The Continued Relevance of The Abolition of Man

By chance I picked up a copy of The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis recently and decided to re-read it. If you’ve read it, you would know it is a quick read and I had it finished in a few short sittings. I believe the first time I read it, I was on a binge of Lewis’ work and so I didn’t recall much about it. I have also heard it brought up a few times recently so I wanted to take a second look based on this alone. What follows will be a few quotes that jumped out at me and some commentary. I’ll be light on the latter as it is a short enough read for almost anyone and I can’t put anything better than C.S. Lewis can. 

The book is divided into three related essays as chapters and begins with an attack on an English textbook in Men without Chests. This might sound like beating a flea with a club but many of the most insidious things begin small and by targeting the young. The textbooks we use now are even worse which I expect would not surprise Lewis though it would certainly dismay him. Lewis uses what he calls “The Green Book” as a springboard to attack subjectivity particularly with regard to natural morality. This is then developed in the next two essays to much more weighty matters that are even more relevant today. It is notable that the work begins with a quote from Confucius and that Lewis chooses the concept of Tao to stand in for natural law throughout.

When I last wrote on C.S. Lewis I noticed that something I thought I had come up with myself was actually from something he wrote. I have had the same experience again on re-reading this which means what I read certainly stuck with me though not consciously. The relevant passage is quoted below.

This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) “ideologies,” all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.

The Way

I have put this in less eloquent terms when discussing Ayn Rand’s philosophy. There is an aspect of good in her philosophy which is why it is attractive (and dangerous). The value she places in hard work, property rights and individual initiative are all worthy and admirable. Yet as Lewis points out, her philosophy swells these “to madness in their isolation” leaving all other good at the wayside. The same could be said of her ideological opposite Marx. There is good in his philosophy and that’s what attracts so many to it. The problem is they both take only the pieces of the puzzle they like and therefore miss what can only be seen when all the pieces are together. Towards the end of the second essay The Way, he does mention he is a Christian but only in order to claim that what he arguing applies to humanity even without it.

Lewis also reminds us that the burden of proof is on the radicals and not the other way around as conservatives have failed to realise for over a century.

Wherever any precept of traditional morality is simply challenged to produce its credentials, as though the burden of proof lay on it, we have taken the wrong position. The legitimate reformer endeavours to show that the precept which its defenders allow to be more fundamental, or that it does not really embody the judgement of value it professes to embody. The direct front attack “Why?”—”What good does it do?”—”Who said so?” is never permissible; not because it is harsh or offensive but because no values at all can justify themselves on that level.

The Way

This is very similar to the old saying about knocking down a fence which is attributed to G.K. Chesterton though these were his exact words:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

This website was helpful for finding that. C.S. Lewis was certainly familiar with Chesterton so it wouldn’t be surprising to learn he borrowed the same idea. In any case, the lesson needs to be repeated that people following traditional morality have no obligation to explain ourselves to wreckers though at the same time, this is not to argue we should be deliberately ignorant either.

The last portion I wanted to quote was his observations on the so-called “elite” which he calls “The Conditioners”.

The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race. They are the motivators, the creators of motives. But how are they going to be motivated themselves? For a time, perhaps, by survivals, within their own minds, of the old “natural” Tao. Thus at first they may look upon themselves as servants and guardians of humanity and conceive that they have a “duty” to do it “good.” But it is only by confusion that they can remain in this state. They recognize the concept of duty as the result of certain processes which they can now control. Their victory has consisted precisely in emerging from the state in which they were acted upon by those processes to the state in which they use them as tools. One of the things they now have to decide is whether they will, or will not, so condition the rest of us that we can go on having the old idea of duty and the old reactions to it.

To some it will appear that I am inventing a factitious difficulty for my Conditioners. Other, more simple-minded, critics may ask “Why should yo suppose they will be such bad men?” But I am not supposing them to be bad men. They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what “Humanity” shall henceforth mean. 

“Good” and “bad,” applied to them are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforward to be derived. 

The Abolition of Man

Another idea I’ve probably unconsciously borrowed from Lewis is the knowledge that evil doesn’t call itself evil. That people doing evil acts often believe they are doing good. I discussed this in regards to the cartoonish way of thinking people have most clearly in the ridiculous caricature that Adolf Hitler has become. Once again, Lewis has put it much better than I could have.

I’m continually reminded what a clear thinker C.S. Lewis was and how shockingly prescient his writing was. The Abolition of Man is a must-read.

This entry was posted in Religion, Society and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.