The Abolition of Man
|Author||C. S. Lewis|
|Subject||Value and Natural law|
|Publisher||Oxford University Press|
|Media type||hard⁓ & paperback|
|Preceded by||A Preface to Paradise Lost|
|Followed by||Beyond Personality|
The Abolition of Man is a 1943 book by C. S. Lewis. Subtitled "Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools," it uses that as a starting point for a defense of objective value and natural law as well as a warning of the consequences of doing away with or "debunking" those things. It defends science as something worth pursuing but criticizes using it to debunk values, the value of science itself being among them, or defining it to exclude such values. The book was first delivered as a series of three evening lectures at King's College, Newcastle, part of the University of Durham, as the Riddell Memorial Lectures on February 24 to 26, 1943.
Moral subjectivism vs. natural law
Lewis begins with a critical response to "The Green Book" by "Gaius and Titius": The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing, published in 1939 by Alexander ("Alec") King and Martin Ketley. The Green Book was used as a text for upper form students in British schools.
Lewis criticises the authors for subverting student values and claims that they teach that all statements of value (such as "this waterfall is sublime") are merely statements about the speaker's feelings and say nothing about the object. Such a view, Lewis argues, makes nonsense of value talk. It implies, for example, that when a speaker who condemns some act as contemptible is really saying, "I have contemptible feelings."
By denying that values are real or that sentiments can be reasonable, subjectivism saps moral motivation and robs people of the ability to respond emotionally to experiences of real goodness and real beauty in literature and in the world. Moreover, Lewis claims that it is impossible to be a consistent moral subjectivist. Even the authors of The Green Book clearly believe that some things, such as improved student learning, are truly good and desirable.
Lewis cites ancient thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle and Augustine, who believed that the purpose of education was to train children in "ordinate affections", to train them to like and dislike what they ought and to love the good and hate the bad. Lewis claims that although such values are universal, they do not develop automatically or inevitably in children. Thus, they are not "natural" in that sense of the word), but they must be taught through education. Those who lack them lack the specifically human element, the trunk that unites intellectual man with visceral (animal) man, and they may be called "men without chests".
Men without chests: a dystopian future
Lewis criticizes modern attempts to debunk "natural" values, such as those that would deny objective value to the waterfall, on rational grounds. He says that there is a set of objective values that have been shared, with minor differences, by every culture, which he refers to as "the traditional moralities of East and West, the Christian, the Pagan, and the Jew...". Lewis calls that the Tao, from the Taoist word for the ultimate "way" or "path" of reality and human conduct. (Although Lewis saw natural law as supernatural in origin, as evidenced by his use of it as a proof of theism in Mere Christianity, his argument in the book does not rest on theism.)
Without the Tao, no value judgments can be made at all, and modern attempts to do away with some parts of traditional morality for some "rational" reason always proceed by arbitrarily selecting one part of the Tao and using it as grounds to debunk the others.
The final chapter describes the ultimate consequences of this debunking: a distant future in which the values and morals of the majority are controlled by a small group who rule by a "perfect" understanding of psychology, and who in turn, being able to "see through" any system of morality that might induce them to act in a certain way, are ruled only by their own unreflected whims. In surrendering rational reflection on their own motivations, the controllers will no longer be recognizably human, the controlled will be robot-like, and the Abolition of Man will have been completed.
An appendix to The Abolition of Man lists a number of basic values seen by Lewis as parts of the Tao, supported by quotations from different cultures.
Critical discussion of The Abolition of Man often centers on the following points:
- Does Lewis attack a weak and simplistic form of moral subjectivism? Are there stronger versions that are not vulnerable to his critiques?
- Can one believe that moral values are in some sense "objective" without accepting Lewis's full-blown natural-law theory of ethics?
- Does Lewis commit the fallacy of false alternatives by arguing that one must either reject all values or accept the traditional natural-law theory of ethics?
- Is it true that believers in moral subjectivism typically or always lack moral motivation?
- Does Lewis overstate the degree of moral consensus that exists across different cultures and religions?
- National Review ranked the book #7 in its 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century list. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute ranked the book as the second best book of the 20th century.[dead link]
- In a lecture on Walker Percy, Professor Peter Kreeft of Boston College lists the book as one of six "books to read to save Western Civilization," alongside Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy, Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
In popular culture
- Christian hip hop duo Mars ILL named the track "The Abolition of manCHILD" from their 2002 album Raw Material after the book.
- In 2003, the post-hardcore band Thrice based the lyrics of the song "The Abolition of Man" on the book. It was featured in the band's third album, The Artist in the Ambulance.
- The band Point of Recognition also allude to Lewis' book in the lyrics of their song "Abolition of Man."
- Foumilog, CH: Fourmi lab, May 2007, retrieved July 11, 2008.
- Fuse action (review), Brothers Judd.
- C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan, 1947, pp. 14, 30. In fact, the "associationist" theory of meaning King and Ketley defend in the book (borrowed largely from C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards' influential book, The Meaning of Meaning (1923)), does not claim that all value statements refer solely to the speaker's feelings. See The Control of Language (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1939), p. 14.
- Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 15.
- Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 15.
- Lewis, The Abolition of Man, p. 20
- Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pp. 39-40.
- See, e.g., John Beversluis, C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, revised ed. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007, pp. 83-92.
- "The 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century", NR (list).
- Book ranking (PDF), Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
- Kreeft, Peter, Lost in the cosmos (audio).
- Gregory Bassham, ed., C. S. Lewis's Christian Apologetics: Pro and Con. Leiden: Brill/Rodopi, 2015.
- Jean Beth Elshtain, "The Abolition of Man: C. S. Lewis's Prescience Concerning Things to Come." In David Baggett, Gary R. Habermas, and Jerry L. Walls, eds., C. S. Lewis as Philosopher. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2008: 85-95.
- C. S. Lewis, "The Poison of Subjectivism." In C. S. Lewis, The Seeing Eye and Other Selected Essays from Christian Reflections. Edited by Walter Hooper. New York: Ballantine Books, 1986: 99-112.
- Gilbert Meilaender, "On Moral Knowledge." In Robert MacSwain and Michael Ward, eds. The Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010: 119-31.
- Timothy M. Moesteller and Gayne John Anacker, eds., Contemporary Perspectives on C. S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man: History, Philosophy, Education, and Science. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.
- The Abolition of Man at Faded Page (Canada)
- The Abolition of Man (full text), Columbia University (with helpful "transcriber's footnotes").
- The Abolition of Man (PDF) (Ebook/PDF), Samizdat (public domain in Canada, as of 2014).
- "Notes on Quotations & Allusions in 'The Abolition of Man'", Lewisiana, NL.
- "A Summary and a Brief Summary of 'The Abolition of Man'", Lewisiana, NL.