Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Lewis' "The Abolition of Man"

Lewis' The Abolition of Man is a set of three essays/lectures, relying on reflections on English education and moral subjectivism to the importance of living by "Natural Law" (or something similar-- what Lewis calls the Tao). 

I've often said that Mere Christianity is a great (the greatest?) apologetic for "Modern" thinkers, while The Great Divorce is a great apologetic for "Post-modern" thinkers. The Abolition of Man fits between both-- the logic of Modern applied to the norms of Post-modern. (In a recent issue of CRJ and on this podcast of CRI's radio show, Adam Pelser applies it to modern society, eugenics, etc.)

The first essay, "Men Without Chests", starts by taking two textbook authors to task. He starts with something seemingly small-- their reduction of Coleridge's use of "sublime" to express mere feelings. Students are meant to learn that "all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant." (19) This troubles Lewis the thinker as a serious error. He also laments it as a missed opportunity to inspire students-- instead, almost guaranteeing that they will find the subject uninteresting. "The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments." (27) But most troubling to Lewis as an educator, the authors' angle serves as propaganda. A student thinks he's doing English "and has no notion that ethics, theology and politics are all at stake." (20) In sum, the two literary critics "while teaching him nothing about letters, have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose." (23) 

Lewis is not sure whether this springs from error-- or malice and an underhanded desire to sweep away the old to bring in their own, new-and-improved worldview (25). In any case, one picks up the textbook and gets "the work of amateur philosophers where he expected the work of professional grammarians." (26) In this, I'm reminded of the scientists who do more sciency stuff than Science.

Two popular, contemporary examples: 1.) A simplistic approach to global warming: too much faith in highly-speculative models; ignoring the role of ideology and govt funding; and failing to answer the four big, necessary questions (extent of GW; extent to which it's man-made; benefits vs. costs of GW; benefits vs. costs of policies-- in practice). 2.) Trying to defend Evolution as a comprehensive system/explanation while relying on lousy and unstated assumptions about metaphysics to draw their inferences
(like Jerry Coyne)

The punchline for Lewis is that all of this develops "men without chests"-- despite calls to have the attributes that go along with chests. "We remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful." (37)

The second essay is "The Way". Lewis opens by noting the universal and necessary contradiction within relativism-- that, at the least, people are absolute (and often dogmatic) in their view that everything is relative. Why would the authors bother to write a book, otherwise?! "Their skepticism about values is on the surface; it is for use on other people's values: about the values current in their own set, they are not nearly skeptical enough." (43)

Finally, in the last essay, "The Abolition of Man", Lewis notes that man's power over Nature is really the power of some men over other men, using Nature as an instrument (67). From there, he observes that the present has power over the future. Today, there is much talk about government debt and climate change-- and the real and supposed burdens on the next generation. But it's true in all regards. Lewis focuses on Eugenics, Communism, and Nazism to make the point. Here, "the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please." (70) But without the values of the Tao, how do they judge how to proceed? "They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void...Man's final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man." (74)


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home