Both astonishing and prophetic, The Abolition of Man remains one of C. S. Lewis's most controversial works. Lewis sets out to persuade his audience of the ongoing importance and relevance of universal objective values, such as courage and honor, and the foundational necessity of natural law. He also makes a cogent case that a retreat from these pillars of our educational system, even if in the name of "scientism," would be catastrophic. National Review lists it as number seven on their "100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century."
Original publication date
So there are absolutes. Though many are generally agreed upon, others are up for discussion. Lewis writes that though he is a Theist and a Christian, he is not here making an argument for his belief system. Indeed, in the Appendices at the end he quotes from a multitude of sources, religious and secular, from ancient times to modern, demonstrating the remarkable similarities in human society regarding the Tao. This lines up with Scripture, interestingly enough (see Romans 2:12–15).
Lewis also goes into an interesting discussion about how Man is supposedly conquering Nature through scientific advances. But these advances aren't really Man conquering Nature; they are men exercising power over other men. For example, the technology of contraceptives could be denied to some people by the contraceptive makers. It isn't Nature that is being controlled here, but people.
Eventually we may get to the point where the group exercising the control (the "Conditioners") decides to make Man "better" — but of course they have to have an absolute value system to make a value judgment that one thing is better than another. Using different words like "primal" or "deep-rooted" or whatever instead of "better" doesn't solve the problem of using the Tao to make value judgments. So the Conditioners will make future man something different and thereby exercise a far greater control than ever of one generation over another. This is the abolition of Man.
For every pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. (27)
The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it. (31–2)
It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. (35)
Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey "people." People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war. (49)
This thing which I have called the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. (55)
The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in. (56)
An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or Practical Reason is idiocy. If a man's mind is open on these things, let his mouth at least be shut. He can say nothing to the purpose. (59)
Lewis is one of those authors who make me feel simultaneously intelligent and in dire need of more education. He has the trick of making his reader understand a thing as if clearly seeing something heretofore only dimly perceived. It is as if I am discovering something I always knew... and then realizing how dimly and vaguely I knew it, and how inadequate is all my articulation of it. Excellent.
The Abolition of Man is the published collection of the Fifteenth Riddell Memorial Lectures Lewis gave at the University of Durham. They are titled Men Without Chests, The Way and The Abolition of Man. In them Lewis asserts that there is a movement within society, sometimes subtle and sometimes not, sometimes incidental and unseen and other times being very intentional, with the object, either directly or inadvertently, to pull humanity away from what he considers to be its near-eternal and transcendent moorings. The vagueness of my attempt to describe as his project is that his primary intent is to alert his readers of what is going on, and then trusting them to understand how to respond to the changes in society as they recognize them.
In Men Without Chests he sets our vision on seeing a movement away from the idea that anything can be known objectively, so that everything we see and interact with, the previously objective, now becomes subjective. This is an idea that I think is particularly relevant in our time, i.e. “It may be true for you but it’s not true for me.”
In The Way he then demonstrates how there has long been a number of things that have been held as true, across both cultures and eras, and these truths have determined the values to which both individuals and their societies held to. Regarding the existence and purpose of a relatively universal moral law he writes, “It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory.” (56)
The consequence of denying any objective and universal moral law is not good. In The Abolition of Man he writes, “My point is that those who stand outside all judgments of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.” (78) Such persons, when in positions of power within society, will be guided by their own, independent sense of rationalism, so that “Their extreme rationalism, by ‘seeing through’ all ‘rational’ motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behavior.” (79) And the end result will be humankind’s inexorable self-destruction.
Lewis gave these lectures more than 60 years ago but their themes continue to resonate today. He invites us to think critically about the issues of our day and the consequences of our actions, not merely for our good, but for the greater good. For what has always been the greater good.
"When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been trained in 'ordinate affections' or 'just sentiments' will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science." [Citing Eth. Nic. 1095., at 26]
"In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one 'who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praised to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart." [at 27, citing Plato's Republic, 402 A.]
