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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