on 10 April 2011
C.S. Lewis pulls no punches in this book, "The Abolition of Man". Since I disagree with Lewis on virtually everything (I'm a feminist, for starters), reading this book was a real guilty pleasure. And why not? Lewis has always been the thinking atheist-agnostic-seeker's favourite Christian apologist. And writer in general, too. My favourite? "The Great Divorce".
Lewis is, of course, right that there is an objectively valid morality, which he for some reason chooses to call Tao. (A Catholic would presumably call it "natural law".) He believes that the Tao cannot be derived within the narrow confines of a materialist worldview. At least by implication, he also rejects the evolutionary explanation for morality. Instead, the Tao must be based on something transcendental.
I believe Jack was on to something here. Evolution might explain why certain behaviours have evolved, but it cannot justify them morally. After all, behaviour we consider immoral is also a product of evolution. Indeed, they seem to go together. As Frank de Waal has pointed out in his books on chimpanzees: only a creature with empathy can be consciously malicious, precisely because it knows exactly how the victim will feel. So what makes empathy "moral" and malice "immoral"? The seeming impossibility of justifying morality within a materialist worldview is the primary reason why I eventually decided to abandon it. Another, of course, is the sheer existential impossibility of upholding a consistent nihilist or relativist view (those who claim to do so, are either psychos...or not really being consistent). Today, I'm a seeker.
The main problem with "The Abolition of Man" in the opinion of even sympathetic readers is Lewis' "fideist" view of the Tao. He believes that the Tao cannot really be justified from a neutral ground. You are either within it or outside it. Only those who have the Tao, can understand the Tao. Is this a subconscious influence from G.E. Moore? Or is it connected to Jack's strong emphasis on obedience and hierarchy within the faith and the Church? It seems the Tao can only be grasped in some intuitive fashion, and those who for whatever reason cannot do so, are beyond the pale from the outset. Something tells me Kantian or Aristotelian philosophers will take strong exception to this. Will Korsgaard and MacIntyre please stand up?
I readily admit that I have a certain sympathy for the old man on this question, as well. Perhaps the solution to Eutyphro's dilemma is to simply tell Socrates to shut up! Somewhere, there has to be a first principle, something that cannot be questioned without logical or existential problems and contradictions. Perhaps it's the Tao. Perhaps it's some principle over and above the Tao. However, it's still a first principle, and as such can only be grasped in an intuitive way.
Does this solve all our moral conundrums? Obviously not, and even Lewis admits that much, since he agrees that *some* development and progress is possible even within the Tao, although it must somehow be based on the Tao itself. Again, I tend to agree. Why is Lewis' hopelessly patriarchal view of women wrong, immoral even? Because some tribe somewhere is matriarchal, or because some lizards in Texas are, dare I say it, lesbian? Well, no. The real reason is surely that patriarchal hierarchy collides with other principles within the Tao, such as "Do unto others" etc.
"The Abolition of Man" is not just a treatise on morality. It also deals with other issues: aesthetics, public education, the real or perceived evils of social engineering, etc. I came to think of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" when reading the concluding, title essay. Unfortunately, Lewis was prophetic in the same way as Huxley's seemingly bizarre novel, which was written even earlier. There is also a famous reference to Goethe and Dr. Steiner in this text, a reference no doubt influenced by Owen Barfield, Lewis' friend, solicitor and on-off philosophical adversary, who was a maverick Anthroposophist (although, as a good Englishman, more into Coleridge than Goethe). Barfield loved "The Abolition of Man", despite the obvious differences between his ideas and those of Lewis, which to me shows that Jack hit the nail squarely on the head with this one.
I haven't seen this edition, but my copy of this work contains the following appreciative blurb by Barfield: "There may be a piece of contemporary writing in which precision of thought, liveliness of expression and depth of meaning unite with the same felicity, but I have not come across it".
Despite his attacks on "nature", what Lewis feared was not that we would be turned into animals by the despotic social engineering of the World Controllers. What he feared was a world of robots ruled by devils. With AI, cloning of human babies, moral relativism and an establishment more and more out of control, I shear that fear. However, I suspect that what we will really get is not a bizarre version of the Roman Empire, but rather an even bloodier version of the fall of Rome. Even more bizarrely, I somehow prefer that option to a totalitarian world state! It can hardly be denied that "science" and "progress", untempered by morality, are evil.
With that, I end my reflections on C.S. Lewis for the time being. RIP, Jack, wherever you are.
on 16 August 1999
Using the clever vehicle of critiquing a presumptuous Britishtextbook, Lewis de-bunks the use of scientific method to analyze humanity, claiming instead that humans must trust their cumulative culture and their gut feelings. The three chapters are the record of three lectures he delivered toward the end of WWII; there is an undercurrent of distress regarding a society's willingness to sacrifice its sons for its own ironic preservation. These lectures pre-date his more well-known works of 'mere Christianity' and thinly veiled allegory and fantasy, and his tone is scholarly and patient while trying to wade through some very thick philosophy. More than 3 stars for graduate student readers, but 3 stars for anyone hoping to find a clear direction for designing learning expriences that result in noble citizens with altruistic charcter. Screwtape Letters communicate the same theories in much more digestible form. Perhaps his multi-cultural references, finding superficial similarity in the spiritual works of many cultures and historic eras, must be considered very much ahead of the current era's hypersensitivity to eurocentric assumptions, but his use of 'the tao' as a generic term for traditional morality might be considered as presumptuous as the textbook he mercilessly skewers throughout the series..