Lewis compares this, as does Wordsworth, to the Hindu Rta, the cosmic order reflected in moral virtues, righteousness with satya or truth. As Plato said that Good was "beyond existence", and Wordsworth said by virtue the stars were strong, and the Indian masters say the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it. The Chinese speak of The Tao, the reality beyond all predicates, Nature, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, and the Way which every man should treat in imitation. "In ritual, it is harmony with Nature that is prized", quoting the Analects of Confucius. In the Psalms, the Jews praise the Law as being 'true'. Psalm cxix:151. The word is emeth, truth, emphasizing its reliability and trustworthiness -- it does not change and "holds water".  Lewis refers to this Tao, as the "doctrine of objective value" -- the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false.
Like a man who finds that he is colorblind or has a defect, Lewis admits "I myself do not enjoy the company of small children". 
"No emotion is, in itself, a judgement: in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. They can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should obey it." 
Lewis advocates educating within the Tao, "to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate". Those outside the Tao, regard all sentiments as non-rational, "mere mists between us and the real objects". 
As Plato told it long ago, Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the 'spirited element'. The head rules the belly through the chest--the seat of Magnanimity -- of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. [Citing Republic, 442 B.C., and Alanus, De Planctu Naturae Prosa, iii]. 
Lewis highlights the tragi-comedy of our situation -- "we clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible". The periodicals demanding more of cour civilization in the way of dynamism, sacrifice, or creativity. Yet, "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 gelding be fruitful." 
In "The Way", Lewis disposes of instincts, and "innovation", as sources of values, showing how they are wanting. Lewis holds to the Tao as the only possible source of value judgments.  And there can be no rebellion by the branches against the tree. He does admit there are contradictions and absurdities--for example, from lumping together the moralities of the world--and resolves them in applied literary and linguistic criticism. He returns to the absolute. To a corrupted man, outside the Tao, the starting point remains invisible. He cannot see what is being discussed.
"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." 
In the final Chapter, Lewis considers the rejection of the concept of "values" altogether: "The Abolition of Man". He asks "In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?" 
Lewis looks at three technologies by way of specific examples: the aeroplane, the wireless, and contraception. He finds man is as much the subject as the possessor -- a target of bombs and propaganda, and eugenic preferences. "What we call Man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument".  Power won by man is a power over men, and we are then weaker as well as stronger. This is what our "conquest" over Nature really means.
Finally, "Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man".  Lewis imagines a "new Natural Philosophy". He admits hardly knowing what he is asking for--a regenerating science, that he believes is underlying all civilizations which are all really One, reflected in Natural Law.
One of the significant, wonderfully illustrative and useful parts, of this little book, is the hand collected list of examples of this "law" with which Lewis concludes the book. The Appendix provides corroborative "testimonies" arising from different times and places on the planet. It is submitted that ancient Sumerian and Egyptian priests, Chinese sages, Hebrew prophets, Roman jurists, Hindu moralists, Christian saints, all say essentially the same thing. We are left with de facto universal morality.
“When the man said This is sublime he appeared to be making a remark
about the waterfall….Actually…he was not making a remark about the
waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings….This confusion
is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be
saying something very important about something; and actually we are
only saying something about our own feelings.”
In other words, the authors of the textbook reduce predicates of value to the speaker’s emotions and, at the same time, deride the value statements as “unimportant”. Lewis takes exception with the claim that value is entirely subjective, proposing instead “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” In the case of the tourist praising the waterfall as “sublime”, Lewis claims that Coleridge could endorse this claim because he could reasonably believe that the waterfall merited such a description, that the word “sublime” was “ordinate to” the phenomenon (to borrow St. Augustine’s description of virtue as ordo amoris).
The central task of education is, as Aristotle and Plato contended, to make a student “like or dislike what he ought”. In other words, some sentiments are just and ordinate, and it is the task of the educator to treat pupils the way that grown birds teach young birds to fly in order to teach them virtue.
Reason in man must rule the appetites by means of the “spirited element”. If we deny the validity of all predicates of value, then we will produce “Men without Chests”. Even if virtue could be theoretically grounded without an appeal to objectivity, it would still not suffice to make a man virtuous. For this, trained emotions—that is to say, just and proper sentiments—are essential in keeping the appetites in their place. Resort to pure reason or pure emotion cannot tell us what we should or should not do. There must be objective values—absolute, universal, apart from man—that we either internalize or activate. This is what we mean by character or by what Lewis calls the “Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment”.
