The Abolition of Man, Chapter 3 & Appendix

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through three books by C. S. Lewis, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer‐reading‐project‐2018. The schedule is online.

I hope you’re enjoying the readings as much as I am. I had forgotten how prophetic Lewis is in this little volume.

If you’ve gotten a little behind, there is an excellent short summary of all three chapters by Arend Smilde at Lewisiana and a 13 page study guide by Dr. David Naugle at Dallas Baptist University.

I’ll content myself with three quotes that stood out to me:

When all that says ‘It is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains…. those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse. (pages 723–724)

This insight alone explains SO MUCH about contemporary society. Strength of feeling overwhelms everything else in today’s moral discourse. In fact, emotion has become the new determiner of moral values for many people. Pick virtually any news story and you will see this playing out, especially when it comes to the debates surrounding the sexual revolution and its consequences.

It is not surprising that the sexual norms prevalent in our society are in direct contradiction to the old ones, because one of the functions of the Tao is to be a trellis upon which our emotions may grow. To revisit Lewis’s phrasing from the first chapter “Men Without Chests”, it used to be that the head (reason) shaped the chest (emotions trained by habit) and thereby governed the belly (desire). But in our time it often happens that the belly shapes the chest and thereby governs the head. Our wants have become self‐authenticating and domineering.

My other favorite quote from this chapter addresses the limits of skepticism:

But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see. (page 730)

This reminds me of something Lewis said in the previous chapter:

The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in. (page 714)

Radical skepticism is self‐defeating. If it succeeds it fails.

Something I often tell people is that they need to learn to doubt their doubts. Our academic culture conditions us to place doubt in a privileged position over trust, but doubt is not a neutral thing. Doubt needs a justification just as belief does, and when you are inclined to doubt (whether the word of a friend, a truth of a moral principle, or the accuracy of a claim) it is worth asking whether the reasons for and costs of doubting outweigh the reasons for and costs of trusting. Sometimes they will, and sometimes they will not.

Skepticism, incidentally, is different from asking questions. Skepticism is an entirely different thing than curiosity.

John 12:37 illustrates the difference: “Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.” Unbelief, in this sense, is a choice. It is not that they did not have reason to believe in Jesus — it is that they did not want to believe in Jesus. Hebrews 3:12 warns us not to have “an evil, unbelieving heart.” But we must weigh that against Jude 1:22 which tells us to “be merciful to those who doubt”, against the praise given the Bereans for their “noble character” in Acts 17:11 for investigating the claims of the apostle Paul, and against the fact that Thomas is not condemned for his hesitation to believe in John 20:24–29. Putting them together, we see that God is not bothered by honest questions but He is opposed to motivated skepticism.

The latter is famously illustrated by Aldous Huxley in his book Ends and Means, “For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.”

I think there are many people in our culture like Huxley. I pray they learn to doubt their doubts before it is too late.

Side note: Huxley was a contemporary of Lewis — they actually died within hours of each other. There’s a fun little book premised upon this fact called Between Heaven and Hell by philosophy professor Peter Kreeft. It’s a clever dialog between Lewis, Huxley, and John F. Kennedy (who also died within hours of these two) as they await the afterlife and debate what is going to happen next.

That’s all for this week. Next week we begin reading The Four Loves!

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