on June 27, 2000
. . . but written when Rorty was still in diapers. This is by far the most prophetic, and the most disturbing, of Lewis' works. Starting with a deceptively simple observation - that modern (now postmodern) philosophy tends to reduce all statements of value to mere statements of subjective feeling - Lewis goes on to demonstrate the corrosive and ultimately fatal effect of this line of thinking on any civilized culture.
Lewis accurately predicts the parallel development of two trends: (1) the loss of any objective transcendent moral standards; and (2) the ability of a scientific or political elite, through social conditioning and/or genetic manipulation, to affect the thinking of successive generations of the rest of us - the great unwashed. The ascendancy, during the last decade, of moral relativism and the political correctness movement demonstrate how far down these parallel tracks we have come (i.e., Rorty: truth is what gets us what we want; truth is what my peers will let be get by with saying; Christians are "the natural constituency of Hitler").
While he's at it, Lewis refutes the postmodern, and generally unexamined, truism that the historic moral principles of Western Civilization are fundamentally different from other cultures' norms, and thus are arbitrary and nonbinding. In a lengthy appendix, Lewis shows that the great moral principles are timeless and have been generally accepted by all civilized societies, at all times (until ours).
So where will it end? In an ironic conclusion, Lewis predicts that what will be hailed an man's ultimate victory over Nature (such as human cloning?) will actually be Nature's ultimate victory over man. This will occur when we can fully control the kind of people the next generation will be (i.e., how they think), but in the absence of moral standards, this choice will be made arbitrarily; that is, according to purely Natural impulses - thus we have the Abolition of Man as man and the ascendancy of man as animal.
I must take issue with the reviewer who referred to the book as a "disguised apologetic" for Christianity. While Lewis openly acknowledges his Christian beliefs, he takes great pains to establish that the existence of objective moral standards is transcultural; that it is "trans-" any specific religious or ethical system other than relativism. Those who insist otherwise are simply out of touch; controlled by their own hermeneutic of suspicion, they see closet Christians lurking behind any and all moral absolutes.
A final point - I must also disagree with the reviewer who referred to the book too difficult for the average reader. I'm an accountant, I have no training in philosophy, and I'm definitely not a candidate for MENSA membership - but I had no trouble "getting it." Light reading it's not, but, hey, it's short, the type is large, the book is cheap, and it's written in Lewis' inimitable conversational style. Don't be intimidated, the stakes are too high!
on August 5, 2001
The Abolition of Man is a stunningly brilliant masterpiece, prophetic in its insight. Several of the other reviewers here who gave the book is plainly deserved five stars have done a fine job of reviewing its contents. Let me respond briefly to the fundamentalist (rousaswgnr) in Campsville, CA and the leftist bigot in Vancouver, WA. Both fail to scratch the surface of the book for opposite reasons.
The reviewer in Campsville (rousaswgnr) apparently thinks that any appeal to right and wrong that doesn't simply quote Bible verses is anti-Christian. Obviously, he would be completely incapable of trying to convince nonChristians that there are universal moral laws that are contravened at our peril -- the very thing Lewis was trying to do. At one point this seeming "fundamentalist" wrote that only scripture teaches right and wrong and things about God. That statement is ironically contrary to scripture itself which says "the heavens declare the glory of God" and that God has revealled His ways and parts of His nature in nature itself and in human consciences (Romans 1). The reviewer rousaswgnr contradicts scripture while trying to defend it. That's a pity. For if he really understood scripture or C. S. Lewis he would know that Lewis is saying what scripture says: God has universal moral laws that He has written into nature that all people can see and that have been generally recognized by major civilizations throughout the ages. Lewis also says it with breath-taking beauty.
The leftist from Vancouver, WA is even more vacuous than the fundamentalist. (That's typical.) Like the typical leftist, he imagines that he's brilliant while proving that he doesn't have a clue. He thinks he's clever by quoting Lau Tzu on the meaning of "Tao." But if he'd bothered to have really read Lewis or found out the meaning of the Chinese word "Tao", he would know that Lewis was not referring to Taoism but to the much more pervasive use of the idea of "Tao" in Chinese culture: that offered by Confucianism. The humanist from Vancouver, WA condemns Lewis for not getting it because he assumes that anyone who disagrees with his leftist ideology is empty-headed. His mindless repitition of Marxist ideology -- that moral systems are the mere fronts for political powers -- shows he's the one who hasn't understood Lewis. The Vancouver, WA leftist's statement that Lewis is merely defending "western" morals is absurd to the point of questioning whether he actually read the book -- or whether he's capable of really reading anything that isn't pre-committed to his Marxist politics. Indeed, the Vancouver leftist demonstrates that he's one of those men without chests about whom Lewis is writing while the fundamentalist from Campsville shows why modern conservative Christianity -- so frigthened of innovative communication -- has been so impotent, even though it holds the solution to the cultural problem Lewis diagnoses if only it could get over its reactionary anti-intellectualism and rigidity of mind that the reviewer exemplifies.
on April 13, 2003
In this short book, CS Lewis takes public education for his subject, though the scope of the work goes well into the philosophical and ethical realms. The master Christian apologist is here arguing against what he sees to be the evils of moral relativism. His essay "Men Without Chests," reminiscent of TS Eliot, speaks of just what would happen if we were to lose all sense of good and bad, and chose instead to attempt to see everything in a purely `objective' way, without regard for what has been established as right and wrong.
