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Mere Christian Perspectives on the Human
© Mythopoeic Society
Donald T. Williams

Contents

C. S. LEWIS AND THE ABOLITION OF MAN

Chesterton, by taking the secular approach more seriously than the secularists, made it collapse into absurdity. But not everyone was serious enough to laugh with him. Another generation passed, the effects of reductionism proceeded apace, and by mid-century the farsighted had begun to wonder whether our insistence on seeing man as merely an animal might become so addictive that we would loose the ability to function as more. If the human differentia came, as Chesterton argued, from God, they could hardly be abolished. But still, we could try, and in trying do a great deal of damage. So we move, in an ironic procession of titles, from Chesterton's The Everlasting Man to Lewis's The Abolition of Man , a book in which he charts the form those reductionistic efforts were taking by mid century.

WaterfallChanges in our view of human nature inevitably show up in educational theory and practice, even if they are not articulated there as such. So Lewis begins by being concerned about language he finds in a book for teaching English to schoolchildren. He charitably disguises the authors as Gaius and Titius, and refers to their volume as "The Green Book." "Gaius and Titius comment as follows: ‘When that man said That is sublime, he appeared to be making the remark about the waterfall… Actually… he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings.'"  In this seemingly innocent observation, Lewis smells nothing less than the Giant Rat of Sumatra. "The schoolboy who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speakers, and, secondly, that all such statements are unimportant."

What happens when we switch from statements about the esthetic beauty of waterfalls to statements about moral values — or about the value of human life? If naturalism is true, then only the physically quantifiable is real. So if we are taught to treat only the physically quantifiable as real, then we have created a presumption that naturalism is true. And that presumption digs a chasm between us and the whole history of human experience and understanding. "Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt." They felt that way because, having not yet accepted the premise that only the physically quantifiable is real, they were free to believe in the reality of other than numerical values. Lewis calls this traditional approach to life "the doctrine of objective value," and the hierarchy of values perceived in the universe in the light of it the Tao.

It is 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. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.

The humanity of the human species, those qualities that according to Chesterton separate us from the merely animal, depends on the existence of this objective but not physical Tao and our ability to perceive it. If only the physically quantifiable is real, then the evolutionary model is adequate and Man's uniqueness an illusion. But if naturalism is false — if we are creative minds because we were created by the ultimate Mind — then values are not merely subjective. The valuations made by the Creator Himself have the same reality as the physical objects He made and which He values, and discovering those values is the path to fulfillment for humans who want their lives to have value as well. If this is true, then Milton's Satan — and the hordes of modern and post-modern thinkers who follow him — are wrong when they claim that "The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." In other words, there is the potential for a rational, not merely an instinctual, grounding for what humans value and how they feel about it: "Because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it)."

Lewis does not at this point specify the Christian theistic grounding of the Tao — he saves that task, in effect, for Mere Christianity and Miracles, being here content to appeal to the universal perception of the Tao in pre-Modern times that that he documents in the appendix. What he zeroes in on is the fact that modern secularist reductionism, by defining the Tao out of existence and insisting that nothing but the physically quantifiable can be real or objective, also rules out of court precisely the central essence of human nature.

The peculiarity of that nature is that humanity is indeed located precisely on Pope's "isthmus of a middle state." This much he had retained of the Tradition. We are that being that, like the animals, has a physical body influenced by instinct, but, like the angels, has a spiritual nature capable of perceiving the Tao. The reality of our animal nature provides plenty of evidence for those who would reduce us to that nature alone, but the uniqueness of our position in creation is that, as far as we know, we are the only creature that has to deal with the sometimes difficult integration of that animal nature with the spiritual. Lewis recognized this aspect of our situation and stressed its importance for how we conceive the process of education, specifically the danger of ignoring it:

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’ The head rules the belly through the chest — the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest — Magnanimity — Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. 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. The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. 

The Tao perceived by the mind, in other words, is not automatically followed by the body. That is what it means to have a mind rather than operating by mere instinct. So part of the role of education is to foster well-ordered emotions, "sentiments" that aid the mind in governing the body according to the Tao. It is, in other words, to transmit to the next generation the developed ways of feeling about things that have been discovered by the bitter experience of many previous generations to be in accordance with reason and the Tao — to transmit civilization. If we insist that thoughts about values are really only feelings, and then debunk feelings about values as baseless because the values cannot be stuck into either a test-tube or a calculator, we foster barbarism instead. And as human beings, neither animal nor angel, we need both the thoughts and the feelings. "Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,’ that against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers."

Education in the spirit of The Green Book — in the spirit of reductionist materialism — trains something that is less than human. Because of the way it denies or devalues the mind, it leaves out entirely the middle element, seeing no necessity to integrate something that transcends the physical with a physical nature conceived as the whole person. (Attempts to deal with teenage pregnancy through that oxymoronic method of "values-free" sex education come to mind.) As Lewis describes it, "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." It is then impossible to underestimate what is at stake in these rival conceptions of human nature. "The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it."

We cannot make human beings less than human, but by training them to think of themselves as less than human we can get them to act as less, with disastrous consequences. Therefore, Lewis speaks with hyperbole perhaps but nevertheless makes a valid point when he says of those who operate on the basis of materialist reductionism that, "It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void." They have tried with mixed success to give up something that is essential to full humanity, at least. The two rival conceptions of humanity stare at each other across a great chasm, and what is at stake is the very possibility of a civilization in which man can be whole, develop to his potential:

Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own ‘natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can overarch rulers and ruled alike. 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..

In summary, to be human is to be an animal who is aware of spiritual values. Though reductionists deny the existence of such creatures, implying that Man in that sense is in fact a myth, they themselves cannot escape the Tao. For they think that we ought to reject traditional values as an impediment to human progress; but if they are right, the word ought its meaningless. In a materialist world, no manipulation of any of the ciphers properly admitted to that world could ever possibly produce such a concept.

If he had really started from scratch, from right outside the human tradition of value, no jugglery could have advanced him an inch towards the conception that a man should die for the community or work for posterity. If the Tao falls, all his own conceptions of value fall with it. Not one of them can claim any authority other than that of the Tao. Only by such shreds of the Tao as he has inherited is he enabled even to attack it. 

Or, in other words,

[The Tao] is not one among a series of possible systems of value. 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. There never has been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. 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. 

Lewis illustrates this point in Out of the Silent Planet, when Oyarsa, the governing spirit of Malacandra, diagnoses Weston's "bentness" as proceeding from the fact that there are laws known to all hnau (the Old Solar word for sentient animal), including pity, straight dealing, and love of kindred. But Weston has taken the love of kindred, a true law in itself, out of its context in the Tao, and made it into "a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain."  As a result, he breaks all the other laws and does not even truly keep that one, for he is willing to sacrifice any individual human being for what he considers the abstract good of the race. Even Weston can be evil, not by creating new values apart from the Tao, but only by truncating and twisting the ones it gives us. Thus Satan's program of creating his own values in the mind's own place inevitably fails even in its greatest success: in spite of itself, it is forced to give ironic witness to the reality and validity of the Tao.

If the Tao is indeed an inescapable reality, then the conception of human nature it calls for is upheld. "In the Tao itself, as long as we remain within it, we find the concrete reality in which to participate is to be truly human" (Abolition 86). To deny this is indeed to attempt to abolish humanity itself.

 

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