Monday, August 29, 2011

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man: Or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of School. 1944. New York: HarperOne, 2000.

I didn’t expect of find apologist C. S. Lewis discussing the Tao. He used it as a term to describe natural law or traditional values, which he defended in the three lectures collected in The Abolition of Man.

This is a hard book for me to write about, though it is short. Lewis wrote as a thoughtful and educated man to an audience he assumed could follow him. I don’t find it easy to summarize his arguments and do them justice, though I will try.

Lewis began by criticizing a trend in education that debunks emotion and sentiment in favor of reason. The particular English composition he used as an example rightly showed students how to see through the shallow sentimentality and factual falseness of bad writing, but failed to show the merits of good writing, worthy sentiments, or deeper truth.

The product of such an education is people without hearts. Instead of mastering reason, students were equipped with shallow reasonableness. By inoculating students against one kind of propaganda, the authors of the text made them more vulnerable to other propaganda.

For fruitful education, Lewis offers the Tao, teaching people to recognize and esteem the inherent value of things. As he puts it, “The right defence against false sentiments is just sentiments.”

Those who reject traditional values, even if not entirely conscious of it as may be the case of the textbook authors, are proposing new values. However, the tools they use to cut down the old work just as well on the new. They must either stick to the idea that values are cultural vestiges or conventions that have roots in unwanted sentiment instead of desirable reason, and lay the groundwork for future reasoners and reformers to overthrow the new values, or appeal to inherent, self-evident values. On this latter basis, the Tao has much history and endurance.


These ideas have real social consequence. This book was first published in 1944, so the Nazi regime in Germany was very much on Lewis’ mind, as well as then-rising Communism. Though the pseudoscience that the Nazis used to justify their racist policies has been debunked, and even the Soviet Union has crumbled, the idea that a more scientific and rational governance and policy will perfect, or at least greatly improve, human society is alive an well.

As we master nature, even human nature, we also give people who acquire and control that knowledge and technology mastery over other people. Successive generations of such people will grow in mastery over others and, raised with no heart or inherently true values, they will have nothing by which to govern themselves except their own appetites and desires. George Orwell’s vision would cease to be merely an imaginative projection of the excesses of socialism and become something close to prophecy.

Lewis doesn’t see reason and sentiment as being natural enemies, only that some have tried to position one against the other. His vision would be people educated to have within them both powerful reason and powerful sentiments, especially ethical sentiments.

My own experience makes this an attractive vision to me. As a child, I had experienced strong emotions, especially anger, that threatened to overwhelm me because I lacked maturity and self-control. As I got a little older, though still a child, I clamped down on my emotions and tried to comport myself according to reason a much as possible; Mr. Spock from Star Trek was my model. This became a problem, too, in that my life and relationships lacked fullness as I deprived myself and others of something important in my connections. Now that I am a man, and I am coming to see what the fullness of that can be, I long to have both a powerful mind and strong heart. To have one without the other sets one up for many falls, but to have them together is a synergistic combination that empowers one to have greater appreciation for and effectiveness in life.

C.S. Lewis also wrote:
The Great Divorce

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in:
The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek
War Against the Weak by Edwin Black