The Abolition of Man by C.S. LewisWhen things get bad, I take out the bourbon. When, as occasionally happens, time drags on and things dont get any better, I put the bourbon away and take out C. S. Lewis. His books are short, readable, and filled with an uncanny amount of wisdom. His genius, and the reason hes always been a comfort to me, lies in his ability to convince me that the world as it appears to be, the world that seems so oppressive, is not the whole story.
The lifeline of depression, the fuel from which it draws all of its power, is the minds misguided belief that it is able to encompass the complete truth about past, present, and future. C. S. Lewis invites the mind into a conversation, using humor, commonplace observations, and logic. He welcomes you into a warm place, like visiting your grandparents at Christmas when you were eight years old. He takes hold of the worldview that led you to him. With gentle, honest, understanding hands he wraps his palms around the neck of that worldview and proceeds to strangle it until it is dead, dead, dead.
Lewis is known as a Christian writer. Most people I know want absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, to the extent that, for example, a friend of mine told me that despite my fervent recommendation, he refused to listen to anything by Leonard Cohen because he heard he sang about religion. Though this particular book is not about Christianity, if you are of the camp that really doesnt want to hear the first word from someone who is religious, you may find this book annoying. Be forewarned.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, Men Without Chests, begins with an example taken from a grade school grammar textbook. In the example, the authors of the textbook imply that there are no sublime things in the world, only feelings of sublimity within us. There is nothing that really deserves respect or castigation, no right responses or ways of thinking about things: there is only opinion.
Against this idea Lewis brings to bear the moral and ethical traditions of basically every culture that has ever existed. He lists all the rather startling similarities between, for example, Confucianism, Greek culture, Hinduism, and Jewish and Christian moral tradition. Im talking about things like finding joy in children, having reverence for old people, respecting your neighbor, being courageous, helping those less fortunate, protecting your family, and not lying about other people for your own gain. In fact, in a long appendix at the end of the book, Lewis takes each of these ideas and gives examples of it in a myriad of different cultures throughout history.
Lewis calls this group of ethical ideas The Tao. And it is at this point that the book gets really startling. First, these ideas are of a dual nature. They are somehow natural to man (exemplified by their reappearance throughout history), yet at the same time they must be taught from one generation to the next.
I see this in my three year old son. Through great effort, again and again, I try to teach him to respect other people. Not to, for example, hit other people when he is angry. The behavior Im trying to teach is, most emphatically, not what comes naturally to him.
Yet even in my own personal example I can see the duality Lewis talks about. What arguments can I make to dissuade him from hitting someone out of anger? If you do it and I see you, I will punish you? But thats not an argument against doing it, its an argument against getting caught. How would you like it if someone did that to you? But were not talking about someone doing that to him, were talking about him doing it to someone else. (He pointed this out, by the way.)
In the end, and it has taken me quite a bit of thought to understand this, I have to actually convince him that its wrong. And this is something different than logical argument. In order to do it, there must be some latent sense of...what? Justice? Proportion? Something that already exists within him that my words can latch on to. Something already within him that the word wrong speaks to.
So the duality is there, present in the facts that I a) have to teach him this and, b) can only make him really understand it and feel it by appealing to something which he already possesses and carries with him. The main point is this: the idea of what one ought to do cannot be brought before the judge of logic. Lewis made me realize that the word ought, used so often in our culture, is in fact one of the strangest words ever. What does it really mean?
Fortunately (and here comes another startling argument from Lewis) great thinkers like Aristotle and Plato have already thought over this idea. What is ought? Whatever it is its the same thing, it comes from the same place in our thoughts (or our bodies), that our appreciation of good art comes from. The organ used to judge beauty is one and the same as the organ that tells you what you ought to do.
When I read this, I almost couldnt believe it. Of course, Ive heard this argument before: I remember writing What the fuck are you talking about? in the margins of my copy of Platos dialogues when he brought up much the same argument. At the time, I thought it was completely ridiculous. But reading it now, in the present, it seemed startlingly true.
I thought back to some of the times Ive had a strong sense of ought. Years ago, exhausted and tired, my girlfriend and I were driving home from a late night movie. Rounding the curve of a deserted Austin freeway at three in the morning, our car passed a lone truck, sitting still by the side of the road, rammed into one of those gargantuan streetlights theyve put up every 100 feet or so. The streetlight had broken at its base and fallen directly on top of the cab of the truck.