The rest of the book develops and plays upon this idea, and Lewis examines the possibilities of a civilization who abandons "The Tao" (the name Lewis gives to a widely accepted system of moral values) and tries instead to mold its citizens into whatever form its leaders should decide. Of course, this is exactly what Lewis warns again in his Science Fiction novel That Hideous Strength, and what is also seen in the book 1984.
To me, the highlight of this book was the appendix. Superbly compiled, it is Lewis's definition of "The Tao," and features a number of moral values (such as one's obligation to society and duty to parents). The best part of this, though, is that Lewis quotes from an enormous range of sources, citing everything from Plato to Beowulf to the Bible to Egyptian writings to show that these are values which have been widely accepted throughout history. This is his basis for calling "The Tao" the ultimate system of moral values, and his justification through widespread acceptance is very good indeed.
I believe this is one of CS Lewis's best works, full of inspirational thoughts on morality and warnings against using Science to make man a part of `Nature' and losing all respect for man as a Divine Creation. His book God in the Dock goes along well with this one--many of the essays in that book coincide nicely with those in this one. Once again, CS Lewis has proven himself a master of putting things in a way everyone can understand.
on May 11, 2000
Attack on the idea of universal truth and the values that derive from it is stronger now than in 1944 when this book was written. Yet, despite many rhetorical defenses of universal truth and values launched in the "culture wars," this remains one of, if not the best, defenses of universal truth and values.
Lewis believes in Natural Laws - laws of morality, such as duty to children, parents, elders, the "golden rule," mercy, magnanimity, justice - which have been accepted both throughout history and by varied cultures. Lewis calls these laws "the Tao."
The problem as Lewis outlines it, is that if nothing is self-evident (i.e., true), then nothing can be proven. And, if nothing is obligatory because it is self-evident, then nothing is obligatory for its own sake, i.e., because it is true. If nothing is obligatory, then rules of conduct are subject to pleasure or whim and are enforced only by power of some over others. Ultimately, this robs of us our humanity. Lewis says, "A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery."
The consequence of rejecting the idea of universal truth, or "the Tao," is the destruction of the society which rejects it. This is, as Lewis says, tragically comical because "we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible."
on March 29, 2005
The Abolition of Man is a series of lectures wherein C.S. Lewis debunks the debunkers of virtue and values. Pulling no punches, Lewis successfully charts their "belief system" from beginning to bankruptcy. They suppose that the value of a thing is only what we perceive it to be, thus there is no true good, there is no true bad. Nothing is truly of value. Though written decades ago, we see traces of this in our non-judgemental society, in our lowering of expectations, in the race to dumb everything down, make everything equal, where nothing is inherently bad and nothing, it seems, inherently good.
Beyond the fact that, by their own definition, this nihilistic approach has no intrinsic value but what we perceive it to have, we find that the successive devaluation of everything leads to the value of nothing - including ourselves. And this, Lewis has it, is the abolition of Man. We may see evidence of this abolition in many current debates to include euthanasia, abortion, gender selection/eugenics, and embryo farming. When we have no value, but what we perceive, then there may be hell to pay when those perceptions change. Auschwitz is a remarkable example. Bioethicists with the ethics of swine are another.
As usual, C.S. Lewis slings well-honed arrows that hit their mark with ease. What Lewis provides best is clarity such as very few writers can. 5 stars.
on December 10, 2002
This book shows Lewis at his best and at his worst. At his best, he is a sharp social critic, a lucid expositor, and a man with an uncanny ability to get right down to the heart of the spiritual perplexities and self-deceptions that vex us in our daily lives, and open them up to the light of reason. I'm one of many people who owe a deep debt to this man, and I revere him as much as any one of the 5-star reviewers here.
But Lewis, as a writer, had serious faults as well. Though he was a generous reader, he was not a generous arguer: his idea of a good argument was to seize upon some poor schmo who epitomized some (then) current silliness and beat him senseless (with wonderfully powerful, clear, simple prose.) The spectacle is always fun, but it sometimes feels like watching Muhammed Ali boxing Peewee Herman -- you've always wanted to see it, but you have an uneasy feeling that what you're watching is not real boxing.
So to read this book properly, you need to understand two things. First, it is not a work of academic philosophy, and it won't stand up as such. That is to say, Lewis did not go out and look for the primary exponents of moral relativism of his time and wrestle them to the ground. He doesn't "survey the literature." He doesn't take on the important relativist philosophers. Instead he seizes this poor anonymous English textbook-writer by the collar and thrashes him soundly, and then goes on to pile up a sort of "everyone says so, so it must be true" defense of traditional moralities. Academic philosophers will no doubt recoil from this book in horror. It is not their sort of book, and it doesn't play by their rules.
