Archived from http://www.cs.duke.edu/~lipyeow/DaleNelson/abolition_of_man.html
Copyright © 1998 Dale J. Nelson, Mayville (ND) State University
Page references are to the 1996 Touchstone/Simon & Schuster paperback edition.
In his preface to That Hideous Strength, Lewis says the novel has a serious point that he has tried to make in this little book, The Abolition of Man. The novel is a work of fantasy or science fiction, while Abolition is a short philosophical work about moral education, but as we shall see the two go together; we will understand either book better by having read and thought about the other. Notes 3, 17, and 25 below provide overviews of each chapter in turn, while the other notes help with specific points.
The context of Lewis's book is British education in the 1940s, so some of his expressions will need explanation.
1. Title page. The "upper forms of schools" would be what Americans call the upper grades.
2. The epigraph is from the ancient Chinese teacher Confucius (K'ung Fu'tzu). One of Lewis's chief points will be that moral education, with the same basic content, is found all over the world and at different times. The last thing in the world Lewis is trying to do, is to impose his values. The moral code is not the invention or property of any one person or movement or even civilization. It is objective. Because it is found everywhere, Lewis can turn to ancient Chinese authorities such as Confucius and Lao Tzu, or to authorities from many other places and times; they all teach the same basic traditional code of morals. This traditional morality has often been called the Natural Law in Western philosopy.
3. Chapter One. All civilizations have agreed: education ought to nurture in the child a love of the good; admiration of the excellent and beautiful; faithfulness to the truth; and also children should be taught to disapprove of the false, the shoddy, the unworthy. The aim of true education is not only that children learn to spell and calculate and become physically strong. It is, above all, that young people should become courageous, generous, steady, and capable of discrimination in a good sense, that is, able to judge what is more worthy and what is less worthy of the esteem of a mature human being.
However, Lewis discusses the error of modern educators who teach that "values" are nothing but expressions of feeling. These educators perhaps intend only to "debunk" advertisements and bad political appeals, but when they say statements of value are nothing but statements of preference or dislike, they plant damaging seeds in children. Children who absorb their philosophy will disbelieve in the natural law itself.
4. (p. 17) By "elementary text-books" Lewis doesn't mean books that would be used in what Americans call elementary school, but basic high school level books.
5. (p. 19) pons asinorum: Latin, "bridge of asses," referring to a basic geometric theorem difficult for beginners.
"The schoolboy who reads...": Lewis summarizes his concern so far. The young person is led to believe that statements of value, of the quality of something, are "only subjective" and not important.
6. (p. 21) Gaius and Titius should "stick to their last": i.e. stick to their proper job (from the expression, "Shoemaker, stick to your last" - the last is a model of the human foot, made of wood or metal). Marathon is a plain in southeast Greece, where the Athenians defeated the Persian invaders in 490 BC. Iona is a remote island west of Scotland, where British monks kept the Christian faith despite many hazards. Samuel Johnson meant that seeing these famous sites, scenes of the greatest human dedication, should inspire a good person to greater love of his own country and religious faith.
7. (p. 22) Margate is a popular resort for Londoners and other English people.
8. (p. 23) True education is concerned with the imagination and the heart, not just being clever and getting along, and not just learning new skills (information processing skills, problem-solving skills, etc.).
9. (p. 24) Ruksh, Sleipnir, etc.: majestic or lovable animals of literature. The discussion of secundum litteram expressions refers to expressions that are not literally true. Lewis criticizes Orbilius for not explaining to young people when it is appropriate to use expressions that are not literally true and when it is not.
10. (p. 25) Lewis warns that Orbilius's way of "debunking" statements about animals that are not literally true, is likely to promote neglect or mistreatment of animals. Young people will be less compassionate and fond of animals, Lewis believes, because Orbilius presents them as really nothing but brutes. Incidentally, Lewis was opposed to vivisection, medical experiments on living animals, and wrote a paper attacking the practice. He could not find a publisher for it in England and it was published in Australia instead.
11. (p. 26) Lewis continues to object that modern educators such as Gaius are not even doing their jobs. Just as we don't want our dentist's obiter dicta (passing remarks, opinions) when we go to get dental work, we don't want educators to indoctrinate our children with inferior philosophy when they should be teaching them grammar and rhetoric. Bimetallism refers to the use of two metals, such as silver and gold, as the basis for a stable coinage, and the Baconian theory holds that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were written by someone else.
Don't misunderstand Lewis: he is not saying educators should not teach philosophy. He's saying (1) they should teach grammar and rhetoric when that's the job at hand, rather than teaching philosophy at that time or in that place; (2) he opposes the modern skeptical/subjectivist philosophy.
12. (p. 27) A key point: to prevent young people from being misled by propaganda, they need to be led to think clearly and to love what is good, rather than being trained to become know-it-alls who believe in nothing.
13. (pp. 27ff) "Until quite modern times...": this passage is essential. Lewis proceeds, basically in reverse chronological order, to show that authorities from different times and places all agree that recognition and esteem of the truly good, the really true and the genuinely beautiful is fundamental for happy and human living. The "Tao," the unanimous moral code, the "doctrine of objective value," the Natural Law, is not the private property of an individual, group, or civilization, but common to all, and permanent and real.
