In The Abolition of Man, Lewis writes a truly prophetic work. After observing the way that a children’s textbook describes two people observing a waterfall Lewis is then able to deduce that the textbook is not simply a bad book but is contributing to the demolition of mankind. While this might sound dramatic, Lewis is deadly earnest about his claims.
Chapter 1: Men without Chests
Lewis begins with some helpful commentary on education from a textbook and ends with explaining why science and magic are not so different, and how our current trajectory as a society will lead to the dehumanization of all people, reducing us all to little more than talking heads and robots. How does he get there? How does he see so much in a simple English textbook?
There is one teaching moment in the textbook (that Lewis calls the “green book” to protect the anonymity of the authors) that he vehemently disagrees with. The authors of the textbook in question quote a scene in which two people are gazing at a waterfall, one of them says that the waterfall is “sublime”, while the other says that the waterfall is “pretty”. Is one of them more correct than the other? Does one word more rightly conform or describe the objective value of a waterfall? Lewis wishes that the authors of the book would ask these questions, but instead the authors claim that both sentiments are equally valid because both are descriptions of the viewers own emotions, or of their own tastes. For the textbook authors, and many Americans, to say that the waterfall is sublime, is just another way of saying that a person has sublime feelings , they are not really trying to make a claim about the objective quality of the waterfall itself. Therefore, any old word could be substituted here, if it accurately describes the person’s feelings, whether that be pretty, or majestic, or humbling. Lewis is arguing that the waterfall has objective value and that our language about it should strive to reflect that value and hence not any old word will do. To call the waterfall “pretty” is not as accurate as it is to call it “sublime”.
What is the big deal about this language? Why is it so significant that Lewis decided to write two books over it , The Abolition of Man, and That Hideous Strength? The problem is that although it appears as if the authors are trying to teach their students not to be duped by sentimental language, what Lewis convincingly shows is that this phrase is born out of a worldview that has destructed objective value and truth. Surely, we can all relate to this kind of thinking. For example, a very modern thought is that there is no better music than other music; it is all just a matter of preference, and to say that your music is better than someone else’s is just plain pride and foolishness. Ask most modern men if truth is found or created and most will tell you that it is created. Indicating that most people believe our world to have no definite objective values, what is bad and good is subjective and decided by the individual. This modern subjective way of thinking scoffs if you say that Bach is objectively better than Ed Sheeran, or that Moby Dick is objectively a better piece of literature than Twilight. Because we have abandoned the idea of objective value, we automatically assume that if a person says one piece of art, music, or literature, is better than another what they are really saying is that they enjoy it more. And Lewis is arguing that this kind of thinking is the greatest threat to mankind as we know it.
To explain this from the book, when the authors of the given textbook say that the speaker was only referring to his feelings, the implication is that nobody can make an objective claim about the grandeur and value of a waterfall. And the reason that we cannot make an objective statement about it is because it has no objective value. That value differs from person to person. We cannot say that it is better to call a waterfall “sublime” than “pretty” because we cannot know the objective value of an object. But if there is an objective value to something like a waterfall, then a person ought to have a response to it that correlates to its value. Our culture has not yet totally abandoned value statements, but we are well on our way. For example: most people would still say that to have a baby and then turn around and say that you hate that baby is a gross violation of that baby’s objective value. Those feelings do not accord with the value of the person and so they are reprehensible. But the kind of thinking that the textbook is promoting is one that claims when a person says a baby is beautiful, they are merely describing their own feelings and not making a value statement on the baby at all.
By claiming that we cannot judge a waterfall, and that we cannot make objective claims about its value, the authors are claiming in a roundabout way that nothing has real value. And any value statements are really descriptions of worthless emotional responses. But as soon as we apply this to courage, love, kindness, and patience we are forced to say that these virtues are emotional sentiments and not things that we ought to feel at all. And as soon as we teach this to our children, we remove any hope that we have of raising the kind of people that are courageous, or patient, or kind, or generous. What is especially twisted about this, is that we continue to demand those virtues of our children.
Chapter 2: The Way
In this chapter, Lewis argues that the Christian worldview, and the worldview of every major religion for the past 5,000 years has had an element of objective value in it. A way measuring if something was good or bad, whether that be songs, literature, or behavior. It is only the modern man that has abandoned this objectivity and plunged himself into a world that has no up or down, right or left, right or wrong. For most of human history, saying that the waterfall is “sublime” is a better thing than to say that the waterfall is “pretty” because the word sublime better accords with the value of the waterfall than “pretty” does. We get this objective value from our highest good and measure everything according to that, how well it conforms to this good is a measure of its actual goodness. For simplicity’s sake Lewis calls this “measuring stick” of the highest good, the “Tao”.
If there are no values, no natural law, tao, nothing that is objectively good, then there is nothing left for a society to build itself on. If there are no true standards of goodness and badness, if everything is subjective, then we cannot tell men what they ought to do. Since there is no real way to get to “oughts”, but men realize that we need “oughts”, without “oughts”, robbing a bank is just as good as depositing money into it for the future, and with this moral system, a society will inevitably collapse. So, they try to devise a clever system to come up with “oughts’”, based on instinct, or the common good, but why should we follow instincts? And why should we care about the common good? And what is the common good? These are all things that must be defined objectively, according to the tao.
In a society with out natural law, without objective right and wrong, this “thing” will often be controlled by an elite group in the society. Maybe it is the scientists, or the politicians, or the wealthy, but a group of people will, by their own subjective standards create a moral code for a society, they must. This group will have to decide what is the “right way” for society to act, and having no foundation, no reason to decide if something is good or bad it is unlikely that these people will develop a fair and good society, but will instead, develop a code of conduct that suits themselves, and their vision for what a society should look like. Their laws won’t be derived from a source outside of themselves, but rather from within themselves. Each man will do as he pleases, and it only takes one reading through the book of judges to see how that goes for mankind.
