Review of “The Abolition of Man,” by C.S. Lewis

I recently read The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis. Thematically it is a cross between That Hideous Strength (1945), which I read more than a decade ago, and Mere Christianity (1952), which I read earlier this year. It’s also the closest C.S. Lewis comes to a “natural” philosophy, and at times intentionally recycles language of the non-theist Chinese philosophies.

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The Abolition of Man begins with a review of an book on English grammar and literature. At first I groaned, and worried I stumbled across some British English “inside baseball” professional dispute from half a century ago. But quickly Lewis begins an attack that Robert Pirsig would continue decades later in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974): objects have Qualities that give them Arete/Rta/virtue/righteousness (note the Indo-European element “Rt” in all four words).

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We all believe this of at least some objects, though to one person the object in question may be material (this holy relic), while to another an object may be disembodied (the value of equality). Words such as “just” (it’s just a piece of wood), or “only” (it’s only the skew of income in a society) are pejoratives without substance. When those pejoratives are used the speaker is making a value judgement on which ideas are Right and which are not.

Lewis argues that behind such judgments are one of two philosophies: the “Tao” (called in Mere Christianity, natural law) or the Conquest of Nature. The natural law comer from evaluation the moral sense as exactly that, a sense, of a physical property of the world just as real as sight, or sound, or smell. In the same way that light is not “just” electromagnetic radiation, but rather is made of the interaction of electromagnetic radiation on our cortical nerves, the moral sense is not “only” our conscience, but is detected through our conscience. (This is similar to the description of the Objective Room in That Hideous Strength.)

Against this natural sense — truly against it, in the manner that tectonic plates are against each other — is the Conquest of Nature. Such an alternative foundation of morality seeks to liberate “Man” from nature, by controlling and constraining the moral sense. Lewis explicitly cites Nietzche as an example of such a philosophy, but an even better example would be B.F. Skinners’ Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), which (with its focus on education and motivation) must have seen like a satantic prophecy come true.

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Lewis refers to those able to control the deconstruct and reconstruct the moral sense in this way as Motivators. Such Motivators may appear to be highly skilled technician, the originators of the Hygiene movement in Mere Christianity (1952). But the end result is the same: a generation free from the past generations and their natural law, but ruling the future with its ability to create its own law.

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It is this breakthrough — this ability to arbitrarily control the moral sense — that Lewis refers to as the “Abolition of Man.” Whatever the earliest abolitionists may believe, and whatever their motives, those that come after them are not “men” at all for they have no access to the Natural Law that all earlier humans shared. The Motivators, the abolitionists, would have freed men from the Natural Law in that future “men” would never know it. But, because it is by natural forces any such new arbitrary moral sense is installed, such an Abolition would also reduce homo sapiens to slaves of nature.

The conquest of Nature would, itself, be the surrender to Nature.

I listened to The Abolition of Man on unabridged audible.

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