The Abolition of Man by CS Lewis is an interesting book that is different than most of his writings. Whereas his other books, such as Mere Christianity or The Chronicles of Narnia are known for their defense of Christianity or Christian values, The Abolition of Man is a bit different.
Rather than rest on Christian, or even theist, arguments in The Abolition of Man, Lewis instead explores culture and the defense of moral lessons. While that might sound a bit odd at first (I certainly thought so), it makes sense as you read the book and understand what Lewis’s criticisms of the modern tendency to undercut once widely-help moral virtues are.
I only read it because of my desire, as expressed in my review of When Breath Becomes Air, to read different books than I would usually pick up. Philosophy isn’t my strong suit or area of interest, so I had postponed reading The Abolition of Man for quite some time. But, now that I finally took the time to sit down and read it, I am very glad that I did.
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Summary of The Abolition of Man
Lewis begins The Abolition of Man by criticizing the ideas founding what he calls The Green Book, which was a book about literary criticism meant for schoolboys. When I first started reading, I was a bit curious about why Lewis chose The Green Book to be the target of his vociferous criticism. Sure, it sounded less than interesting, but not bad enough to be the target of such sharp and unyielding attacks. But, as I read more, I understood what was so wrong with it; it was an attack on moral virtue.
Throughout Part 1 of The Abolition of Man, Lewis shows how the belief that values aren’t real and sentiments can’t be reasonable is not only wrong but also dangerous. It is wrong because there are some objective values that are the same throughout every culture. He calls these, or at least the idea of those virtues, the Tao, meaning “the way.” The Green Book undermined belief in those values through how its authors worded their literary critiques. That’s why Lewis spoke so harshly of it.
Then, in Part II, Lewis dove into more about those values. It’s really in Part II that he expands on them and clarifies what he means and why living without them is so dangerous. He called that section “men without chests” because of how living without widely accepted values destroys a society’s ability to produce self-sacrificing warriors.
If only objective realism is accepted, rather than moral values and a conception of the greater good, then how could you get a man to fight in a horrific struggle like the ones the British fought in North Africa and Germany, as described in An Army at Dawn, D-Day, and Armageddon: The Battle for Germany? (Lewis was British, which is why I mentioned the British Army).
The answer is that you couldn’t. No one would fight or stand up for their community if they had no belief in a higher power or greater good. Instead, they would simply be “men without chests.”
Finally, in Part III, Lewis finally expounds on what he means by “the abolition of man.” His conception of the natural end of the road of the debunking of moral codes found in Part I is that eventually, technocrats will rule everything.
Sure, we’ll be free from hunger and have access to all manner of technology, but its use will be predetermined by its inventors and we’ll all become like automatons controlled by the system. Rather than being guided by rational thought, we’ll be coerced by the impulses of the controllers and inventors of such technology.
Analysis of The Abolition of Man
I found The Abolition of Man to be wonderfully interesting to read. However, I disagreed with Lewis’s conclusion in Part III.
While I agree with him that we should defend moral virtues and stand up for society, that doesn’t mean that we should fear technological innovation nor the innovators that drive it forward. Far from it, in fact.
Technology is no more set by its creators than the creators of Legos set how those will be used. There are general guidelines, yes, but the human imagination finds a way to come up with something new. Each of us, or at least those on the right side of The Bell Curve, is an innovator at heart. Especially Americans, who are known for building things.
Moral virtue is necessary for any society. But technology isn’t necessarily the evil that Lewis says it is. I think he wasn’t giving humanity enough credit; we won’t be morally constrained by new phones any more than we were by the invention of steam power.
The trouble is that people have a tendency to look beyond the immediate, which is when they fall into the “abolition of man” trouble that Lewis wrote about in Part III. In my view, however, those people can’t be helped. If someone becomes evil because they couldn’t recognize the inherent danger of always following their base impulses, then do they really deserve saving? Those are the people driving The Great Degeneration and, frankly, we would be better off without them.
I thought Parts I and II of The Abolition of Man were stronger than Part III. It’s all interesting and certainly worth a read. But, I think Lewis spends too much time focusing on those who can’t think for themselves. We all know what basic morality is. If some are led astray by technology or bad books then so be it. The rest of society shouldn’t have to give up innovation to wait on those dolts to catch up.
But, of course, that doesn’t mean it is a book that you shouldn’t read. It certainly is and I agreed with most of what Lewis said. Sure, it wasn’t like stoic philosophy like Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations nor was it Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, as found in The Virtue of Selfishness. However, it’s still interesting and thought-provoking, as all philosophy should be.
By: Gen Z Conservative