In the compressed seconds after the image of the truck flashed by, the following thoughts went through my mind: I ought to pull over this car, run over there, and do what I can to help. I dont have a cell phone. I dont have any medical training. Theres nothing I can do. Im really tired. Somebody else with a cell phone will be along in a minute or two. Could I really make any kind of difference? What if theres a lot of blood and I have to take him to the hospital? I dont even know if theres anybody in that truck.
While all these thoughts were going on in my head, my stomach was fluttering with worry. But in between...in between my stomach and my head, there was another place: the chest. What we often refer to as the heart. While one part of me was fluttering with emotion, and another part was dithering with logic, this third part spoke its solution with an almost harmonic simplicity. I mean that though my chest (my heart) spoke a single answer, it felt as if this answer were made of a number of unified objects or notes or ideas. Like when someone strikes an e-major on a well-tuned guitar.
That, I think, is the ought that Lewis is talking about. And he is right: it does come from the chest. It is the chest. Compare this to the experience of viewing something really beautiful, such as a cathedral or sculpture or a vast rock wall, full of shades and contrast, carved out over centuries by falling water. Lewis claims that you will realize, perhaps to your surprise, that the two feelings come from exactly the same organ.
The more I read of books written from the 1900s onward, the more I become convinced that we are all in the middle of a fierce debate that started somewhere around that time, and that continues on to this day. This debate is over the future of mankind, the meaning of progress and, in the end, what it means to be human.
The remainder of the book concerns this debate. During Lewiss time eugenics was popular. One hopes that the current reader will regard, as Lewis did, the concept with great distaste. But however unpopular eugenics may be at the moment, Lewis points out that it is the concepts and philosophical ideas behind eugenics that are what are truly hideous.
Any vision of a perfect utopian society, or of any real progression toward it, must hold somewhere within its core, whether acknowledged or not, the idea that people must be changed. People must be made better. And the only way to do this, in the end, is to strike at the heart, the chest, inside each person. The only way is to attempt to change that organ, that function, that I have been trying to describe.
This is the meaning of the title of the book. Lewis argues that the essence of what man is can be found in that organ in the chest, the heart. And in order to achieve utopia, men in power are more than willing to modify, dull, or, if necessary, rip out the heart in order to achieve their goal. And when they do so, they will discover, to their (perhaps) horror, that what they have left is not a man at all.
Examples of this kind of coerced modification of the chest can be listed endlessly. To use the media to present something as ugly which people never thought of as ugly before. Or to make people think of certain other people as weak and diseased who are not. Or to deliberately try to make people afraid out of all proportion to what they have to fear. Or to attempt to redefine what people ought to do, based on the recommendations of some experts. Or to paint some people as corrupt and evil, and as the cause of the problems of society.
In the end, the ugliness comes from looking at another person and judging them: judging the ought they have come to within themselves. That, after all, is what you are doing every time you say you need to make a person (or group of people) better. As it is, this would just be ugliness. But when the massive power and coercion of the state becomes involved, as it always seems to, then the ugliness turns into something much, much worse. The course of history over the last century will provide plenty of examples, all provided courtesy of people whose goal was to make mankind better.
Of course, now that we all recognize how horrific all of that was, we are no longer engaged in the business of making people better. We are no longer involved in using the pronouncements of doctors, scientists, famous people, and intellectuals to dictate through force or influence what people ought to do, or how they ought to think. Nor do we disparage those with ideas different from the common culture. Nor does society lean on businesses, artists, and families to believe and behave in certain ways.
Now, we recognize that a diverse, vibrant society takes all kinds of viewpoints. As long as none of those viewpoints profess or seem to profess any wrong ideas, all voices are welcome. We invite everyone to join in the national discussion about which of the many new laws being proposed are the best ones to get people to behave more like they ought to, and to move our society into a better future.
As if all this werent enough content for a rather flimsy paperback, there is yet another startling argument that Mr. Lewis makes. He calls our attention to the nature of science. Accepting that science has certainly given us many wonderful things, can we say anything about what, exactly, science is?
Science is a way of looking at material objects in which we deliberately dismiss some aspects of those objects. Not only spiritual or emotional aspects, but also even physical aspects that are not of concern to the nature of our inquiry. In science, we deliberately blind ourselves to the whole of something, in order to better understand some part of it.
Many would argue, perhaps truthfully, that a clear understanding of the parts leads to a better understanding of the whole. Certainly, a clearer understanding of the parts allows us in many cases to manipulate the whole.
