C. S. Lewis sets out to persuade his audience of the importance and relevance of universal values such as courage and honor in contemporary society.
Although its terseness makes it unsuitable for beginners, it would be possible to work up to it; either via Lewis's 'Mere Christianity', Book I, and Book III, parts 1-5 (a total of about 40 pages); and then the two essays from his book 'Christian Reflections', entitled 'On Ethics' and 'The Poison of Subjectivism' (total 25 pages). Or read Plato's 'Republic', Bks. 1-4, avoiding the old Jowett translation. (Kantians could limber up with 'Plato's Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law', by John Wild.)
SYNOPSIS: Chapter 1: Men Without Chests
The first 7 pages are discursive and, read once, may be skipped thereafter (rather like Book 1 of Plato's 'Republic'). They famously and confusingly deal with the link between objective aesthetics and emotive reactions to 'Nature'. It is not for Philosophy 101 students, reactions ranging from: 'What--who cares?--it's only opinion', to 'How is this relevant?'. Read the 'Republic', Bks. 1-4 until mastered.
The dogs of war are unleashed in the next 6 pages, from the paragraph opening:
'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...'
We then race through Coleridge and Shelley's 'just' and 'ordinate' reaction to beauty in Nature; Augustine's on 'virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections'; Aristotle and Plato on education (beauty and ethics); Rta and satya in early Hinduism; Tao (pronounced "Dao") in the Analects; and the Law (of the Lord) of the Hebrews. [Compare ancient Egyptian Maat.]. This is the universal 'doctrine of objective value'. To not know it is to invite the separation of fact and value, as all sentiments (emotional habits) are made purely subjective and even non-rational. Plato's tripartite model of Man: the Rational element rules the Appetites via the Sentiments (Spirited Element): 'The head rules the belly through the chest...The Chest--Magnanimity-- Sentiment--these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.' To deny this model is to produce Men Without Chests.
Chapter 2: The Way
Even Subjectivists have objective values. The fact that they act at all, even to propagate their own point of view, proves that they hold some real values. Calling values 'progressive' is subterfuge: progressing to what, and why? Modern ideologies isolate an element of morality, exaggerate its importance, and suppress others. Eg, communist States supposedly feed everyone fairly-but crush individuality, freedom, truth, and creativity if it helps.
We cannot get a moral basis for human action from reasoning with facts alone--no deducing an 'ought' from an 'is'. This does not debunk moral reasoning: it merely proves that there must be Moral Axioms to start from, as there axioms in logic. Plato and the Stoics called this basic morality Natural Law, the other cultures by their synonyms. Lewis chooses the term the 'Tao' for brevity and neutrality. Scientific objections: morality is Instinct--but if two instincts clash how will you know which to obey? There is no Master instinct. The great civilizations all agree in this: so much for sociological relativism. Moral progress within the tradition of the Tao is possible: Paul the Pharisee, 'perfect as touching the Law', yet he saw its limits.
Chapter 3: The Abolition of Man
The 'Brave New World' scenario: if we cede final and total socio-psychological control to technocrat master-politicians even the few at the top will have to act according to some moral principles. But they also must be the ultimate Supermen, incapable of making mistakes, and guaranteeing happiness for the brainwashed ant-minions: '...the magician's bargain: to give up our soul, get power in return.' But to give up your soul is to lose yourself. And so losing free will in society results in the Abolition of Man.
Appendix: Illustrations of the Tao
Select quotations on the basic morality of ancient Babylon, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Rome, India, Anglo-Saxon, etc.
1. The Law of General Beneficence, negative and positive.
Do not murder. Love thy neighbour. (Hebrew)
2. The Law of Special Beneficence
If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he has denied the faith. (Christian)
3. Duties to Parents, Elders, Ancestors
Your father is an image of the Lord of Creation, your mother an image of the Earth. For him who fails to honour them, every work of piety is in vain. (Hindu)
4. Duties to Children and Posterity
The Master said, Respect the young. (Chinese)
5. The Law of Justice: sexual; honesty; in court
Has he approached his neighbour's wife? [sinfully];
To wrong, to rob, to cause to be robbed;
Whoso takes no bribe [in the judiciary]...well pleasing is this... (Babylonian)
6. The Law of Good Faith and Veracity
The foundation of justice is good faith. (Roman)
7. The Law of Mercy
I have given bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the naked. (Egyptian)
8. The Law of Magnanimity (self-sacrifice)
To take no notice of a violent attack is to strengthen the heart of the enemy. Vigour is valiant, but cowardice is vile. (Pharaoh Senusert III, Egypt.)
In a nutshell, his book is on the dangers of moral relativism, a concern which we hear much about these days. Less often do we hear the critiques which he brings to bear on the technological mindset that wants to subject nature to our own whims. The punch line is that when all is said and done, our whims can only come from nature (if we refuse to acknowledge some external source of value.) If all there is in the world is nature, then nature must inevitably win.
Virtually every page offers a fresh insight into our modern-day foibles. That he wrote this highly relevant book more than a half-century ago is testimony to the clarity of his vision.