The Abolition of Man

C S Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man is presented as three lectures examining the ultimate outcome of a philosophy which seeks to abandon the Tao: the body of natural law.

In his first lecture, Lewis illustrates the trend of his time to disregard values and emotions: to dismiss them, encouraging instead a subjective approach. He explains that those who lack these values are “men without chests”, not having the trunk which unites intellectual man with animal man.

He goes on to examine that natural law which has been common to civilizations as diverse as the ancient Egyptians, Babylonions, Jews, Romans, Greeks, Anglo-Saxons and Norse. Lewis incorporates the Old and New Testaments, Confucius, Hindu texts and Renaissance philosophers to establish the common precepts which have sustained mankind. He concludes by exposing the only position which can reject these natural laws and remain consistent:

You say we have no values at all if we step outside the Tao. Very well: we shall probably find that we can get on quite comfortably without them. Let us regard all ideas of what we ought to do simply as an interesting psychological survival: let us step right out of all that and start doing what we like. Let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that: not on any ground of imagined value, but because we want him to be such. Having mastered our environment, let us now master ourselves and choose our own destiny.

Lewis concludes by describing humanity’s ultimate destiny on this path: a dystopian society in which “we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ — to their irrational impulses.” He observes that “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.”

One could wish Lewis were tilting at windmills: regrettably not, since he refers to Nietzsche and by extension his followers. Beyond Good and Evil — Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future is a miserable read that I do not wish to quote. Perhaps the best that can be said for it is that Nietzsche concludes and confesses, for all he has written, that his thoughts are ultimately evil.

Lewis remarks:

An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy.

Our attempts to move beyond good and evil are not helpful. Responsible liberty, discipline and intellect require a few basic rules. Lewis posits them as:

  • The Law of General Beneficence: do as you would be done by.
  • The Law of Special Beneficence: love and cherish your family.
  • Duties to Parents, Elders, Ancestors: we have some!
  • Duties to Children and Posterity: ‘Great reverence is owed to a child.’
  • The Law of Justice: practice sexual fidelity; do not steal and treat all as equals before the law.
  • The Law of Good Faith and Veracity: do not lie or defraud.
  • The Law of Mercy: have compassion; ‘The poor and the sick should be regarded as lords of the atmosphere.’ (Hindu, Janet, i. 8).
  • The Law of Magnanimity: courageously defend others, especially the defenceless; ‘Death is better for every man than life with shame.’ (Beowulf)

Shall we give them a try?

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