14. (p. 32) The modern educators, Lewis says, give the young person two worlds with no real connection: the world of plain facts (which they probably would think is things that can be measured, the quantitative) and the world of mere feelings.
15. (pp. 33-4) Lewis says that the old Latin phrase dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, "It is a sweet and appropriate thing to die for one's country," is an example of the kind of statement that people with modern educations will "see through." They will have no love of their country.
16. (pp. 35-6) Lewis refers to a traditional "model" of human nature. The head is the "seat" of Reason or the intellect; the chest is the seat of the heart, where noble sentiments should be cultivated; the belly is the seat of the appetites for food, sex, physical exercise, etc. A well-educated person is not a clever "thinking machine" on the one hand, or a creature pursuing thrills on the other. He or she is knowledgeable, yes, and can have appetitive experiences in their time and place (for example, sexual activity within marriage); but the well-educated person is a whole person. A healthy society can't manage without such people.
17. Chapter Two. If children don't believe in the Natural Law, in moral absolutes, in ought and ought not -- then humane society will not survive - unless maybe the educators can find some other basis for ethical behavior. Lewis considers two such bases. (1) They can say that certain kinds of behavior are "useful" to society and others are not, and so, on this factual basis, try to build an ethical system. But this will not work because anyone can ask, "Why ought I be the one who has to deny himself something for the sake of others?" The educators cannot logically say, "You ought to because...," since they have already ruled out the Natural Law, which is the sole source of such imperative statements as "One ought to be willing to lay down one's life to defend one's country," etc. (2) The educators can say that "instinct" (whatever that is) could be the basis for ethical behavior. This will not work, either, because we have many instincts and they conflict with one another - plus, it is questionable whether there really is an instinct to protect and preserve one's society.
You can't base ethical behavior on something other than the moral absolutes, and the moral absolutes cannot be "proven" by appeals to usefulness or instinct/biology. Rather, they must be accepted as self-evident to any rational person - a rational person by definition is someone who recognizes the moral absolutes. The moral absolutes are givens - starting-points for any discussion of what a person or a society should do.
Those who come up with "new moralities" are really just taking something from the Natural Law and giving it special privileges over against other elements of the Natural Law. People who do this are doing something very bad, trying to use one element of the Tao against another. (Example: people sometimes claim it is right for them to steal from the companies that employ them because they themselves need the money and the companies can afford it. Their "moral" claim is, "Those who have much have an obligation to those who have little. The company ought to share its wealth with those who work for it and make its success possible, especially when they are needy." But this argument, based on the duty of benevolence, disregards another element of the Tao, namely "Thou shalt not steal.")
Development within the Tao is possible, though.* It certainly is not common. Lewis gives just one example, the development from Confucius's "Do not do to someone else what you would not want done to you," to Jesus' "Show to others the same compassion you would want shown to yourself.
18. (p. 41) That Greek is Greek to me!
19. (p. 43) The modern educators follow a double standard: the values of those they disagree with should be attacked, but not their own.
20. (p. 51) Olaf Stapledon was a famous science fiction writer.
21. (p. 52) cuor gentil: a noble heart. Humani nihil...: nothing human is foreign/strange/not understandable to me. Please do as the footnote asks and review the Appendix. It demonstrates the unanimity of various cultures in asserting the duties of individuals to all people, particularly to members of one's own family and to small children and the aged(I -IV); it gives examples of statements requiring honesty, moral sexual behavior, and fairness (V-VI); it collects statements requiring compassion, self-discipline, and giving of oneself, even one's life, for others (VII-VIII). VIIIC shows that wisdom and integrity are valued more than life itself.
22. (p. 53) A rational person accepts the great moral platitudes because he or she believes or has learned that they are self-evidently true. Until one recognizes them as self-evidently true, one cannot be considered a truly rational person.
23. (p. 57) An example of a "Nietzschean" attitude would be the T-shirt slogan, "Winning isn't the main thing, it's the only thing" (winning even by being ruthless, breaking rules if one can get away with it, etc.). Opposed to this attitude is the code of sportsmanship, where the Tao is applied specifically to the domain of athletic competition.
24. (p. 60) A theist is someone who believes in one God or many gods. Jews, Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Zoroastrians, etc. are theists.
25. Chapter Three. Lewis gave the traditional picture of a whole human being earlier (pp. 35-36). Traditional educators throughout the ages recognized that the great moral absolutes have authority over the educators themselves as well as over children -- everyone ought to be guided by the Tao. Lewis argued that modern educators who reject the Tao cannot promote the growth of children to become whole persons. In this final chapter, he considers the kind of human being that is likely to be molded, in the future, by the successors of today's debunking educators -- powerful State technocrats/"scientific planners"/social engineers/Conditioners who have rejected Natural Law. He will also prophesy about the kind of beings the Conditioners themselves will become.
The few humans who are lucky enough to be technocrats will efface the Natural Law from education and will condition humans, by means ranging from propaganda to genetic engineering. In so doing they will change human nature itself. The resulting people (the vast majority) will not be human in the traditional sense; they will be putty in the hands of the Conditioners.
