'The Abolition of Man,' by C.S. Lewis A summary

by Sam Selikoff March 23, 2012


Chapter 1: Men Without Chests

The authors of a book on English grammar make the following point. They say that anyone who says, for example, "That waterfall is beautiful," is not really saying that the waterfall is intrinsically beautiful; they are just saying that they have feelings of beauty inside of them, and so therefore they are really misusing the English language. Lewis points out that the authors are making a philosophical rather than a grammatical point.

He then argues that this point fails on many grounds. First, the person claiming the waterfall was beautiful wouldn't have feelings of beauty inside of him - he'd have feelings of humility. Similarly, if someone said, "John is unjust," that person wouldn't have feelings of unjustness inside of him, he'd have feelings of justice, of discerning what is just from what is unjust. So the authors' point doesn't even make sense on their own grounds.

Lewis' larger point is that the authors are really making a pretty sweeping statement: they are claiming that there are 'facts', and there are 'mere feelings'. By 'facts', they mean, anything that doesn't contain a value judgement. So, anytime someone has an opinion about something, that person isn't actually talking about anything that is 'true' or 'real', he is just saying fluff, just speaking meaningless words. Lewis disagrees and says that things in the real world have certain intrinsic qualities about themselves, and that everyone knows and recognizes this. Two people argue whether a painting is beautiful, because both of those people are trying to grasp the true nature of the thing. In fact, people wouldn't argue about anything unless they had some external, objective reference to which they were both referring, both trying to ascertain.

Lewis classifies this process of human reasoning (rather than meaningless emotion/faith) as: head - chest - belly. The head is the intellect; the chest, the heart; and the belly, the instinct. Lewis says this is what gives men their identity as human beings. He says with just our head and belly we are animals, but that in fact the head governs the belly through the chest. He notes that people from all backgrounds agree that sentiment, generosity, the existence of good and evil and right and wrong - all emotions that come from the 'chest' - are true. He says the authors are creating men without chests; men that really are not men at all, that are unable to discern truth about the world because they have diminished their ability to discern sentiment (ought) from the things they perceive in the real world.

Lewis concludes the chapter by noting that the authors, scholarly academics and textbook editors, cannot even be referred to as 'intellectual' or 'more refined' than a general layman, according to their system - since that statement would imply that truth value can actually be ascribed to value judgements (in this case, the judgement that the authors are refined). So, the authors cannot maintain that they are intellectual or refined, based on their own system.

They also cannot maintain that one ought to learn correct grammar, because, according to them, this actually only means that they have subjective feelings about what one ought to learn, instead of it being an objective fact that one should learn correct grammar. Now, what if the authors respond, "We are not telling people what they should or should not do, we are just reporting the facts. This is correct grammar; do with it what you will." (Of course, this is hardly the purpose of writing a textbook). But this argument fails also, as it simply pushes the problem back one step further. When someone claims that the proposition A is true, they're saying they think A is true. So again, on the authors' own system, we could simply respond, "But you only think it's correct grammar. Those are merely your feelings. They don't actually correspond to anything real or true, objectively speaking." Therefore, since arguing any point (be it grammar or morality) involves trying to persuade somebody to believe something you currently do but that they do not, the very process of arguing itself entails a belief in the ability to grasp objective truth about the nature of the thing you're arguing about.

Things either have an objective nature, or they do not; and if they do not, there is no way to argue the point. That is what we've just demonstrated. In this case, then, we have no reason to believe that things do not have an objective nature. What argument could one possibly give? Any attempt at arguing refutes the point. And so, we are forced to conclude that things must have an objective nature. Anyone who argues anything must believe this. Lewis calls the true nature of all things in life the Tao. The Tao is the set of all objective value judgements about all things. The Tao exists, and is recognized by people of all backgrounds.

We see that in making their arguments about what the man in the original story was really saying about the waterfall, the authors are not engaged in some scientific, value-free analysis like they think they are. They are just picking and choosing parts of the Tao arbitrarily, to make their point - even though their point is that the Tao doesn't exist.

Chapter 2: The Way

Lewis begins by saying that even though the authors' philosophy would lead to the destruction of the society, this itself does not prove the philosophy to be false. But the authors have a problem. By writing a book that is purely practical in nature (a nature on how one ought to write the English language), they have implicitly advanced their own value judgement. They are saying, the English language should be written this way. But why should it? For what reason or purpose? Whatever it is, it exists, or else their book is simply impossible. So from this, Lewis deduces that the authors don't believe that everything that contains a value judgement is meaningless (they think people ought to know proper grammar).

Lewis wants to see if it's possible to construct a rationalistic philosophy where value judgements do not involve emotion or sentiment - do not involve chests. He begins by considering whether one can make the following claim on this philosophy: "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." (This is a line from the Roman lyrical poet Horace's Odes). (Note Lewis here is assuming that dying for one's country is an obvious moral good that everyone agrees on. Perhaps he could have just said, dying to save one's family.)

Now, maybe the man who holds this philosophy thinks it's good to die for one's country since it promotes the survival of the other members of your country. So maybe he thinks what promotes survival is good. But then, why are some men asked to die and not others? On this philosophy, you cannot respond, "Because those men are proud or honorable." Remember that these types of words are meaningless, since they are emotional. Lewis is really pointing out the is-ought gap. The authors may think the proper way to speak English is in such and such a way, but they cannot leap from that to giving practical advice about how people ought to speak. Implicit in that leap is a value judgement: people ought to speak proper English. But why must this be? No rational reason can be given, on this philosophy.

