On C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man

The Abolition of Man is, above all, an argument in favour of the existence of objective values. In Lewis’ view, the universe is the kind of thing that demands certain responses from us, whether we happen to respond correctly or not. For example, the universe says you should speak the truth, love your neighbour, honour your parents, etc. One law obliges king and peasant alike.

Says Lewis: 

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.
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To say that the cataract is sublime means saying that our emotion of humility is appropriate or ordinate to the reality, and thus to speak of something else besides the emotion; just as to say that a shoe fits is to speak not only of shoes but of feet.
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In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple.
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As Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’ and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it.
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The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.
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The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being ‘true’.
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This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao.’

We come into the world indebted, so to speak, to the Tao. Like all debts, failure to discharge one’s obligations to it comes with serious consequences: among them, unhappiness, disorder, and nihilism. To be “one” with the Tao—something which seems to be the goal of every religion—is to have the correct attitude towards it; to seek manfully to render to it its due.

In the West the Tao has gone by many names, but one stands above the rest: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. On the surface, it might appear that goodness, truth, and beauty are three different things, but on closer inspection it becomes apparent that their differences are merely superficial. Goodness is both true and beautiful, truth is both good and beautiful, and beauty is both good and true. The Tao shines into the world as beauty, goodness and truth, like light refracting through a prism. Ruskin, who was the leading art critic of the Victorian era, said that only a good man could create good art. Keats said that “truth is beauty, beauty truth.” The ancient Greeks considered physical ugliness to be almost a refutation of your arguments.

It only takes a moment’s reflection to see that there has never been a culture which did not, in some way, pay homage to the Tao. In fact, if you compared the moralities of different cultures throughout history, you could probably come up with a pretty accurate representation of objective morality. Of course, no one culture is likely to get everything correct, but all in all the picture that emerges ought to be a harmonious one; similar to how an untrained voice is not likely to hit all the correct notes, but a group of such people is always harmonious.

But it’s important to remember that the Tao’s validity isn’t derived from common consent. Its validity cannot be deduced at all. The Tao is self-evident; anyone who possesses a clear mind can perceive it for himself. Of course, those without clear minds will deny that it exists at all. Just as the sun cannot shed its light but to eye that sees it, so too the Tao is not evident but to the mind that perceives it.

By the way, the West has long considered the Tao to be self-evident. Only in a deeply materialistic age could we hope to find Truth in consensus, Goodness in consent, and Beauty in utility.

Here is what Lewis has to say:

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.
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Unless you accept [the Tao] as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever. You cannot reach them as conclusions: they are premises.
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[ . . . ] an ought must not be dismissed because it cannot produce an is as its credential. If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarity if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all.

So, what’s the alternative to belief in the Tao? Lewis’ answer is “subjectivism.” To put it pointedly, subjectivism says all our feelings about the world are merely subjective; they do not reveal anything about objective world. In fact, there is no objective truth. All judgements are idiosyncratic. In the words of Hamlet, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” (The moral relativism that is so popular today is really a kind of subjectivism.)

There are, of course, at least two serious issues with subjectivism. The first is practical, the second philosophical. Lewis tackles both issues.

Let us, first of all, consider the practical issue. When you destroy someone’s belief in objective morality, you go a long way towards destroying his ability to act at all. Without an external, objective standard to conform to, one is reduced to little more than a wavering bundle of impulses. Without heroism, there can be no heroes. 

 Says Lewis:

The impulse to scratch when I itch or to pull to pieces when I am inquisitive is immune from the solvent which is fatal to my justice, or honour, or care for posterity. When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.
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It is from heredity, digestion, the weather, and the association of ideas, that the motives of the Conditioners will spring. Their extreme rationalism, by ‘seeing through’ all ‘rational’ motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behaviour. If you will not obey the Tao, or else commit suicide, obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere ‘nature’) is the only course left open.
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Without the aid of trained emotions the human intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.
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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.

Of course, subjectivists do not typically go all the way and declare all values to be meaningless; who can live that way? In most cases, those who call themselves subjectivists are really just ideologues who have arbitrarily selected one value or set of values not to be skeptical about. Take social justice, which is an ideology that orients itself around something like fairness. What makes fairness superior to, say, honour? And why should we care about fairness at all? It can be “debunked” just as easily as any of the traditional values it seeks to supplant. Thus, the second issue with subjectivism is that it is fundamentally incoherent.

Says Lewis:

The effort to refute [the Tao] and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as we now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.
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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 have 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.

Indeed ideologues tend to be fanatical, which isn’t really surprising when you consider that ideologies are necessarily one-sided and extreme. How much mayhem and evil can be laid at the feet of enthusiastic supporters of the “common good,” the “pursuit of scientific knowledge,” or “equality”! By contrast, traditional morality does not turn people into maniacs. Just as the system of checks and balances prevents one branch of government from becoming inordinately powerful, traditional morality, taken as a whole, ensures balance and harmony by not arbitrarily elevating any one particular virtue above the rest. Kindness is good, but so is courage. Charity is good, but so is diligence. Temperance is good, but so is generosity.

Lewis’ book doesn’t completely satisfy, nor could it possibly. If our taste is corrupt, our conscience faulty, and our discernment lacking, then we are in a pickle indeed; we cannot find the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. But it is probably a rare thing to lack all three sensitivities. One benefit of the Tao’s being multifaceted is that people of different temperaments can relate to it: e.g., aesthetes will approach it through beauty, heroes through virtue, etc.

Lewis is famous for his fiction, but it is in nonfiction that he does his best work. Here he comes into his own.

The Abolition of Man is a rare book. It can be read in an hour, but may require a lifetime to appreciate fully. It is inexhaustible, as inexhaustible as the Tao itself.