is a frightening place. Can we see its beginning now? We certainly seem to be tripping over ourselves in a mad race to make our society as morally relativistic as we can. Will we continue to lurch headlong into the world of the Conditioners, as the logical extension of that process of “seeing through” our values to something beyond, something more basic and elemental?

One thing that really frustrates me is people who insist on maintaining a value or position or ideological belief without being willing to examine the consequences of such. It’s not necessarily bad to change things. And some changes can be good, in the short run. But what about the future? Where do those changes inevitably lead? That is why I enjoyed reading this book so much. It forces you to think, and that is not a bad thing.

The conclusion of this chapter is worth quoting, and I leave you with it as food for thought:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through 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.”

This was a sobering read, but a good one. I know my summary hasn’t done it justice, but if you want another look at what this book contains, I would recommend the following short videos, which give a clear and concise summary of each chapter:

“Men Without Chests” – (about 5 minutes)

“The Way” (about 10 minutes)

“The Abolition of Man” (about 15 minutes)

Next month: Well, it’s summer, and my brain needs a rest from the heavy philosophical musings of The Abolition. I’m going to look at something a little bit different, one of Lewis’ most famous works: The Screwtape Letters. 

Other posts in this series: 

A Year of Reading Lewis: Introduction

A Year of Reading Lewis: Out of the Silent Planet 

A Year of Reading Lewis: Perelandra

A Year of Reading Lewis: That Hideous Strength

The Thrown-Away Words

73 years ago today, on June 12, 1942, a young teenager received an autograph book, a book she had seen in a shop window and picked out herself as a birthday present. An enticing empty book, with lines. And like many teenage girls and all writers everywhere, that girl looked at those empty lines and began to fill them up with words. A diary recounting her everyday life, her family, her teenage crushes. Altogether ordinary.

But this was 1942 and she lived in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation and she was Jewish. She and her family had moved to Amsterdam from Germany to escape the Nazis, but unfortunately, their escape was not to last long. Her name, as you might have guessed, was Anne Frank. That diary became her outlet, her secret friend, as she went into hiding with her family. She drafted the diary in the form of a series of  letters to “Kitty”, and it is on those pages that she recounts her hopes and dreams. In 1944 she heard a radio broadcast encouraging people to preserve their observations of civilian life in wartime Amsterdam that they might have in the forms of diaries or letters. She went back over her entries and began to organize them in a way that would make sense to future readers.

Anne’s family was betrayed and they were arrested in 1944, mere months after that radio broadcast. Anne and her sister ended up in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she survived in that hellish place until August 1945. In February or March of that year, a few months before its liberation in August, both girls died, probably of typhus. Anne was 15.

A Jewish girl died in a concentration camp during WWII. That particular tragedy was magnified by the weight of so many more lives snuffed out by the horrors of the war it would have gone unnoticed, except as one of the numbers that make up the 6,000,000 exterminated by the Nazis in their Final Solution. Can we just pause for a moment and think about those luminous lives, and let our heart ache just for a moment?

Mauthausen Concentration Camp, May 1945

Mauthausen Concentration Camp, May 1945

Young survivors of Auschwitz, January 1945. Most children under 15 were gassed right away. Anne had just turned 15 a couple months before her arrest.

Young survivors of Auschwitz, January 1945. Most children under 15 were gassed right away. Perhaps these had arrived shortly before the liberation? Anne had just turned 15 a couple months before her arrest, so barely escaped the gas chamber. 

Now let’s return to that attic where Anne and her family were hidden. Picture it in the day after the arrest: silent, clothes hanging on hangers, food waiting to be eaten, belongings tossed here and there. Meip Gies, who, with others, had hidden the family, returned with her friend to see if there was anything they could collect for the family to give back to them. And there they found the family photo albums and a bunch of loose-leaf papers, strewn on the floor. Upon glancing at them, Meip realized that they were Anne’s diary, in which she had seen Anne writing, and she collected them all to give back to Anne. Meip went to the police headquarters and offered to pay for the Frank’s family release, but to no avail. Fortunately, Meip and her husband were spared arrest and survived the war and were reunited with Otto Frank, Anne’s father, who had survived Auschwitz. Once Anne’s death was confirmed by the Red Cross, Meip gave the collected papers to Otto.

Those precious papers, Anne’s diary, continue to teach us so much about those dark times and the suffering and bravery of the people who lived through it. And all because Anne picked up a pen and started to write, two days after her birthday, about the things that made up her life. And because Meip recognized the value of those left-behind papers and saved them for Anne, and so for all of us.

Anne writes in her diary:

 I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I’m so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s inside me!

When I write I can shake off all my cares. My sorrow disappears, my spirits are revived! But, and that’s a big question, will I ever be able to write something great, will I ever become a journalist or a writer?

Oh, Anne, all of us writers have that question haunting our days. Will we ever be able to write something great? Of course Anne never got to see the difference her words have made in this world. One wonders if she ever thought about recounting her experiences in the camps, if she ever sought out some small scrap of paper and a nub of a pencil and scribbled anything down in the waning hours of darkness as night fell and she had a few moments before exhaustion sent her to sleep. Or was the horror too big for words? It’s almost too much to think about.
So, here’s to you Anne. Thank you for using your gift, for realizing that it could serve a larger purpose than just to amuse yourself. Here’s to you Meip, for sheltering that family (and others) and doing what you could to give some hope in those dark, dark days. And for seeing those papers and realizing that the words on them were Anne’s and therefore important to her family, for doing another kindness in the midst of your fear and grief to collect them, and in doing so, allowing Anne’s extraordinary voice to be heard.
And here’s to all the writers who have moved me and encouraged me and challenged me and made me the person I am.
I’m so glad you filled your enticing empty pages with words, fighting through your doubts and insecurities to tell the story you needed to tell.
One wonders what happened that day the police came to the attic, how the papers ended up strewn over the floor. I suspect they did a quick rummage through the place, looking for valuables, intending to come back later to do a more thorough search. Their boots perhaps trampled those pages, thrown on the floor after a quick glance at their contents.
They obviously saw them as worthless, those thrown-away words that were the most precious thing of all in that empty attic.

