The Abolition of Man
Publisher (Date): HarperCollins e-books (2009)
Length: 130 pages
I bought this book as required reading for one of my classes in my MA program at Houston Baptist University, but I had already read Mere Christianity, so I am at least a little bit familiar with Lewis and his style of writing.
Lewis begins this work by telling us about The Green Book. A pseudonym for an actual book that he had read, The Green Book was written for children, and it left a bad taste in Lewis’ mouth.
“In their second chapter Gaius and Titius quote the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall. You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it ‘sublime’ and the other ‘pretty’; and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust. Gaius and Titius comment as follows: ‘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. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings’” (Kindle Locations 33-38).
With this quote as our target, we are off to the races for the rest of this compact piece of writing. Essentially, Lewis is out to prove that there actually are things such as objective beauty and value. The waterfall can be sublime in and of itself whether or not I feel it is or not. It does not necessarily have to be reduced to this rather weak conception of feelings. In short, there is such a thing as objective reality.
This is where we run into the genius of CS Lewis’ apologetic method. As a theist himself, he very well could have begun to indicate how this points to God. However, he recognized that perhaps his audience was not at that point yet. As a result, throughout his discussion of the existence of objective values, he always refers to this code as the Tao. He rightfully recognized that there are many values which are shared across cultures. Some of those actually provided in the appendix of this book, and they involve what you would expect like how a wide variety of cultures from all over the world all had prohibitions against murder in their moral codes.
This is brilliant because the obvious response to my first proposal is that people would argue they don’t want Christian morality shoved down their throats. Lewis rightfully points out that whether you like it or not, humans have this innate sense of morality. Christianity can explain where that comes from, but the purpose of this essay is to inform that this code does indeed exist. He doesn’t try to argue where it came from, but he does argue that it does exist. I think that we can learn from this as apologists. We can start by meeting people where they’re at, but then we show them how the Christian worldview can handle these questions.
Lewis certainly understands that everyone will not agree with him, so he begins addressing some refutations. For example, some people argue that everything is subjective kind of like the people who wrote The Green Book. He rightfully points out that they had nowhere to begin. To believe that, they must have some objective value that they are basing that belief on.
With that refuted, some people will simply say that is human instinct. For example, we have a desire to preserve our species just as much as animals do. However, even if you want to go that direction, how do we determine what instincts get priority? There are times where a value judgment needs to be made. For example, how do you explain a parent sacrificing his or her life for a child? There are two potential instincts at work here that we see: self-preservation and protection of young. What is the underlying value that determines which one you choose? Again, Lewis points to the existence of the Tao rather than a potentially infinite regression of instincts to explain why we have instincts to choose certain instincts over others.
It is easy to see where this type of thought process has influenced so many modern apologists. Even now you will still hear this argument from materialists every now and then, and Lewis has made probably the most classic defense against it.
Finally, we come to a very frightening yet prophetic part of this book. Perhaps if we can finally conquer nature, we can get rid of this annoying Tao. However, humans seem to have this innately, so the main way to get rid of that is to condition humans to not believe that Tao. We need to replace it with something. However, who is going to do that replacing, and what are they going to replace it with? The first answer is obvious; whoever is in power will determine what people are going to be believing, but the content they will be replacing it with cannot be the Tao itself. Therefore, you’re going to be left with people making decisions based on arbitrary emotions and passing that on to future generations. Eventually, there will be no recognition of the Tao left, and we will have reached what Lewis calls “the abolition of man.” In an attempt to conquer nature, humanity will actually be conquered by nature. Humanity as we know it will have devoured itself.
In a way, you can almost see this happening. People are training future generations to ignore what has been naturally understood by humanity for generations, and they replace it with what they arbitrarily feel is emotionally the right thing. It is the culture wars in a nutshell.
Overall, this book is very eye-opening. Although some of the arguments he made have become rather common in apologetics today and you have probably heard them before, he wrote it very well. Obviously, he was a great communicator, and I found myself logically following his arguments and almost immediately recognizing why he drew the conclusions he did from the preceding premises. In my mind, that is the mark of a good argument.