This post is best commenced by first imagining to types of people who are products of the modern philosophy. One of these individuals has his head down, the other up; one ruminates on the meaninglessness of life and mopes, the other, seeing this meaninglessness, grabs life by the horns. If the two were to meet, they may actually get along quite well, for the both adhere to the modern day philosophy that subtly proclaims that life is pointless. The former man, the Nihilist, for love of this world, resolves the issue with angst as he realizes he can take nothing with him; the latter man, the hedonist, for love of self, pursues nothing that does not immediately gratify his lusts as he recognizes he must carpe diem now or never. And the modern day philosophy logically produces one of these two results. Though the majority of modern philosophers live somewhere in the middle, which we will categorize as the ignorant plenty who pretend to ignore the issue, the by-product of the day’s philosophy can be only one of two results: nihilism or hedonism. Both of which end is a grave despair.
I recently finished reading through CS Lewis’ The Abolition of Man once again, finding that I greatly misunderstood it the first time through. It is a book I believe that every educator or parent should read. The book is a tremendous argument against modern thought. It is the best argument for virtue, emotions and appreciation I have ever read. This is probably in part because I cannot think of any other work that actually argues for these things. Most of the writings today assume way to much, and the reason I love Lewis is because he realizes that before we get to the clichés of our Christianity we need to build a foundation, and sometimes to build a foundation, we need to destroy what is currently there. Now, this is both easier and harder in today’s world because there currently is no foundation at all. (“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”) It is easier because in many cases the mind is secretly longing to be filled with something. It is increasingly more difficult because as something actually has to be there, it is often replaced with sex, drink, wealth and an endless stream of YouTube videos.
As an avid reader of Lewis, I confess that this was by far the most confusing of his books I have read, but it was the most rewarding to work through the argument with him. I hope I do its argument justice, but, as with any book, I would fain you left this little ramble and picked up the original. Like any work, it should be read with pen in hand and an open mind.
Men Without Chests
The first essay of the argument arises entirely from an issue Lewis has with a certain elementary textbook he titles The Green Book. (“I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary textbooks.”) The example given comes in the form of a man making the statement, “This is sublime” in which the authors conclude that the speaker is only making an statement about his own emotional feelings. Now, Lewis argues that the statement actually points to feelings of veneration or of humility. In the first sense, the speaker’s words are egocentric and essentially unimportant. In the second, we see that appreciation and emotions are directly tied to a system of values, what Lewis coins the Tao. (Not to be confused with the actual Tao, of course.)
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.
Although he never uses the exact terminology, Lewis goes on to discuss the fundamental difficulties with modern thought: the hideous growth of relativism and naturalism in our society. If we take the above example that “This is sublime” means “I feel sublime,” we have absolutely no way to contradict that statement. We would have to counter the statement by saying “No, I feel inferior.” We are caught in a bind in which we cannot disagree with anything because everything is subjective to one’s own point of view. The foundation slowly begins to crumble as we create what Lewis calls “Men without Chests,” men who are told over and over again that everything is subjective. And yet we pine that no one has any drive for anything, that everyone is either a Nihilist or a Hedonist.
And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. 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.
Lewis continues his argument using the example of the virtue of laying one’s life down for their country so that society will be preserved. In the case of those whom Lewis is arguing against, the virtue of doing so becomes absurd because propositions such as “This will preserve society cannot possibly lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved.” For anytime any person does any action there has to be some sort of underlying reason for doing that action. Even This will fill my stomach cannot lead to eat unless you agree that my stomach ought to be filled. This example leads into Lewis’ argument against pure instinct, the only option we have left if we are to leave the world of universal values in the Tao.
There is a complication even with this because “Our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence do we derive this rule of precedence?” For knowing and weighing the dignity of our different instincts is not an instinct itself, “the judge cannot be one of the parties judged.”
The result of leaving traditional values, as is slowly becoming more obvious in our society, is that we cannot arrive at any rational reason for doing anything. Even when we begin to set up our “New Values,” we begin to see that they are actually derived from the old. Either the ground that is beneath us must disappear entirely as we float on in relativity, or we must accept some form of “I ought.” The only possible “shaping of values” or progress must occur within that core foundation as “there is a difference between moral advance and moral innovation.” In short,
the Nietzschean (or modern) ethic can be accepted only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgments at all. It is the difference between a man who says to us: ‘You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?’ and a man who says, ‘Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.’… If we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason as having absolute validity.
The Abolition of Man
The third and final essay in this book concerns the argument posed that since man has evolved and overcome so many obstacles, why can he not create a New Man with an entirely new morality? I would advise anyone who endeavors to read this book to reread the last few pages of Lewis’ second essay so as not be confused. He takes off immediately, and if we forget where he is going we may naturally be concerned.
Lewis essentially argues against man’s ultimate ability to conquer nature. For every time we seem to overcome nature we find ourselves enslaved to something. The only possible means in which we can conquer nature is the “abolition of man.” Man can only be entirely free from I ought if he embraces pure impulse. And when he has embraced pure impulse he finds himself a slave to the nature that he initially intended to conquer. Impulse, even lower than instinct, must be acknowledged to be objective in the extreme. I ought is replaced with I want and must end there. “The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure.” And it is here that we finally return to the example I formally gave.
Their (modernists) extreme rationalism, by ‘seeing through’ all ‘rational’ motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behavior. If you will not obey the Tao, or else commit suicide (Nihilism), obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere ‘nature’ [Hedonism]) is the only course left open.
But what are we actually doing here? Lewis correctly points out that Nature is the opposite of Spiritual or Supernatural. The only way we conquer something is to make it less spiritual, to make it mere Nature: The trees can no longer talk or clap their hands; the moon is not made out of cheese; the sun is not to be worshiped and the stars nothing but hot gasses; man is merely an animal. “It is in Man’s power [and his alone] to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will… if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be.”
Modernists, then, are nothing but a product of past generations, past thought that has gradually crept in through the guise of scientific innovation, better termed philosophy. As we take away core values, fundamental thought, we take out the ground beneath our feet and stand on nothing. If all is relative and subjective, nothing at all can possibly matter. We can make no arguments for anything. The problem with modern society is not liberals or conservatives; It is not abortion or “persecution;” it is not terrorism, or wars, or racism, or genocide, or euthanasia, or immigration, or politics. The problem with this society is that we have accepted our right to sin. We have taken away any right to judge, any call to a higher good, and replaced it with an utter void of vanity that proclaims from the rooftops that “all is meaningless.” Though we would never do it directly, we tell our children that they are nothing but specks of dust, meaningless animals without purpose or hope. We destroy any ounce of imagination, creativity and spiritualism before the child reaches adulthood all the while wondering why he has no interest whatsoever in anything but his own pleasure. But to do modernists justice, their call is not to create a world of Hedonists and Nihilists. These are mere by-products, the few who decide to think about what they are told. The real goal is create a bunch of people who live in their own subjective morality and feel good about themselves, who are afraid to think and encouraged not to. For we would rather have a robotic man content with his sex, drink, wealth and YouTube clips than a man willing to think for himself and seek some rational ground on which he can actually stand.
But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.