The Abolition of Man

There are very few things in life that are quite as satisfying as a good answer to a very tough question. Last night I had an opportunity to find one of these answers that had been bothering my thoughts for probably over a year. So for this article I decided to regale you all with the question and the answer I found.

I’m sure many, if not all, the people who read this site have read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. It seems like the prerequisite reading for anyone on facebook who is listed as a Christian and also who has books on their profile. A badge of honor, one might say, for any good Christian boy or girl it to have read this book at some point as if to point out that they had read the authority on logical progression from a moral law to Jesus Christ. I too have read this book and regard it with probably the same level of respect as Lewis himself gave to the works of Augustine and MacDonald. However, when I read it again earlier this year I was hoping for a renewal of confidence in my own arguments for theology. Unfortunately, I found the opposite.

If one recounts what the first part of Mere Christianity is about one will remember the foundation Lewis laid for the rest of his argument: that there seems to be a universal moral law. This idea, in and of itself, flies in the face of the modern view of pluralistic ideologies and most readers would be content to leave it at that and move on, satisfied that they had uncovered the truth beneath an otherwise innocuous stone. But for myself, I had a difference take on it this time around. For me, the problem lay in that while there was good evidence that a universal moral law existed, there wasn’t much talk about where it came from. It should be noted, Lewis himself at the beginning of the book stated that he was not writing the book as a theologian or for theologians but for the common layman and so this omission of where the values of the moral law came from (aside from the obvious conclusion Lewis was attempting to make) was not considered for the sake of brevity.

In my view though, I was left with a dry mouth. Lewis had shown that there did seem to be a universal moral law that extended throughout civilizations that was also apparently mutually exclusive to a particular religion. For example, stealing and murder were universally condemned where as bravery and self-sacrifice were extolled. The problem was no alternatives were presented to where these universals came from other than the conclusion that they pointed to the existence of a supernatural origin. I had many friends who would look at the argument then that “universal morals extend everywhere therefore there is a god” and laugh. And at first blush, as well they should. The argument can be made though that these values seem to all be within man, why should we not conclude that they are a natural extension of the animal kingdom into our animal bodies?

This argument takes place because several of our own values can be extended into the animal realm of survival. “Do not murder because it will be detrimental to the species.” “Do not steal or our means of supporting ourselves may collapse.” And so on. It would seem then, that because an alternative solution exists to the question of values’ origin that we should then invalidate the original conclusion or at least not make it the sole conclusion we can draw (and thus negate the absoluteness and the core of Lewis’ argument).

This problem has been bothering me for about a year. I tried very had to think of something that is not found at all within the animal kingdom, no trait or behavior at any rate, that could not be a relic of what we call today “human nature” or what we possess that is somehow beyond the realm of what could have been nature specific. At one point I thought I had found that music might be something unique to humans, but that fell out of favor as it did not touch upon the merit of values, only of our ability to discern that some combinations of tones were more pleasing to our nerves than others. This problem confounded me until last night as I drove home and decided to listen to an audio book as I did. I chose to listen to The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis.

The Abolition of Man is a three part essay in which Lewis sets up the basis for answering this question. In this work, he does not define where values come from (he makes no mention of the Christian god) but instead where it does not come from. Specifically, he defines the moral law as something that can not be deduced from nature or instincts within man. He does this within three separate stages.

In the first part “Men without Chests” Lewis describes something he as found in a school literature book in which two professors are making the point that when something is said about an object (the example given was “That waterfall is sublime.”) the meaning of the statement is not that the waterfall itself is sublime but that the feelings the speaker is having about the waterfall is sublime. The act of giving an object value then is “debunked” and replaced with the value itself coming from the feeling the speaker has and not from the object. The conclusion Lewis draws then is that modernism is interested in removing intrinsic values and replacing them with values which stem from subjective relativism.

In part two, “The Way” Lewis moves on to say that using this new relativism based on feelings that stem from within man himself will ruin civilization. He grants exceptions to two scenarios though: that educators can find a basis for which their system of values is more valid than the one they are replacing and using “instinct” as the arbiter in which system is better. Here he separates the “moral law” (or the morals which are universal to east and west) which he calls the Tao from the man made system of values. Changes made to a system of values outside the Tao is subject to failure, says Lewis, because most external value systems are made from picking and choosing which bits of the Tao are useful and which are not. They validate some and discard the rest. The problem in this is there is no reason given that one value should be put above one other. One must discredit all or none of the Tao. Changes made from within the Tao need no special reasoning as any changes are intrinsically an extension of an existing presupposition. The difference in the Tao and external is as Lewis put it, “the difference between a man who says to us: ‘You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?’ and a man who says, ‘Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.’”

The third part “The Abolition of Man” takes the train of thought to its logical conclusion. We have thus been subjecting our moral value systems to the same conquering of nature as we have electricity and genetics. In reality, says Lewis, we are really only giving more power over ourselves to lesser and lesser men. He does not abdicate that science if evil, nor even of its misuse, but he does state that with technological advancements and man’s conquering of nature we in truth seem to only be at the will of those who wield that power whether it be bombs or power companies or radio stations. He also states that our future generations are dependant on our actions as we are dependant on those individuals who hold nature in their hands. In short, there will come a time when through eugenics and science, one generation will rise above the rest and wield the most power as possible by humanity over nature. He will have molding man to his own image and removed everything from their value system that was not man made. With his own value system created by a select few who are above the value system as its creators he creates a system based on instinct and want. IN short, man has been playing a sham all along. IN conquering nature we really only allow nature to finally conquer us.

This was the answer I was looking for. The Tao can not be something that arose from nature because it is a system that seems to push down the natural impulses or controls them and bends them to our own will. This seems then to validate the rest of Lewis’ argument within Mere Christianity. I would highly recommend that you read this book if you have a chance if you would like a better understanding of the actual base from which the rest of Mere Christianity is written and is presented in a much better way than I did in this article. I’m grateful I was able to find this book and learn from it the answers I had been looking for as well as finally hearing put to paper the types of thoughts I had been having over the last year.

You can read The Abolition of Man by following this link: The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

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