Chapter 3: Abolition of Man
In chapter three Lewis lays out a terrifying picture of where this inevitably leads: man will take more and more control of nature and will gain more power through his scientific exploits but will have no moral compass to act as a braking system for this newfound power. We are all gas and no brakes towards a cliff edge. For example, if scientists deem that life is determined by brain activity, then they could conclude that a brain-dead person with a beating heart and inflating lungs is dead. They could then use medical advancements to harvest organs such as blood and skin from this person. A society that is trained by God’s word will be repulsed by that, because mankind is made in God’s image, he should not be treated as a “thing” that produces a commodity, like a tree, or plant. However, without the tao, without the law, there is no reason to prevent such a situation.
If we divorce ourselves from values of good and true and then master psychology and human nature, we can then control men like robots, without any kind of just restraint, and we will have abolished men. Done away with them. There is no real mankind, no humanness, we essentially have turned ourselves into programmable machines. Behavior is manipulated like we would manipulate a computer program, or a piece of metal, and man becomes little more than a computer program himself. In our attempt to control nature, we destroy the very things that make us human. This, Lewis believes, is the inevitable end of a subjective world, with increasing power.
Reflections on this Book for Today
What is really terrifying about what Lewis is writing here is that he believes there is a point of no-return. A point where we so master mankind that a few social elites will be able to control the mass of mankind with no moral compass to enable them to do that righteously, and we will be unable to break free from this system. Reading The Abolition of Man, paired with another C.S. Lewis book That Hideous Strength, is a helpful way to put flesh and muscle onto the bones that Lewis lays out in The Abolition of Man.
What should we do? How should we respond to this threat? First off, we must admit that Lewis was uncannily correct about the dangers of subjective values, and we are beginning to see those dangers in the abortion movement. When all values become plastic, then even people become plastic, and it is up to the more powerful to decide if they are even really people or not, and from there what they want to do with them. We have, in abortion, a microcosm of what Lewis is saying will happen to all mankind if technology (strength and power) continues to grow alongside of a decreasing moral compass. The end will be that the masses of mankind are to be used by their controllers, for the controllers’ own convenience, which as with abortion, will often mean death.
How then shall we live?
Faithfully, and with good courage. It is my proposition that God is still sovereign, that all authority has been given to Him, and that we ought not be anxious about tomorrow as today has enough to be anxious about. What we have been given in this book is a clear understanding of our enemy’s goal. The Devil’s plan for the checkmate, and knowing this information enables us to kick and fight with everything that we have got in the power of the Spirit and with righteous tools.
So how do we fight against this modern age? If subjective values are one of the chief weapons of the enemy, then we ought to not give up on the battleground of objective morality. This is a bridge that we cannot blow up to keep the enemy from crossing. We must win it. But where the battle is most important, we can bet that the enemy will fight the most fiercely, and therefore, we must have men and women with stiff spines, and faces like flint. Who know what they are fighting for and that they are ready to die for it. We need men and women who have tasted and seen true objective beauty in the face of Christ and are therefore unwilling to retreat from the fight for goodness. This looks like things that will get you into all sorts of trouble today, from saying that Bach’s music is, in fact, more objectively beautiful than anything Cardi B . has ever produced to arguing that art has objective standards and that much modern art is actually trash and not really beautiful at all , regardless of what the artist “meant” by it. It means that we must become the kind of people that can recognize true beauty, then get our souls tuned to be in harmony with what God loves and to hate what God hates . To be clear, this means that we ought to recognize true beauty wherever we see it, whether it is produced by a Christian or not. For example, Homer’s “Odyssey” has some characteristics that are objectively beautiful because they accord with the nature and character of God, even though it is not a Christian work. At times the book powerfully exalts what God himself exalts, such as courage to face evil for the good of one’s family.
But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:14)
As Hebrews 5 says, this is done through constant practice, through shaping our souls and desires to love what is good and hate what is evil and we learn what those things are through the study of God’s word. If God says that sexual immorality is evil, it is not enough to simply acknowledge that fact and move on, we must train our souls to actually hate adultery, and all kinds of sexual immorality . If the scripture says that children are a blessing, we must train our souls to love being around and having and caring for children. In other words, to fight the enemy, we must grow in our love for God and His word and then steadfastly and courageously live it out.
One thing that we ought to be prepared for in this fight for the fate of the world, is the enemy’s age-old tactic of making us feel bad for holding to objective standards. For example, in Genesis, Lot told the Sodomites that their conduct was evil. He made an objective, moral statement that their desire to rape his guests was wicked. And here is how they responded:
But they said, “Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” (Genesis 19:9)
Since Abraham’s day, men have hated to have their sin brought into the light and called evil. So, they will attempt to make us feel bad for objectively calling their behavior wicked. They will call us judgmental, bigoted, or hateful. What we must remember is that the Sodomites behavior resulted in the destruction of them all, and for Lot to call their behavior evil and to call them to repentance was truly loving, and Christ says that we ought to rejoice when persecuted falsely. If we give into their name-calling and soften our stance out of fear of persecution or hurting their feelings, we will be playing right into the devil’s hands. We will effectively be taking a step back on the bridge and surrendering more ground to the enemy forces.
Courage is needed for the battle that today’s faithful Christians must fight. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis lays out the enemy’s strategy and end goal. It is a worthy read for anyone that is willing to hold the line.