“In a sort of ghastly simplicity 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”
- C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man
Come visit our inaugural issue of http://www.anunexpectedjournal.com, “The Abol_Issue” where we discuss C.S. Lewis’s critique of relativism in morality, and how not utopian but dystopian societies result, which put at risk our very humanity.
Then visit our facebook discussion page as we discuss a different article each week. This week we have been discussing the basic book itself. A short summary follows here …
In the Abolition of Man, Lewis explores the ultimate, dystopic end of a society that tries to eradicate the Tao (the universally acknowledged system of morality he makes a case for in Chapter 2, “The Way” and the appendix, where he cites cultures as diverse as Greek, Roman, Indian, Chinese, Babylonian, Norse and American Indian as recognizing basic principles as honesty, not stealing, honoring parents etc.).
Chapter 1, “Men without Chests” begins with a critique of a textbook that claims all aesthetic judgments are entirely subjective, with no basis in ultimate, objective reality. Lewis opposes this, stating that an education in virtue – training children to take pleasure in beauty and virtue, and feel disgust for vice – presupposes the reality of the Tao, and of the sentiments it should evoke in us. We are most often in need of being “awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity” than “to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility.” The need is “not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” Otherwise, as Lewis concludes the chapter,
“Such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible… In a sort of ghastly simplicity 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.”
Using a metaphor from Plato and the components of the soul (which Plato uses to analyze an ideal society), our head uses reason to draw us towards truth, our stomachs (appetites) represent our animal nature, but it is through the chest, the proper training of our sentiments, that “the head rules the stomach” and mediates between our divine and animal natures.
Chapter 2, “The Tao” – Lewis argues here, is a complete set of morals, a “Tao-shaped circle” that defines us as human beings. While Jesus calls us to honor the Tao within our hearts, others (ex. Nietzsche) call for us to abolish it altogether. Once outside this circle, we fashion new moralities, often by emphasizing a single virtue from the Tao, and then feeling justified in breaking the rest. Politically, in Lewis’s time that could be seen in Nazism (claiming to purify the human race) and Communism (a totalitarian state enforcing equality). This message is illustrated in Lewis’ Space Trilogy, where the planetary imperialist Westin in the first two novels proposes all manner of subjugations in the name of preservation of humanity. Which brings us to the final chapter,
Chapter 3, “The Abolition of Man” where Lewis shows how a narrowly focused pursuit of some distorted virtue from within the Tao (some kind of moral cum racial purity, survival of the race, or the conquest of nature) will cause us commit the most inhumane and terrible acts, putting at risk our very humanity. In making any earthly thing (even a good thing) into a god, it quickly becomes a demon, and in the absence of any standard (the Tao), there is no way to say what is good or evil. We can build some kind of a utopia, but its rulers will have no fixed standard to say what is best for man. Compare to Ps. 19 (The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul v.7). Instead, such rulers will base their decisions on things like their digestion and the weather(!), rather than a sense of duty (to the Tao; ultimately, to the Tao-Giver). Like Plato’s tyrants, who consider themselves above ethics and laws, the base desires of the stomach will control the reason of their head. Or, as in That Hideous Strength, the finale to Lewis’s Space Trilogy, the rulers (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments – “N.I.C.E.”) will destroy humanity itself in its single-minded, Tao-distorting pursuit of the conquest of nature. N.I.C.E. thus erects, or preserves, the bodiless head of a criminal mastermind, showing their disgust for the physical aspects of humanity, and of humanity itself. In conquering nature, and distorting the Tao, all they have really achieved is to destroy humanity itself.
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (1947).
C.S. Lewis, The Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1944), That Hideous Strength (1945).
Louis Markos, The Life and Writings of C.S. Lewis (2000) – Course Gudiebook, CD Lecture series – online available https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/life-and-writings-of-c-s-lewis.html.