Friday, July 20, 2018

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

Sometimes reading C.S. Lewis' non-fiction is like taking your medicine. You know it will be good for you, but you're not enthusiastic about taking the first dose. BUT once you begin reading, the effect is so bracing and health-giving that you wonder why you put it off so long. Knowing that The Abolition of Man would not be easy reading, I set a goal of 10 to 15 pages a day. Every morning I'd sit in the armchair for my daily Lewis "vitamin," and after each reading I would sit in stunned silence at his brilliance and clarity. It's no wonder he never goes out of print.

Subtitled "Reflections on Education", The Abolition of Man is a response to a school textbook (which Lewis calls the "Green Book") that implied that value judgments are based on feelings instead of reality. He defends moral absolutes (what he calls "the Tao") and shows what will happen if they are removed from society. Written 70 years ago, parts of Abolition are so prophetic it is scary.

Lewis contends that virtues cannot exist within a vacuum. Without moral absolutes, a persevering devotion to truth, [and] a sense of intellectual honor cannot be long maintained. Scientific knowledge and reason cannot replace  them. What you get in the long run is men with "big heads" and no hearts. He famously quipped, 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. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (p. 35)

There are many other big ideas in this book such as how the Tao is essential to human flourishing. Without it the powerful will always rule over the weak. They will decide what's good and bad for others based on their own preferences. 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. . . . I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. (p. 78)

It would take multiple readings to make me feel like I understood half of this book, but it was worth every minute of effort. My brain and heart were stretched.



Ruth said...

This is on my TBR, though I had no idea it was considered difficult reading. (Nonetheless, I'm not shying away from it.) It certainly does appear to be a relevant topic, especially these days.

Carol said...

I read this about 3 years ago & it was a challenging read - I usually find Lewis very readable but this was hard going. But as you said, it was worth it. I often think back on some of his thoughts and one day I'd like to revisit it as I do think some of it just went over my head.