Through a really inspired comparison of Bacons New Organon to Goethes Faust, Mr. Lewis argues that, in doing this, we are making a kind of deal. The result will be increased ability to get the stuff we want: medicines, airplanes, cheap food, more leisure time, sex without pregnancy. And what are we giving up to get all this stuff that we want? Are we giving up anything?
Before I read this book, my answer would have been: No. What could we possibly be giving up? Now, Im not so sure.
Mr. Lewis states emphatically that he is not anti-science. He just wants us to be clear about what we are doing when we embrace science whole-heartedly. I think thats fair. If we pretend we are not making a choice when in fact we are, then somewhere down the line a point is going to arise when there are consequences that we didnt realize. I think that time is now. I think the fact that we have made this choice, and we didnt realize we were making a choice at all, has resulted in many of the conflicting views in our current society.
What are we giving up? We are giving up our view of the whole object: the object with all of its philosophical, emotional, and spiritual aspects intact. This is, in actuality, the object as it appears to us before we apply the scalpel of science to it. Yes, science can help us find out things, but only by a deliberate destruction, in our minds and often in physical reality, of the whole of the thing.
Take the following story as an example. In college, during a cat dissection, my partner and I were working on the large intestine. The room smelled of formaldehyde and our cat was stretched on a stainless steel table, his four paws tied with rope to allow us the easiest access to cut into his chest cavity.
Our lab assistant came over. Oh, let me show you this, he said. We stood back. He gathered the intestines in his hand and plopped them out onto the table beside the cats body. There was a thin membrane covering them which he proceeded to pull off and stretch out. It stretched like a balloon, him pulling the transparent membrane between his hands. There were blue and red vessels (colored with some kind of dye theyd put into the cat) running through the membrane that reminded me of scraggly branches of trees.
He held the membrane up, still stretched between his fingers. I saw his face on the other side of the membrane, staring at the criss-crossing vessels. Isnt it absolutely beautiful? he said.
It was beautiful. But suddenly I was hit with the strangeness of what we were doing. That membrane was never meant to be stretched out like that: between someones hands in a lab room. Those veins were never meant to be that color. That cat, whatever he was, whatever personality he had, was gone forever.
The cat as he had been presented to the world, a living organism with certain habits and tendencies, in fact a unique thing in all the history of the world, had been destroyed. This was done so that we could learn something that ostensibly was about all cats, and was about ourselves as well: how the organs in mammals function.
I am not against dissections. Im glad I did it and I would do it again. My only point is that a choice was made. Our minds were made to focus on certain aspects of the cat at the expense of others.
Mr. Lewis asks whether we dont lose some of our essential humanness in viewing things in this way. Do a dissection once and you might think about the things I thought about. Do it a thousand times and what happens?
I chose a cat dissection as my example because I thought it might carry more weight with modern readers, distant as they are from slaughterhouses. But Mr. Lewis is actually talking about every aspect of science.
I doubt anyone who reads this has performed a thousand dissections. But I would wager that there are things that everyone (including myself) who has grown up in our science-worshipping culture has thought about only scientifically a thousand times a thousand times. And Mr. Lewis argues, I think rightly, that this must have the same effect.
I read this book four times, thought about it for weeks, and tried to boil down what I thought about it into something succinct. Obviously, I was unable to do so. Looking back over the review now, I see that I have, for example, neglected Mr. Lewiss incredibly profound statement that all that we think of as evil is simply the good of a part of The Tao magnified in importance so that it dwarfs all the other aspects of The Tao. That thought alone is worth the price of admission.
There are probably five other main points of the book like this: points that I have missed. This book is simply too full of interesting points for any review of mine to do it justice. Five stars.
The Abolition of Man
We redefine God as our future selves. Now these are the words of an allegedly learned philosopher. But what about the views of ordinary, garden variety Americans on these matters of morality and truth? Are there any true things whatsoever? Lewis cites in his great work The Abolition of Man as a source of the breakdown of the Western moral vision grounded in objective truth? Are they disciples of their own versions of Gaius and Titius and their Green Book?
C. S. LEWIS: THE ABOLITION OF MAN (). A Summary it still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous.”.
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The Abolition of Man Summary
Author Info: C. See also: C. And The Screwtape Letters see Orrin's review are also likely to last, if for no other reason than that they are very funny. Though folks aren't terribly likely to make the connection to the historical person, the character C. Lewis will even live on thanks to the movie Shadowlands.
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.