In the second lecture, “The Way”, Lewis argues plausibly that once one denies the existence of objective values, it is impossible to construct a coherent theory of morality. What he terms “Natural Law” or the Tao is the “sole source of all value judgments” and any attempt to “refute it and raise a new system of value is self-contradictory.” Any attempt to create a new system of value becomes mere ideology, because most of those who would debunk traditional values have in mind “background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process”.
In the final lecture, “The Abolition of Man”, Lewis explores the implications of moral relativism and the de facto exaltation of applied science (the conquest of nature) as the greatest good for mankind. If the subjectivists succeed in debunking all traditional values (natural law), then the state will become simply a “conditioner” and the question arises how “the motivators, the creators of motives” will themselves be motivated. “It is not that they are bad men…. They are not men at all: they are artifacts.” In the end, Lewis concludes that a “dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary” to construct a “rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.”
I am in broad agreement with the claims that Lewis makes in this prescient and important book. If the sublime, for instance, does not reside in the object itself, at least in a way that is ordinate or appropriate to the object, then one is reduced to “the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings, without one trace of truth or falsehood.”
In identifying what is Good and Beautiful, philosophers from Plato to the present day have conceded that these have some sort of objective existence and do not hold, with David Hume to cite one prominent instance, that these exist only in the subject’s mind and therefore cannot be true or false. I believe with Lewis that objective values are precisely what allow us to appreciate what is objectively worthy of our appreciation.
When I first read The Abolition of Man many years ago, I read it along with Mere Christianity and G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. I did so, because I felt that there is an important relationship between moral objectivity and the idea that God has created us in His image. If God does not exist, then objects are merely material, and spirituality is purely subjective. An objective moral law, in other words, presupposes the existence of an objective moral lawgiver, a conviction that both Lewis and Chesterton held.
In addition to advancing a truly compelling argument in favor of what he calls the Tao, Lewis also expresses himself with wit, grace, mordancy, elegance and originality. In rereading the book, I found myself marking innumerable passages to memorize in the near future. One of these is as follows: “We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible.”
This book takes as its point of departure some philosophical ideas embedded in a British high-school textbook of Grammar or Literature. The ideas discussed in the beginning appear to derive from logical positivism, and have the character of statements made by A. J. Ayer, one of the members of the Vienna Circle, the original society of logical positivists.
The argument Lewis uses against these ideas, and against moral relativism appear to derive from Aristottle's Nicomachen Ethics.
He makes the point that science should endevour to keep insights from introspection when trying to understand the instincts of animals. I think that we do see some hint of this in some writings of Carl Sagan, particularly in one place where he asks whether when a moth is overcome by phermones whether he falls a little in love with the female moth. Though Sagan's application of this kind of thought is inconsistent.
Lewis also asks that scientists keep in mind that what is produced by analysis is an abstraction and that this abstraction must always be refined. I believe that this is explicitly understood in current understandings of scientific epistemology.
The ideas presented here particularly those about the Natural Law are very similar to those introduced in the opening chapters of Mere Christianity. Also in Mere Christianity he mentions the similarities between moral codes of various countries and eras and mentions an appendix that collects some examples of this. That appendix is included in this book.
In That Hideous Strength, Lewis says that it is a fictional exploration of ideas that are presented straightforwardly in this book.
One might also compare A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
The whole point about seeing something is because there is an object that can be seen. If everything is all relative, that very statement itself is a belief. By that statement, you are "seeing" something. Even an atheist believes in "there is no god."
Anyway, the term Abolition of Man refers to his essay (which is actually a collection of three lectures) about the descent of man from the pinnacle of creation to become little more than, what he says, trousered apes: namely animals that wear clothes. The reason for this argument is due to an English text book that was recently released (at the time of writing), and while he owes the writers no ill will, it is the contents of the text-book that to him are appalling.
