I’ve read quite a few books by C.S. Lewis and have always found his writing very accessible but this book, despite its brevity, was stiff going. I struggled to understand some of what he wrote, but reading this book more seventy years after it was published, I can appreciate his brilliance and the prophetic ring to his words.
The Abolition of Man or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools, was first published in 1943 and its main focus is moral relativism. The book is divided into three sections:
1. Men Without Chests
Lewis opens with an example from an English textbook written for schools, The Green Book. The book’s authors, Gaius and Titius, argue that there is no such thing as objective value and that our judgements about value are subjective. You may value a painting for its beauty, but that’s just your own subjective judgement. There is no outside standard by which beauty can be judged.
Although the authors may have unintentionally bred a philosophy of value while trying to strengthen the minds of their young students against ‘sentiment,’ Lewis cuts to the heart of the issue:
The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.
The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments…a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.
There are universal principles, natural laws, traditional values; beliefs that certain attitudes are true and others false. They have provided a framework for objective value throughout history and have been shared by successful civilisations and religious systems throughout history. He calls these principles the Tao, and devoted an appendix at the end of the book to illustrate the extent of its influence.
Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science.
In an educational sense, if you stand within the Tao, the task is to train the student in those responses which are intrinsically ordinate or just. If outside the Tao, education will either remove all sentiments from the student’s mind or else encourage sentiments that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinancy.’
This moral relativism produces Men Without Chests. The chest is the seat of Magnanimity:
Of emotions organised by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest – Magnanimity – Sentiment – these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man.
Modern philosophy gives Men without Chests the appellation of Intellectuals. The following quotes were a couple of my favourites:
This gives them (the ‘Intellectuals) the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks 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.
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.
2. The Way
The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.
Lewis believes that those who want to discredit traditional values often have their own set of values which they consider to be free from inherited restrictions. By removing these restrictions or sentiments, our real, basic values are allowed to surface. He uses this chapter to trace that thinking through to its natural conclusion.
The ‘Innovator,’ having dismissed the Tao, looks for a basic ground of value. He decides that ethics based on Instinct will give him what he wants.
Telling us to obey Instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war…Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest.
The chapter concludes with the idea that the end result of stepping outside the Tao is the rejection of the concept of value altogether.
Let us regard all ideas of what we ‘ought’ to do simply as an interesting psychological survival: let us step right out of all that and start doing what we like. Let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that: not on any ground if imagined value, but because we want him to be such. Having mastered our environment, let yes now master ourselves and choose our own destiny.
3) The Abolition of Man
For the powers of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we gave seen, the power of some men to make other men what ‘they’ please.
Chuck Colson said that ‘Naturalism (the belief that there is a naturalistic explanation for everything in the universe) undercuts any objective morality, opening the door to tyranny.’
In the final chapter of The Abolition of Man, Man’s conquest of nature turns out to be man using Nature to exert power over other men – i.e. tyranny.
Through eugenics, pre-natal conditioning, propaganda and education based on ‘perfectly applied psychology,’ Man obtains full control over himself.
This final chapter had my mind in convolutions at times, especially when I lost the thread connecting it all to education. Re-reading some sections helped make it more cohesive. It really is a book that deserves multiple readings, and is listed as one of the National Reviews 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century. I highly recommend it, especially to parents and anyone involved in education.
The Abolition of Man is my entry in the Non-Fiction Classic category at the Back to the Classics 2015 Challenge.
12 thoughts on “The Abolition of Man by C.S Lewis (1898-1963)”
Wow, Carol, what a fantastic review! Just excellent! For stiff going, you certainly picked out the main threads of Lewis' argument. The Abolition of Man was the most challenging of Lewis' books that I've read so far. I can see reading it multiple times and still being illuminated each time you read it. In fact, I think that it's time for a re-read. 🙂
I shall put it on my bucket list. :o)
Good to know that I wasn't the only one who found it very challenging!
🙂 If I'd known how applicable it was to education I might have tried reading it years ago.
The Abolition of Man has been on my bucket list for some time, but you've encouraged me to move it to the top. Thanks you! 🙂
Great review, Carol! I typically need to take a long time with Lewis' theology or deep-thinking books because he is so high-level and intellectual and my little brain can't comprehend a lot of what he is saying unless I break it down and slow down, lol. I just finished A Grief Observed (I'll link the review) as my second read for The Classics Club and it was a ton more accessible and readable for me. I think I remember you mentioning you were reading The Problem of Pain? I am looking forward to that review because that is my second Lewis book on my Classics list!https://elle-alice.blogspot.com/2020/07/the-classics-club-grief-observed.html
Thanks, Elena. I don’t know whether it’s lack of brain power but I haven’t found The Problem of Pain easy either! I’ve nearly finished and it’s a great read but I don’t think it will be easy for me to review. Thanks for the link. I’ll have a read now. 🙂
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