The Click of Faith

Well, I’m certainly feeling a little dizzy these days. I’m sure fellow writers can relate. The journey to publication is long and hard. The whole process seems designed to make the lowly writer despair of ever finding anyone to take a chance on their book and publish it.The fact is that there are thousands upon thousands of writers out there, many of whom are also trying to get noticed and achieve the Holy Grail of a publishing contract.

It’s a pretty daunting concept. And the hardest thing is to start.

By “start”, I mean, you actually have to write something. This is surprisingly hard. At least it was for me. For a long time I had a dream of being a writer, but I was stalled in the gap that existed between my desire to write and the fear that I might not be “good enough”.But one day I gathered up my waning courage and plunged in. To be truthful, it wasn’t exactly “one day”, it was a day after I had just turned 40 and my mother had recently died. Both those events culminated in the realization that I wasn’t getting any younger and time was slipping by so if I was going to do this thing then I had better darn well do it.

My end goal was always to write a novel. But I knew enough to know that I had better not start there. I needed to learn the craft. So fast forward a few years and many thousands of words on the page and some short stories published. That clock was ticking all the time in the background, so I scolded my muttering fears and started my book. And wrote and wrote and wrote until I had the story I wanted to tell.

Then followed revision, editing, sending the first few chapters to a professional editor for her edits, more editing, the realization I actually had enough material for three books not one; back to the drawing board and figuring out how to make THAT work, sending the manuscript off to a few beta readers for feedback, more editing and revision, and finally, finally, about a year ago I had a trilogy with Book One ready to go and Books Two and Three in first draft form.

Now what? There are many routes open to authors for publication, and one day I may expand upon those in another blog post. But suffice it to say I have decided to go the traditional publishing route to start with. I’ve done a lot of research on exactly “how” to do this. Again, options abound. It depends on if you are seeking publication at a big New York publisher or a small indie press and all the variations in-between. Some of that decision will depend upon what kind of book you have. Some of it depends upon if you are already published or not.

To go the traditional publishing route generally you will need a query letter, which is a one-page letter that summarizes your novel in a way that makes an agent  or publisher want to read it and includes some information on your writing credentials. Sounds easy? It’s NOT. Try condensing a 136,000 word novel into three paragraphs, max. If you manage to do a good job, and your letter lands in the inbox of an agent who is looking for “just” that book, well, he or she will request a full or partial manuscript to look over. And then they will decide whether or not they want to represent you.

So as you can see a lot is riding on this letter. I have spent a surprising amount of hours on mine. Because basically you only get one chance with an agent. If you mess up your query letter you could have the best book in the world but they won’t know because they won’t request to see it.

It’s all very nerve-wracking. I’ve spent years researching and writing my book (s). I’ve spent months figuring out how to take the next step in terms of publication and who to approach first. I’ve spent weeks on the proposal and queries. Finally I had the query letter all polished up and ready to go, pasted into the body of an email, not an attachment, as per request of that agent, and I couldn’t bring myself to click the mouse to send it. What if I messed it up? What if she doesn’t like it? Should I redo that sentence? Does it sound too formal? Or too casual? Is my freaking book even any good at all, I mean, I have been working on it and rereading it and editing and revising it for so long it all seems so blah to me at this point. Maybe I should just chuck it all into a bin and go walk my dog.

Aargh!! It’s enough to drive you crazy. You have to really love this writing thing to keep going, let me tell you.

Finally at the end of the day, after I had hemmed and hawed and re-read and fiddled with the thing I forced myself to click “send”. Off went my query into the ether. This particular agent promised to read every query and respond within a month. So, now I wait.

I’m not going to send out a bunch of queries all at once. Partially because I want to see what kind of response I get. I might be able to tweak some things depending on how it is received, and hopefully have a better chance next time.

Besides, it’s too hard. I need to gird my loins to prepare for the next one.

In the meantime I tried out #PitMad, which is a twitter event in which authors “tweet” a 140 character pitch for their book on a given day, in this case, it was yesterday, June 4th.  Agents and publishers “favourite” the ones they like. If your tweet gets favourited you can send that person a query.

I’ve spent a couple days condensing the book into that 140 character pitch and scheduled them all, as I was working on Thursday and wouldn’t be able to hover over Twitter all day. At the time of this writing (4:23 PM) I’ve had one favourite – woo hoo! A couple hours to go yet, and there might be agents looking over the #PitMad twitter stream tonight, so who knows.

At least someone liked my pitch enough to request a query. It’s a little bit of hope that keeps writers going.

In the meantime I drink my tea and continue researching agents and keep plugging away on the Book Two revisions and try to find time to write more short stories and…..

I’ll keep you posted as to how it all goes….watch this space…..

Photo cred: Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, by Justine Warrington, on Flickr

Have you ever been too afraid to take that final step on a project you’ve been working on forever? Any other writers out there who have a hard time with the “click of faith”? Tell me about it, I’d love to commiserate with you!