What will guide the Conditioners as they manipulate the human putty? "When all that says 'it is good' has been debunked, what says 'I want' remains." They can be guided only by whatever irrational impulse is most powerful at the moment - by whatever pleases them. They too have lost their humanity. As the many are slaves of the Conditioners, the Conditioners are slaves of irrational nature - their appetites and emotions.
[Jim Laney, director of instructional technology at Taipei American School in Taiwan, refers to Technopoly by Neil Postman (1993) as showing that the "conditioners" of today, and American society itself, have "moved to a point where technology (medical, communications, computer, etc.) displaces values and has become the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong. We don't trust the doctor until technology (CAT scans, etc.) has had its say. ... we have become slaves to our technology.]
The hellish situation prophesied in The Abolition of Man (and That Hideous Strength) comes about, Lewis says, because the quest for ever more power has succeeded, while the virtues that would protect us from the misuse of that power have been "explained away" as subjective illusions. The quest for power goes back to the Renaissance, when modern science took off with the same propellant - the quest for sheer power - that also fueled the explosion of Renaissance magic. The "magician's bargain" does indeed prove to mean the ruin of the soul.
The chapter concludes, however, with speculation about a hopeful possibility. Instead of seeing all of nature, including human nature, as material to be dominated and exploited, what if modern science could be united with the old ideal of wisdom - the ancient quest to "conform the soul to reality" by knowledge of, and obedience to, the great moral absolutes? What if the investigation of nature could include the sensitivity that Lewis mentioned at the beginning - a sensitivity that recognizes that the waterfall is beautiful and that its splendor will make a properly-educated observer feel humble and eager to praise it? Modern science has made tremendous gains in factual knowledge by focusing on the aspects of things that can be measured - that are quantifiable. What if combined with this method was a firm ethical sensitivity, and a wholesomely-nurtured imagination, that would also perceive the qualities of things? That, Lewis concludes, is what we desperately need.
26. (p. 66) wireless: radio.
27. (p. 71) The National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, in Lewis's novel That Hideous Strength, is this type of near-future enterprise.
28. (p. 73) factitious: contrived, artificial.
29. (p. 74) sic volo, sic jubeo: Thus I wish, (so) thus I command.
30. (p. 78) Scientific knowledge has progressed by treating more and more things as just natural objects to be analyzed, dissected, exploited at will. "I remember that my high-school biology text dealt with the human body by listing its constituent elements, measuring their quantities, and giving their monetary worth - at that time a little less than a dollar. That was a bit of the typical fodder of the modern mind, at once sensational and belittling - no accidental product of the age of Dachau and Hiroshima" (Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, p. 101; my italics.)
Lewis suggests that primordial human beings sensed that nature was alive and meaningful. Ancient myths reflect that awareness in story form. He could have added that religions teach that nature does not really belong to humans, to do as they wish with it. "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24:1). "Grandfather, Great Spirit... everything has been made by you" (Oglala Sioux: Black Elk Speaks, p. 5).
I warmly recommend The Silence of Angels by Dale C. Allison, especially the first few chapters, on how the experience of nature (e.g. the starry night sky) disposes the soul to become aware of the holy.
31. (p. 82) inter alia: among other things.
32. (p. 84) Renaissance scientist Francis Bacon wrote of nature as something to be tortured to force it to yield its secrets. Dr. Faustus was a magician, in Renaissance legend.
33. (p. 85) Goethe, Steiner - here Lewis is certainly thinking of conversations with his friend, the late Owen Barfield, who studied these men's writings. I'd recommend Barfield's "The Rediscovery of Meaning" in the book of that title, or History, Guilt, and Habit as first items to try. A tougher book, but rewarding, is his Saving the Appearances. I would be glad to set up a group outside of this class, for the purpose of reading and discussing Barfield's writings - ask me, if you're interested! The university library has a good collectionof Barfield's books. Many of his writings point towards the antidote for the poison of reductionism ("only," "merely," "nothing but"). Some other works pertinent to this topic include: The Rape of Man and Nature by Philip Sherrard (also published as The Eclipse of Man and Nature), Foolishness to the Greeks by Lesslie Newbigin, Discerning the Mystery by Andrew Louth, and others.
*I think Lewis would see in some, but not all, versions of today's greater ecological concern a legitimate "development" of the duty to one's children (and children's children) and of the love we ought to have for the beautiful (here including the beauty of the fabulously rich and varied world of nature, which we did not create). Indeed, you will find a strong concern for nature in Lewis's That Hideous Strength! However, he would certainly oppose extremists who say that it is "speciesism" to value human life more than animal and plant life. The Tao always shows that the value of human life is obviously higher than that of animals and plants: "an eye for an eye" in traditional morality refers to the eyes of humans; I am liable to a severe punishment if I maliciously injure or kill another human being, while if I injure a dog I am not punished as severely. However, traditional codes and stories show that I should be punished in an appropriate degree if I maliciously hurt an animal -- for example by being fined, etc.
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