The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis

Posted: April 29, 2015 in Book Review
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About: To virtue or not to virtue? That is the question. In this powerful little book, Lewis examines why human values come as a package deal or not at all—and the disastrous consequences if humanity chooses to forgo virtue entirely. Genre- Philosophy; Subject- Ethics; Published- 1944.

I will attempt to summarize the contents of this book, below; but as is always the case with summaries, much of the book’s potency (not to mention art and grace) is lost in translation. I only mean to give you an idea of what the book is about. Do please read the real thing, if you’re at all interested—it’s only a little over a hundred pages. If you’re not interested in the summary, skip down to the section of this review entitled “What I Liked.”

Before I summarize, however, I must explain an important concept in the book: the Tao. One of my favorite parts of the book is the appendix, which collects quotes from numerous religious writings dating backward from the Bible (“Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike” (28)). The point of this appendix is to highlight a common core of values among them (honoring your parents; witnessing truthfully in court; those sorts of things). He refers to this collection of spiritual wisdom as the Tao throughout the book. That term–the Tao–comes up a lot in the summary.

Content: Lewis’s thesis unfolds in three parts: Part I, “Men Without Chests”; Part II, “The Way”; & Part III, “The Abolition of Man.”

In Part I: Men Without Chests, Lewis spells out a growing problem he sees in the modern educational system: that modern man is attempting to create a species of “men without chests.” The “chest” here symbolizes what Lewis calls “sentiment” and what we can understand as “virtue.” Virtue is based on the values found in the Tao. Lewis wrote this book precisely because he was concerned that modern teachers/professors were churning out masses of students who lacked “just sentiments” or virtue. These teachers attempt to debunk virtue on rational grounds, and the students swallow this philosophy whole, becoming “men without chests.”

In Part II: The Way, Lewis argues that virtue can only be found, whole and intact, in the Tao.

“What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies,’ all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess” (44).

In doing so, he argues against the popular theory that virtue can be based on “’rational’ or ‘biological’ or ‘modern’ grounds” (23). (Adherents to this popular view often considered “traditional values” as “sentimental,” silly, outdated (such as sexual taboos overturned by the advent of birth control) or otherwise based on religious “taboo”(29)). Lewis further argues that the Tao is no buffet—if the modern seeker accepts some of the virtues of the Tao, he has no authority to pick and choose (41). He must accept the entire thing.

In Part III: The Abolition of Man, Lewis suggests that modern sciences will eventually destroy our values. While science has done much good, it has been tainted from an early age by a love of power—a love that overtook the earlier, purer love of truth that motivated the founders of modern science. (He writes of science as a battle to subdue nature: “‘Man’s conquest of Nature’ is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science” (53).) He agrees that science has successfully conquered much of nature, to the deserved pride of mankind and its scientists; however, he argues that the current course of modern science can only end in conquering mankind itself along with the values of the Tao.

“Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to man. The battle will then be won…But who, precisely, will have won it?…Man’s final conquest has proven to be the abolition of Man” (59, 64).

His reasoning and examples are far too complex to outline in this review; but he imagines a new “Natural Philosophy” (science) that would “conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life” (78-79).

What I Liked: This book reads like a thriller, and Lewis’s thesis is the source of its tension: that the future of humankind hangs on our acceptance or rejection of “traditional morality.” It’s short but complex, thrilling but thorough.

As usual, Lewis communicates the concepts smoothly to the non-philosophers among us (*ahem* such as I), assisted by his uncommon humor, wit, rationality, compassion and an abundance of illuminating examples.

To me, this book explains why humanity needs religion—or, at least, the virtues and values found only in religion—and why we can’t and won’t survive without it: because our “chests” make us human. I’m sure there are lots of other things you can take from this book, but that’s what meant the most to me.

Overall: I can’t really disguise how much I love this book. I read it as a teenager and it completely lost me, at the time. I’ve now read it twice more, and was only able to finally understand it by taking oral notes on my phone. (If you want to see the notes, which I’ve compiled and organized for further reference, leave me a comment or something and I’ll send them to you.) It was worth the time and effort–and in any case, I couldn’t stop thinking about it until I really dug in. I hope this review sparks your interest. If you read this book, you’ll be glad you did. It’s one of the most important I’ve ever reviewed. If you’re not sure, yet, check out the selected quotes below to get a feel for it.

5/5 STARS. Highly Recommended.

Characterizing Quotes:

“The head rules the belly through the chest…It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal” (24-25).

“And all the time—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” (26).

“This is why Aristotle said that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics: to the corrupted man, the man who stands outside the Tao, the very starting point of this science is invisible” (47).

“I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason [the Tao] as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become sceptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more ‘realistic’ basis, is doomed” (49).

“Nothing I can say will prevent some people from describing this lecture as an attack on science. I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao are cut. But I can go further than that. I even suggest that from Science herself the cure might come” (76).

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