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. It is subtitled "Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools," and uses that as a starting point for a defense of objective value and natural law, and 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 24–26, 1943.
Moral subjectivism vs. natural law
Lewis begins with a critical response to “The Green Book”, by “Gaius and Titius”, i.e. The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing, published in 1939 by Alex 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. He 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. Lewis says that such a subjective view of values is faulty, and, on the contrary, certain objects and actions merit positive or negative reactions: that a waterfall can actually be objectively praiseworthy, and that one's actions can be objectively good or evil. In any case, Lewis notes, this is a philosophical position rather than a grammatical one, and so parents and teachers who give such books to their children and students are having them read the "work of amateur philosophers where they expected the work of professional grammarians."
Lewis cites ancient thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle and Augustine, who believed that the purpose of education was to train children in "ordinate affections," that is, to train them to like and dislike what they ought; to love the good and hate the bad. He says that although these values are universal, they do not develop automatically or inevitably in children (and so are not "natural" in that sense of the word), but 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 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 "...the traditional moralities of East and West, the Christian, the Pagan, and the Jew...". Lewis calls this the Tao (which closely resembles Taoist usage). 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.