Can instinct explain everything? If someone has an instinctual urge to die for his country, should he indulge it? Why? Just because it is instinctual? What makes something that's instinctual worth indulging? The authors cannot answer this question. On the basis of survival they cannot say (on this basis they wouldn't be able to discourage urges that opposed survival, which they necessarily would have to, since the man would have to die first in order to save his country). So instinct itself cannot dictate value. Again, we have the is-ought distinction. Even asking whether or not a certain instinct should take precedence over another presumes knowledge of their comparative dignity (of which instinct is 'better' than the other, of there even being a 'better' to begin with).

Lewis argues that even though the is-ought distinction holds, just because an ought cannot be produced from an is doesn't mean an ought is meaningless or irrational or subjective. Something has to be self-evident, or else nothing can be proved. So it is not irrational to ascertain the Tao from existence.

So, the Tao is everything that is moral. And one cannot attack the Tao, because to attack it requires its use. So the Tao is fixed. But does this mean that we cannot develop the Tao? And because people disagree about morality, about what is in the Tao and what isn't, isn't this a contradiction? Lewis says we really are developing our understanding of the Tao. There are things we're pretty sure that are in there, things that most all nations of the world agree on. But still we can develop things that aren't quite right, we can extend them - and this is all in accordance with the Tao itself, since these developments acknowledge the Tao's existence. On the other hand, trying to attack or do away with the Tao (i.e. trying to develop philosophies that claim there is no objective meaning or purpose to life, like Nihilism) is a contradiction. Lewis quotes Confucius: "With those who follow a different Way it is useless to take counsel." Confucius is saying it is hopeless to take advice from those who are attacking the Tao from inside the Tao, as their position is self-defeating.

Chapter 3: The Abolition of Man

Lewis begins by saying that many today are devoted to man's conquest over nature. While the advance of technology has certainly benefited mankind (e.g. the development of modern medicine), Lewis says that this is not really man controlling nature. In fact, man must use other men and their developed means to 'conquer' nature. The patient must use the doctor to 'conquer' nature. So it is really a power that some men can exercise over others, using nature as its instrument, rather than collective Man's exercise of power over nature. (Lewis stresses that he's not talking about an abuse of power, perhaps by wicked men. He's saying that, in any case where we talk about man conquering nature, it's really the exercise of power by one man over another.)

Time is a very important consideration in all of this. Those who desire to practice eugenics, for example, think they are increasing man's power over nature. In fact, the men that come after them will be weaker, not stronger, for their predecessors have dictated how they are to live. Suppose one generation completely rejected all tradition and developed many great new technologies, and further that they had many plans for how to organize society. It is clear that the generations to follow would be, in a sense, enslaved to their planning. They may have more power, in the sense of technology, but they would also have less, in terms of being able to choose how to live. The conditions under which they live would have been 'planned' by the previous generation. In the extreme case of eugenics, only those the previous generation had picked would be able to live at all. And if also the 'science' of psychological conditioning has reached its apex, and is perfect in its influence, the current generations will be propagandized to believe precisely what the previous generation wanted them to. This will indeed be complete and total victory of Man over nature; but what has lost the battle is not only mother nature, but human nature too.

Lewis says that even though families obviously exercise this power to some extent in raising their children, it is much different with the progressives and scientists. For one, their power is much, much greater. The conditioners, having absolute power, will get to do with the next generation whatever they please. But secondly, and more importantly, families inculcate the teachings of the Tao in their children, since they stand squarely in it. Their purpose is to pass on what they have learned about objective good and evil, and for their children to learn and extend it. But the conditioners are outside the Tao. What, then, guides their decisions about how to condition their posterity? Should they condition based on what men used to enjoy: food, long life, art, reproduction, etc.? Why should they do this? Because of a duty they have? But they are outside the Tao. No duty for them exists - or if it does, they have not 'conquered' nature, and they are still men. We see that for them, there is no rational way to choose how to condition their perfected generation of 'men' who have conquered nature (who aren't really men at all). The conditioners don't necessarily have to be bad men - they simply aren't men at all. And the first generation who are the objects of their conditioning aren't men, either. They are simply the subjects of the conditioners' conditioning. So man's final conquest of nature has proved to be the abolition of Man.

The conditioners, standing outside the Tao, can have no rationale behind how they choose to condition. By hypothesis, there is no ought. So the only thing left for them to do is follow their pleasures, the whims of their minds. But these whims are themselves only the product of 'mere Nature'. So we see that the conditioners themselves, having conquered nature, are really being conquered by nature, as it is Nature that is dictating their every move and action. Again, we see that standing outside of the Tao leads to the destruction of man by Nature.

Lewis finishes his final essay by asking for a new method of scientific inquiry. He says we have learned a lot through our 'explaining away'; that science began as a brother to magic, and both were wrought with ill intent, used purely as means for other ends instead of ends in themselves, and simply that science was more efficient and so won out. But Lewis thinks there's something about Science that made it beat magic, something 'good' about it, something in it that is also in the Tao. He hopes that scientific inquiry could change into asking about how a thing fits into the whole, rather than attempting to explain away that thing. In any case, even if this new mode of inquiry doesn't exist, Lewis points out that the scientists must stop somewhere, before they explain away explanation itself, and undo all of their work.

Additions:

  1. Read pg. 21. I don't think Lewis is talking about is-ought yet. He's just saying that you cannot peddle a moral sentiment that denies the existence of moral sentiments. So you cannot teach people that morality doesn't exist. You are teaching; therefore you think your students should believe what you're saying. But should is a moral sentiment. Thus, the position is self-defeating.

Questions:

  1. Am I getting confused on truth vs. morality here?
  2. Is Lewis claiming there is no is-ought gap, that they are both what it means to be Rational?

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