Lewis is speaking to a different audience, and he has a different goal in mind. He's not speaking to people who have read lots of difficult philosophy: he's speaking to people who have picked up little bits of fashionable modernist dicta and have fashioned a pseudo-philosophy out of them. He wants to demolish -- not serious, reasoned relativism, but popular, stupid relativism. The person who says that "Einstein proved all things are relative, so there can't be any such thing as absolute right or wrong" -- that's the person Lewis wanted to drop on the mat. And he succeeds in that brilliantly.
The second thing you need to understand, to read this book properly, is that it is attempting to recreate some of Lewis's own journey out of relativism. And here we get to another of Lewis's faults: he wrote too fast. His pile of examples of universal morality could be mistaken for an attempt to prove that there are universal moral principles and all thoughtful moral people have always known it and stuck to them. As such, it would stand as one of the shoddiest jobs of argument ever presented. But that's not really what he's up to, though he really ought to have explained what he was doing more carefully. What he is doing is presenting, in a few pages, the experience he himself had of years of voracious reading in various traditions -- the experience of discovering that the surprising thing about the moral principles of various civilizations is not how various they are, but how similar they are. It's not an argument, really: it's just a distillation of experience.
Which is why to point out glaring omissions (where is Buddhism? What about Wittgenstein? What about the 19th-Century and the Modern theologians?) is to miss the point of this book. If you want to go find the real arguments, go read the philosophers -- you'll find that many of the serious philosophical questions about the nature of morality were not addressed, let alone settled, in this book. This book is, in fact -- though Lewis would have hated the idea -- an extremely personal one. In it you can see Lewis recreating his own progress out of nihilism and relativism. And for those whose early paths resemble his, this book can be -- as I can testify -- wonderfully illuminating, even liberating.
So don't take this book for what it is not -- a philosophical treatise, or a definitive answer to relativism. Instead, take it what it is -- a popular answer to popular "philosophy," and a report on how one man worked his way out of some of his own foolishness by clear thinking and wide reading. Lewis chose in this book to engage people where they actually live, rather than where they wish they lived: he knew that the philosophies we actually live by are much cruder than those carefully thought out and argued by professional philosophers.
on December 31, 2006
This little book had a profound effect on my philosophy of education - that education should be initiation into adulthood, not propaganda that conditions the young for some unexplained use. It's not an easy read, and may require several attempts, but is well worth the effort. A few excerpts, if I may:
"...a hard heart is not protection against a soft head."
"The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it."
"We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst..."
"Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people's values: about the values in their own set, they are not nearly sceptical enough."
"To see through all things is the same as not to see."
Mr. Lewis could see where postmodern thinking was leading our world long before many of us recognized it. His work provides a depth of understanding on the topic that is still unmatched after all these years. And what is truly refreshing is his manner of instruction, not condescending and preachy but as a concerned uncle sharing his observations with the next generation. We can listen, or we can reject, but we cannot ignore his concern that we might be grabbing for what seems attractive now at the expense of something priceless. He asks us to think without giving us the answer - letting us discover that for ourselves. Modern authors attempting to convey this message can learn from that example - that it is the still small voice rather than the clanging cymbals and pounding pulpits that give us pause to think. It is a difficult subject for any writer, and I think it may be impossible for any of us to follow in Mr. Lewis' footsteps. Perhaps it is best to not attempt to add to what he has already said and instead just refer back to this standard.
on October 2, 1997
Why such a foreboding title for a book on education? Lewis starts his book with a critique of a textbook for elementary schoolchildren on English, but goes on to draw conclusions from the book's authors' worldview about the ultimate end of the quest for subjective ethics. It is Lewis' thesis that ethics do not come from man, and any attempt to create a "new" ethic starting from man will inevitably result in the annihilation of both ethics and the human race. In the light of Western society's journey through modernism and into post-modernism, this little book just gets more and more timely with every passing day. It also contains a helpful appendix, Illustrations from the Tao, which shows that the basic principles of ethics are universal: common to all cultures and all times.
The book contains three closely related essays on ethical relativism. As different as Eastern philosophy (Chinese and Indian) may be from Western philosophy (Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian), all seriously reasoned and internally consistent systems of ethics (i.e., morality) accept the true existence of an absolute Good. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis, a thinker deeply versed in philosophy, philology, and ancient literature, calls this universal ethical reference system 'the Tao' (borrowing a generalization from Confucius). He exposes the logical self-contradictions and the human negation of modern dogmas of moral relativism.
From 'Men without Chests': "The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of [students] we only make them easier prey to the propagandist ... a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head."
From 'The Way': "An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or of Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man's mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut."
From 'The Abolition of Man': "It is not that [propagandists of ethical relativism] are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside of the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artifacts. Man's final conquest has proven to be the abolition of Man."
We accept relativism in modern physics because reason has led us to it. But popularized ideas of relativism in ethics, while sometimes transparently parading as 'intellectualism' (this label attempts to discourage critical examination), must take a course which leads far from consistent logic, and which ultimately turns against itself. This book is an outstanding offering from the wonderful mind of C.S. Lewis.