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!

The Abolition of Man: Chapters One and Two

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.

Welcome to week one of the Chi Alpha summer reading project!

Some resources that may prove useful to you:

On to Lewis’s argument. He noticed a feature in an English textbook which greatly bothered him: the authors teach that value judgments about the world are statements of feeling rather than statements of fact. Lewis points out that this is a very powerful form of indoctrination and adds that this is an enormous difference from the past.

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. (page 699 in our anthology)

He gives several examples and lumps them together under the common name of the Tao:

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’.… what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself — just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). (pages 701–702)

It is worth thinking about his illustration. I suspect some of you will strongly disagree with it without quite knowing why. Here it is in bare form: not liking children is a moral defect. It is not “just the way you are.” It is the way you have become, and you have an obligation to try to become someone better. And even if your dislike of children was a matter of your genetics of something else beyond your control it would not stop being a moral defect.

But our culture rejects these moral obligations along with many others; more than that, we refuse to seriously consider that they might actually be moral obligations instead of personal choices. We teach that values are matters of opinion. And this leads to the stunning peroration of the first lecture:

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 honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (page 704)

In light of Lewis’ argument, reflect on this recent essay about an article in the prestigious publication Foreign Policy: Should Amazon tribes be allowed to kill their young? Foreign Policy editors aren’t sure (Julia Duin, GetReligion):

“In recent years, certain tribes in the Amazon region have been in the news because of their unpleasant habit of killing deformed or handicapped children as well as twins, and even offspring of single moms, soon after birth. They also may kill transgendered individuals. I thought the consensus was pretty clear that such practices were evil. But along came an article (it was a month ago, but I’m only getting around to it now) in Foreign Policy magazine that argued how saving the lives of these children was a western value that didn’t fit with the customs and lifestyle of these tribes.”

If he read that article, Lewis would not be surprised. Rejecting the Tao opens the door to madness.

In the second chapter, “The Way”, Lewis points out that many people attempt to hold on to objective ethics without admitting that they are doing so.

A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge. I will now try to find out what happens if this is seriously attempted. (page 706)

The most common attempt to find a source of values apart from the Tao is to appeal to human nature. When I talk with skeptics on campus they most commonly try to ground morality in evolutionary psychology. But it doesn’t work. Lewis explains:

From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. (page 707)

In other words, the only way to derive morality is to presuppose morality. Just as the sum of two numbers will itself be a number, facts can only produce moral obligations if moral obligations are themselves facts.

Lewis says a lot more in these chapters, but this email is already too lengthy.

Those are the things that stood out to me. What stood out to you?

Kicking off the C. S. Lewis Summer Reading Project

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.

This is the first week of our summer reading project. I’ll be sending out reminders to read along with some commentary on the readings throughout the summer. Remember that the schedule is online (you can print it out and use it as a bookmark if you find that helpful).

This week we’re reading the first two chapters of The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis: “Men Without Chests” and “The Way” (pages 693–717 in the anthology).  If you don’t have a copy of the book yet, you can hear it entertainingly presented on the C.S. Lewis Doodle YouTube channel (not all of our readings are on this channel, but some will be).

I believe this is one of Lewis’s most important books, and I am not alone in my opinion. In The Narnian, Alan Jacobs (himself an excellent essayist) calls The Abolition of Man the “most profound of Lewis’s cultural critiques” (page 174).

At first you may wonder why you are reading about a British high school textbook from 1939, but as you progress into the chapter you’ll discover that Lewis is pointing out a profound error in thinking which has become even more widespread today. I encourage you to persevere; the payoff is worth it. The last four sentences of the first chapter are among the most powerful I have read, and you will find that the second chapter seems to be addressed to your contemporaries at Stanford.