Debunking the Debunkers: The Abolition of Man at Seventy-Five
For over fifty years, countless Christian readers have turned to books by C.S. Lewis in order to reaffirm and strengthen their faith. Living in a culture that is increasingly hostile to Christian belief and its consequences—and which thus often tempts the most sincere and committed believer to doubt the “faith once delivered”—many contemporary Christians cherish Lewis’s many books of apologetics and the analogical narratives of The Chronicles of Narnia.
While many of the obstacles to belief and faithfulness diagnosed in Lewis’s writings are universal and perennial, the perspective of his writing is not as timeless as many of his grateful readers might think. Embedded in his work is a perceptive recognition of blind spots, obsessions, preoccupations, and fancies that are characteristic of what philosophers and sociologists call “late modernity.” While I have not seen such a term coming from Lewis’s own pen, he did often write of “modern times,” the “modern mind” the “modern situation,” the “modern imagination,” the “modern view,” or some similar formulation.
Such frequently occurring phrases make it clear that many of the confusions he is addressing—obstacles to faith and faithfulness—are compelling because they are fashionable and conventional within the culture of modernity, not because people at all times and all places have thought so. These trendy sources of skepticism are not arbitrary or capricious: they are instead expressions of a coherent and logical system of thought, a system which has a genealogy and which—if unchecked—will have predictable consequences.
The Abolition of Man is Lewis’s most sustained and focused critique of certain aspects of the modern mind. Its cogency and wisdom are overlooked by many readers who have read the book—or tried to read it. Many report that they found this slim volume unintelligible and unsatisfying. Some readers are disturbed by Lewis’s insistence that all religious traditions teach roughly the same moral principles, a view that seems to invite theological relativism.
The subtitle of the book may be misleading: Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools. I wonder how many English teachers have put this book down in frustration, believing they had been tricked into reading a book of philosophy when all they wanted was help with pedagogy. But Lewis’s book demonstrates his conviction that in teaching English—in teaching about how we engage forms of language and meaning—teachers are inescapably involved in conveying an orientation toward the world that is ethical and metaphysical. Not just the teaching of English, but all education is, in a sense, a mode of spiritual formation.
The first chapter of The Abolition of Man is very adversarial in tone: Lewis castigates teachers who convey to their students the belief that human feelings about the things of Creation are by definition irrational and in need of eradication. These teachers train their students to believe that the world of facts (without trace of value) and the world of feelings (where “truth” or “falsehood,” “ justice” or “injustice” are alien) are entirely separate worlds. Such teachers excel in the project of debunking, whereby the world is rendered meaningless and open to unrestrained manipulation.
What makes us human, Lewis insists, is the fact that we are not pure mind—that would make us spirits—nor are we pure desire or appetite or instinct—that would make us animals. In between intellect and desires we have the mediating capacity for ordered loves, disciplined sentiments, trained emotions. We have the capacity to learn to love the order that animates the whole of reality, to resonate in harmony with cosmic harmony.
Lewis believes that to deny both the existence of that order and the necessity of learning to honor it destroys what makes us human. Teachers who fail to teach in light of objective value effectively abolish the humanity of their students.
And so the epigraph to the first chapter of The Abolition of Man is the description of a mass murder of innocent children, taken from a traditional carol: “So he sent the word to slay, / And slew the little childer.” This is from the medieval carol “Unto Us is Born a Son,” and the “he” in question is King Herod, ordering the slaughter of the innocents. The entire verse describes Herod’s reaction to the news that the Lord of Lords eternal has taken human form and is cradled in a manger in Bethlehem: “This did Herod sore affray, / And did him bewilder, / So he gave the word to slay, / And slew the little childer.”
The second chapter of the book begins by asserting that the practical result of the kind of education promoted by the debunkers “must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.” In that chapter, Lewis dismantles the claim that we can invent entirely new systems of value. He then challenges the liberal assumption that societies can get along quite comfortably without any shared values. He closes the chapter by summarizing the view that, since there are no moral “givens” in the universe, we can decide for ourselves what it means to be human. “Having mastered our environment, let us now master ourselves and choose our own destiny.”
In the third and final chapter, Lewis explores the consequences of the modern project of conquering Nature, most explicitly and decisively represented by the place of science and technology in modern culture. What distinguishes modern culture from pre-modern cultures is the assertion that Nature has no nature. Reality has no intrinsic meaning, and so human willing has no intrinsic limits on its exercise. There is no “value” higher than choice, there is no transcendent Good that might order desire toward a higher end. In such a universe, the conquest of Nature is logically an attractive project.
In that third chapter, Lewis describes the consequences of the triumph of the will that shadows the modern West: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.” To be truly modern is to celebrate and venerate the sovereignty of spontaneous, untutored, and unordered willing. This is the notion of freedom on which modern societies have erected systems of rights and institutions to extend those rights. To offer an alternative account of freedom—one based on the recognition of a transcendent Good that properly orders desires towards a higher end—is to invite sanctions from the state and severe forms of stigmatization from our nice neighborhood nihilists.
The more the energies of sheer wanting are stoked—by political movements, advertising, pornography, or old-fashioned covetousness—the more intense the debunking of any rational claims about the Good. In an essay written the same year as The Abolition of Man, Lewis warned of the social and political consequences of this modern subjectivism: “A philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can lead us only to ruin.” It is the ruin of what Pope Benedict called the dictatorship of relativism.
The Abolition of Man is not an easy read, not because it is too philosophical but because it is too prophetic. The institutions of modern societies are intertwined with the assumptions about the Good that Lewis attacks, and for those of us with an investment in those institutions, such a jeremiad make us uncomfortable. But surely it is increasingly evident that modern society is in need of a stern diagnosis and a radical prescription. C.S. Lewis offered a summary of our ailments in The Abolition of Man seventy-five years ago. It is unfortunate that so many Christians have ignored his warning in favor of more superficial and compromised cultural engagement.
Ken Myers is the host and producer of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal and author of All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture.