Some incisive reflections on this very important book by Lewis:
Those who lived through the rule of both Communism and Nazism – even if from afar – would have known the great evil that out-of-control statism can pose. People such as Orwell, Tolkien and Lewis of course all wrote sober works warning about such things, be it in the form of fiction or non-fiction – or both.
Exactly 80 years ago – give or take a few months – C. S. Lewis delivered three seminal lectures that were later put together in the book, The Abolition of Man. I have just offered a number of key quotes from this brief but urgently-needed volume over the past few days:
Here I want to draw your attention to what others have said about this particular book, and some of the other works in the Lewis corpus. His warnings about the perils of moral relativism, of the rise of the uber-state, of scientism replacing real science, and the like, did occupy a fair amount of his attention.
There would be many good volumes that speak to all this. Here are seven very good ones that you should be aware of:
Aeschliman, Michael, The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism. Eerdmans, 1983, 1998.
Boone, Mark and Kevin Neece, eds., Science Fiction and The Abolition of Man: Finding C. S. Lewis in Sci-Fi Film and Television. Pickwick, 2017.
Kreeft, Peter, C. S. Lewis for the Third Millennium. Ignatius Press, 1994.
Mosteller, Timothy and Gayne John Anacker, ed., Contemporary Perspectives on C. S. Lewis’ ‘The Abolition of Man’: History, Philosophy, Education, and Science. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
Ward, Michael, After Humanity: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Word on Fire Academic, 2021.
West, John, ed., The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society. Discovery Institute, 2012.
Williams, Donald, Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition. B&H, 2006.
Here I want to quote from four of them – the other three are collections of essays by various writers so I will pass over them for now. I begin with some summarising words by Donald Williams:
We cannot make human beings less than human; but by training them to think of themselves as less than human, we can get them to act as less, with disastrous consequences. In other words, we may not be able to make them unhuman, but we can make them inhuman. Therefore, Lewis speaks with hyperbole perhaps but nevertheless makes a valid point when he says of those who operate on the basis of materialist reductionism that “it is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void.” They have tried with mixed success to give up something that is essential to full humanity, at least. The two rival conceptions of humanity stare at each other across a great chasm, and what is at stake is the possibility of a civilization in which man can be whole, develop to his full potential: “Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can overarch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”
Looking at the power the Controllers will have over the controlled, Kreeft says this:
The picture is more terrifying than nuclear war to one who values souls more than bodies. Our question here is not that of forecasting whether we will actually create this Brave New World. Nor is that Lewis’ question. His question is rather that of the prophets. It is not foretelling so much as forthtelling. It is the publication of the road map and the demand that we ask ourselves: Quo vadis? Where does this road lead? It is up to the traveler, both individually and collectively, to choose to turn back or not, to repent or to apostasize, to be regressive or progressive down the mudslide to Hell.
Our question here is neither of these two: neither whether the road is leading to Hell’s victory of a Brave New World (I think it is clear that it is) nor whether we will get off the slide before we hit bottom (no one knows that but God); but whether it is possible, whether “men without chests” can exist, whether Aquinas is wrong when he says the natural law cannot be abolished from the heart of man.
Lewis pretty clearly thinks it is possible: “It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will.”
The only dam to this flood is the Tao. “Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”
Michael Aeschliman also speaks to this matter:
Ideas have consequences, Lewis insisted, and although the problems of modernity have been immensely complicated by technical innovations such as the advent of automation, the factory system, and the massive increases in the speed of communication and transportation, the root of the problem remains philosophical. Lewis’s point in The Abolition of Man is not simply that the consequences of scientific materialism are bad, but that it is internally inconsistent and false. In his criticism of this heresy he claims no originality beyond that which can be said to derive from remaining faithful to the best that has been thought and said, especially in the tradition of Western philosophy and ethics….
Without a doctrine of objective validity, only individual desire remains a standard to determine action. In the hands of an empowered elite, the capacity to reorder society with the techniques of a vastly powerful and unchecked science is virtually limitless and, of course, open to monstrous abuses – although, Lewis reiterates, the valuation of monstrousness would be irrelevant within an ethical framework based solely on the dictates of personal desire….
With the growth of scientism has come a massive increase in the powers of technology and applied science to change and manipulate not only the physical landscape but the mental and human landscape too. As the means and instruments proliferate, the distinction between ends and means seems to grow more obscure in modern culture, so much so that finally man himself can be seen as a means to undetermined ends; he is deluded by ‘what William Barrett calls “the illusion of technique.” There is no longer any question of “conforming the soul to reality”; there is only the question of increasing our power over and pleasure in a world of objects.
Finally, these thoughts by Ward:
The Abolition of Man may be understood as a work of prophecy. All great prophets, whether they be ancient religious figures like Isaiah and Jeremiah or more recent political figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, work on two fronts at once. They prophesy both to critique their contemporary situation and to indicate likely future states of affairs as and when the logic of the present situation unfolds. The old Sunday School definition can hardly be improved on: prophets tell forth and foretell.
“If Abolition were merely a description of war-time Britain, it would not have become the classic that it has. And if Lewis had merely been prognosticating when he spoke to his original 1943 audience, he would not have gained much of a hearing at the time, for how would they know whether his predictions would come true? What marks out his message as genuinely prophetic is that it resonated with its first hearers and has only attracted further attention as the decades have passed.
His prophecy is largely a jeremiad, largely a negative case. He identifies the subjectivism in his culture and forecasts its probable trajectory. It is chiefly a philosophical forecast, intellectual in intent. He is describing the logical end point of the current situation more than prescribing a remedy to it. There are, to be sure, notes of warning, not to say alarm. There are also some gestures of optimism when he briefly suggests possible mitigating actions that might be taken and considers alternative, more positive, outcomes. But the fact that he ends the final chapter on a hollow note, by depicting moral blindness (‘to “see through” all things is the same as not to see’), indicates that his main purpose is less to change our destination than to predict our destiny. He is simply charting the likely course of unchecked subjectivism, saying in effect, ‘This philosophical error leads to sub-humanity and if a sub-human fate is what we want, that’s the fate we’ll get; we shouldn’t be surprised by where we end up.’ There is something of the same tone in the repeated world-weary words of Hingest, the good scientist, in That Hideous Strength: ‘It all depends on what a man likes.’ We do not have to adopt subjectivism, but if we decide we like it, and make no course correction, it will usher us inexorably to a bad end. The choice is ours.
I share these few quotes in the hopes that you will check out these books even further. But more importantly, as with the quotes by Lewis I shared in my two prior pieces, I offer them in the hope that you will get yourself a copy of The Abolition of Man and give it a careful read – or pull it off your shelves and revisit it.
You will be thankful that you did.