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The Abolition of Man
The conquest of the Conditioners
C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man is considered to be one of the most influential books of the 20th century. It is actually a collection of three lectures given by Lewis at King’s College, Newcastle from 24–26 February 1943. The book was recommended to me after I wrote a piece for Reality’s Last Stand about who or what is to blame for gender ideology.
In brief, The Abolition of Man is a defense of moral values against moral relativism. Lewis sounds the alarm on the dangers of abandoning what he identifies as the universal “Tao”—a nod to Chinese philosophy signifying the immutable moral law threading through humanity.
He posits that a society unanchored from this Tao produces “men without chests”—individuals devoid of guiding virtues. The title's ominous “abolition” speaks to the chilling reality Lewis foresees: a world that, in its relentless pursuit of “innovation” and rejection of ancient wisdom, might strip humanity of its intrinsic nobility and purpose. Lewis reminds us of the importance of objective moral truths and cautions against the siren call of moral subjectivity that threatens to cast humanity adrift.
Reading the book was uneasy because of how much further along we have gone down this path since Lewis was writing.
But it is an important read, and I have pulled some passages that, to me, summarize the message of the text. I think different parts of the book would capture different people and, obviously, I encourage anyone to read the whole thing. But here is a quick introduction for those interested:
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.
In this passage from near the beginning of the text, Lewis touches on the idea that the universe, in its objective reality, deserves emotional responses like reverence and contempt—implying a moral order.
Where the old initiated, the new merely ‘conditions’. The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds— making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.
The old approach was to teach which responses to the world were and were not appropriate, propagating the proper attitude and orientation. The new approach seeks merely to create conditioned responses.
Such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. 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.
Here, Lewis critiques the social contradiction of the phenomena where we demand virtues and morals but undermine the very foundations that would create a natural impulse toward them. I found it particularly unnerving that nowadays we castrate not only in a metaphorical sense but in a physical sense as well.
A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge.
This passage highlights the fact that critics of objective values must necessarily hold their own background values that they fail to critique while they critique traditional ones.
Telling us to obey Instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people’. People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence do we derive this rule of precedence? To listen to that instinct speaking in its own cause and deciding it in its own favour would be rather simple-minded. Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest. By the very act of listening to one rather than to others we have already prejudged the case. If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them.
Human instincts are often contradictory and hard to discern without reference to outside morals and values that we can use to compare them and choose which ones to listen to.
When all that says “It is good” has been debunked, what says “I want” remains. It cannot be exploded or ‘seen through’ because it never had any pretentions. The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure.
After stripping away objective moral values, subjective desires dominate, and our responses are simply conditioned according to those which provide the greatest pleasure.
Those who stand outside all judgements of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.
When we refuse to make value judgments, we still prioritize impulses according to emotion, highlighting the contradiction in strict moral relativism.
At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, 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. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.
A poignant observation of the irony where, in seeking to dominate nature, humanity becomes subjugated by its basest instincts, leading to nature's victory over man.
You cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.
By endlessly deconstructing all meaning and value, we risk understanding nothing at all. We will no longer see or appreciate things for what they are, rendering them meaningless.
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