First he refers to a reference at the beginning of the book to a poem by Colleridge where one of the watchers of a waterfall says that it is sublime and the other says that it is pretty. The writers of the book argue from a post-modern, relativistic point of view saying that the person who says that the waterfall is sublime is saying it because he believes that it is sublime. Lewis does not think so, and believes that what Colleridge is suggesting is that one of the speakers is using the more appropriate term, and to Lewis, the one who uses the word pretty, while not incorrect, suggests that there are better words to use instead.
The second thing that Lewis points out in the book is an advertisement for a Caribbean Cruise, and the writers use this advertisement as a demonstration of metaphor. Lewis is appalled, particularly since this book is written for people in the upper levels of school. Lewis believes that there are so many better forms of literature to outline metaphor than to simply use an advertisement. Personally I totally agree and I guess this is Lewis bemoaning the state of modern English education. However, the problem here is that little has changed, and in fact things are probably getting a lot worse.
In a sense what Lewis is bemoaning is that he sees the education system drifting away from the ideas that were brought forward in the Enlightenment to the point where people have stopped thinking (not that the majority of the population ever did) and humans no longer consider themselves humans, but rather a byproduct of millions of years of evolution. It is not that Lewis discredits evolution, it is just that he sees more with regards to humans than simply a hairless ape.
This is not the idea, though is related to, with what I see here in Bangkok as I wonder around the streets at night. In effect it is the commodification of humanity. People cease to be people and simply become a commodity. This is something that Marx moaned about in the Estrangement of Labour. Humans cease to be unique and begin to be based upon how productive they are, and the mechanisation of production means that what we produce ceases to be a part of us (as it was in the cottage industry, and also to an extent what you still see in the stalls that litter the streets of Bangkok).
While one may try to remind people that they are still humans, sometimes the situation that they have fallen into is so deep and so entangled that there is no way for them to escape. This is probably why there was a cry from a person at a church that I went to once that Thailand needs many more workers. Humanity has become a commodity, and all that we are being taught at the moment is how to be more of a commodity and not a human being.
Lewis begins observing trends in education and literary theory, but moves beyond to illustrate the danger of the ideas in question. His use of the Tao as way to communicate the radical necessity of natural law is clever, and his resolve that rationality remains critical if we're to prevent society from moral collapse, and more, the abolition of man himself.
Explains how the neo-liberalism of the socialists took hold in the Western world (writing in 1944), and why that is a pernicious development for civilization.
Style: Typical of Lewis's knowledgeable yet accessible persuasive essays.
NOTES: pp. 20, 26, 29, 40, 44, 47, 49, 51, 59, 65, 66, 73*, 77, 83, 206, 110.
On the other hand, maybe traditional interpretations of natural law are flawed and science is bringing us closer to an understanding of the Tao.
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. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature's apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever. If the fully planned and conditioned world (with its Tao a mere product of the planning) comes into existence, Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness.
I agree with most of what Lewis says in this book. The idea that one can teach children to be responsible human with the basic values is absurd. I think, sadly, Lewis ideas, while sound, will never be accepted or embraced in our modern society. It's too archaic and therefore, condemn by the very people it would most benefit.
One of the central treatises of the book is the nature of the Tao, as Lewis calls it. He defines the Tao thus "This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value." He says a bit earlier (about the Tao) "You cannot reach them as conclusions: they are premises." He uses these arguments to establish the baseline for informed, moral discussion as opposed to natural discussion.
It is informative of how nature is described by Lewis: "The Natural is the opposite of the Artificial, the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural". A reflection on each of these opposing characteristics (excluding artificial, as Lewis does), illustrates to me why I value the general teachings of the Tao, and many of them specifically. Lewis addresses how there can be some disagreement with principles in the Tao: "From within the Tao itself comes the only authority to modify the Tao. This is what Confucius meant when he said 'With those who follow a different Way it is useless to take counsel'."
The appendix is a collection of ancient wisdom, titled "Illustrations of the Tao". It is broken down into different segments, such as "The Law of General Beneficence", "The Law of Special Beneficence", and others. These are taken from a sampling of different cultures including Chinese, Indian, Native American, Roman, Greek, Babylonian, and Egyptian.
I found myself enlightened by reading this short volume and I have much to think about and apply.