In a previous article, Lewis’s Accusation, I quoted C.S. Lewis from The Abolition of Man:
While we speak from within the Tao we can speak of Man having power over himself in a sense truly analogous to an individual’s self-control. But the moment we step outside and regard the Tao as a mere subjective product, this possibility has disappeared. What is now common to all men is a mere abstract universal,… and man’s conquest of himself means simply the rule of the Conditioners over the conditioned human material, the world of post-humanity which, some knowingly and some unknowingly, nearly all men in all nations are at present labouring to produce.
It would be an understatement to suggest that he opposes this attempt to build a post-human world.
For Lewis, however, things did not go wrong in the 50’s or 60’s since he was delivering these addresses in the 1940’s. No doubt, he would encourage us to probe more deeply to identify the causes of the specific brokennesses we find in our age.
For Lewis there was never a golden age, but there were times when more truthful views of reality held sway. Because they were more truthful, they were more practical, especially in that the truth sets people free.
But even if there were not such times, Lewis would still be concerned about the widespread acceptance of an error in any society or about the general rejection of an important truth by any community – if only because he understood truth to be a good in itself.
Regardless of time and place, Lewis argues, there has always been a Tao, an awareness of objective value. Across every culture, one can identify a set of principles that are true to human nature, that lead to human flourishing when they are followed, and that ought to be believed.
When these principles are identified, one can deliberately live and speak from “within the tao.” In it, we can speak about man ruling himself and it can be for the good. We can talk about justice and mean more than the will of those in power. We can talk about progress and mean something. Power, justice, progress and many other things people all value, such as tolerance, equality, identity, and freedom can all be defined in ways that contributes to human flourishing.
They can be true, not just true for you or me; truth, not just your truth and my truth.
However, the story of 19th century England, far and away the dominant earthly power, is the story of a nation losing its faith, not only in Christianity but in the very possibility of knowing the truth itself.
Perhaps having experienced the outcomes of this loss of faith in truth, both in his education growing up and in the universities where he taught and studied as an adult, he was sensitive to it.
Furthermore, knowing English literature as well as he did, it was not hard for him to see the desperation of a man like Tennyson (who sincerely wanted to be a Christian) that followed the fragmentation of Blake and the Romantics, or the futility of Matthew Arnold’s almost idolatrous treatment of literature as a substitute for religion.
He knew that a scientific revolution had occurred and that many educated people were convinced that its consequence was the relegation of religious belief to irrelevance, or at best a private consolation.
However, he also knew that the scientific revolution played itself out in ways that, to put it kindly, didn’t work.
The institutions that arrogated to themselves the name of science presumed to speak on matters beyond the powers of science. Worse, they presumed to marginalize people who spoke about non-scientific matters in non-scientific ways.
Wanting to see society healed through sound thought and observing the direction of conventional thought, he hoped the sciences would be restored to their rightful and honorable place. He even hoped they might generate a solution to the problems they had contributed to.
But he knew this would take a new approach to science rooted in a different philosophy: one more consistent and coherent than the materialism that scientists extended from a method to a first principle. He knew it would require a repentence, if not by scientists themselves then by philosophers of science who had tried to do through science what science can’t do.
Before any of that could take place, the work of the unscientific would-be scientists who were teaching children had to be challenged. That is why, during 1943, Lewis had the gall to write the text I quoted previously:
I believe that we are not sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text books.
Lewis believed that these elementary text books were subtly misleading students to draw conclusions that were not healthy and were not grounded in careful thought. In The Abolition of Man he argued that those who were trying to build a post-human world were executing a three stage process (Please Note: it was not a plan or a conspiracy; rather, it was the necessary development of the inner logic of the premises the age had accepted).
Stage one Is to debunk the student. In one place, he summarizes what he means by debunking in the famous and oft-quoted passage,
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.
Having debunked the student, the next stage Is to innovate a new morality or view of reality to replace the one that has been removed from the student’s soul.
Then, having innovated a new view of the world, the conditioner steps in to condition people to accept and live it.
To debunk the student, innovate a new worldview, and condition people to live it is, in Lewis’s mournfully celebrated phrase, “the abolition of man,” This, argues, Lewis, is the real consequence of the “post-human world” that the whole race seems in a hurry to create.
Lewis did not want to see man abolished. Instead, he labored to see him carry “a weight of glory.” For him, that is what was at stake in 1943.
And it was even more important than what happened on the battlefields of Russia, North Africa, Italy, and the Pacific Islands.