on April 7, 2004
This famous 50-page survey of Natural Law thinking is one of Professor Lewis's tougher but more important works and with the current revival of NL thinking it should rise again. As moral philosophy (of the realist-objectivist school), via ancient literature, it is unusual and original. It is certainly not a work of theology. Confucius, Hindu 'Laws of Manu', and ancient Babylonians are quoted on a par with the Old and New Testament. (Catholics may sail through; but antinominianists will struggle against a non-theist exposition of the universal Law. In this case take Rom. ch. 1-3, and a bracing meditation on the concept of General Revelation as a tonic.)
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.)
on December 10, 2002
I just finished reading this book for the fifth time; it is quickly becoming my favorite. Lewis traces how mankind will by means of poor education, faulty logic, and scientific/technological advances ultimately destroy itself, though certainly not in an apocalyptic fashion.
Lewis details how an improper education denies mankind that which makes us human, our virtue, our "Chests." By our heads we are mere intellect and spirit, and by our bodies we are mere animal and appetite; but where these two meet, the chest, is where we find our humanity.
"The Tao," which Lewis attributes an entire chapter to, is the undeniable universal laws govern and have always governed the lives of all humans (he offers evidence of the Tao from nearly every ancient religion/moral code at the end of the book). The Tao offers us the transparent window or lens with which we are able to experience this world. Those who try to step outside the Tao to criticize it, like those who accuse morality as being the construct of a power-hungry priestly ascetic caste (sound like Nietzsche?)and insist that the burden of proof lie with the accused (morality), speak utter nonsense. Thinkers like Marx and Nietzsche (whose philosophy was so paradoxical it drove him insane, he renounced all philosophy before him, including the ancient Greeks, and used logic to disprove logic), who reject the Tao, reject humanity. (I do no justice to Lewis's arguments; read the book.)
From this point we examine how mankind's conquest of Nature is really only the conquest of some men by other men. We are like the magician who surrenders more and more to Nature in return for power until he surrenders himself. We believe we are progressing, becoming more powerful, but we are not. We fail to factor in time to our equations, and fail to forsee its consequences. For example we are able to control posterity by means of contraceptives and abortion, something man has been unable to do in all of history, until now. We do not understand our own limits. We build too high on too shallow of a foundation, and our own building comes crashing down upon us.
Like Marx's notion that elements within bourgeoisie society are responsible for its destruction, Freud's notion that we all have a "death drive," Nietzsche's idea of a "will to nothingness," Derrida's wish to "transcend man and mankind," and Binswanger's observation that the artists who transcend their own captivity are eventually going to experience a lethal fall, Lewis understands that, from his beginnings, Man has sought his own destruction. But before now we had not the means, the leaders, or the ignorance to go through with it.
on December 10, 2002
This book shows Lewis at his best and at his worst. At his best, he is a sharp social critic, a lucid expositor, and a man with an uncanny ability to get right down to the heart of the spiritual perplexities and self-deceptions that vex us in our daily lives, and open them up to the light of reason. I'm one of many people who owe a deep debt to this man, and I revere him as much as any one of the 5-star reviewers here.
But Lewis, as a writer, had serious faults as well. Though he was a generous reader, he was not a generous arguer: his idea of a good argument was to seize upon some poor schmo who epitomized some (then) current silliness and beat him senseless (with wonderfully powerful, clear, simple prose.) The spectacle is always fun, but it sometimes feels like watching Muhammed Ali boxing Peewee Herman -- you've always wanted to see it, but you have an uneasy feeling that what you're watching is not real boxing.
So to read this book properly, you need to understand two things. First, it is not a work of academic philosophy, and it won't stand up as such. That is to say, Lewis did not go out and look for the primary exponents of moral relativism of his time and wrestle them to the ground. He doesn't "survey the literature." He doesn't take on the important relativist philosophers. Instead he seizes this poor anonymous English textbook-writer by the collar and thrashes him soundly, and then goes on to pile up a sort of "everyone says so, so it must be true" defense of traditional moralities. Academic philosophers will no doubt recoil from this book in horror. It is not their sort of book, and it doesn't play by their rules.
Lewis is speaking to a different audience, and he has a different goal in mind. He's not speaking to people who have read lots of difficult philosophy: he's speaking to people who have picked up little bits of fashionable modernist dicta and have fashioned a pseudo-philosophy out of them. He wants to demolish -- not serious, reasoned relativism, but popular, stupid relativism. The person who says that "Einstein proved all things are relative, so there can't be any such thing as absolute right or wrong" -- that's the person Lewis wanted to drop on the mat. And he succeeds in that brilliantly.
The second thing you need to understand, to read this book properly, is that it is attempting to recreate some of Lewis's own journey out of relativism. And here we get to another of Lewis's faults: he wrote too fast. His pile of examples of universal morality could be mistaken for an attempt to prove that there are universal moral principles and all thoughtful moral people have always known it and stuck to them. As such, it would stand as one of the shoddiest jobs of argument ever presented. But that's not really what he's up to, though he really ought to have explained what he was doing more carefully. What he is doing is presenting, in a few pages, the experience he himself had of years of voracious reading in various traditions -- the experience of discovering that the surprising thing about the moral principles of various civilizations is not how various they are, but how similar they are. It's not an argument, really: it's just a distillation of experience.
Which is why to point out glaring omissions (where is Buddhism? What about Wittgenstein? What about the 19th-Century and the Modern theologians?) is to miss the point of this book. If you want to go find the real arguments, go read the philosophers -- you'll find that many of the serious philosophical questions about the nature of morality were not addressed, let alone settled, in this book. This book is, in fact -- though Lewis would have hated the idea -- an extremely personal one. In it you can see Lewis recreating his own progress out of nihilism and relativism. And for those whose early paths resemble his, this book can be -- as I can testify -- wonderfully illuminating, even liberating.
So don't take this book for what it is not -- a philosophical treatise, or a definitive answer to relativism. Instead, take it what it is -- a popular answer to popular "philosophy," and a report on how one man worked his way out of some of his own foolishness by clear thinking and wide reading. Lewis chose in this book to engage people where they actually live, rather than where they wish they lived: he knew that the philosophies we actually live by are much cruder than those carefully thought out and argued by professional philosophers.
on June 23, 2002
C.S. Lewis wrote this book in 1944, but he could have written it yesterday. In this little gem, C.S. Lewis sees through the modern world view right to the core of where it goes wrong. Most writers would need several hundred pages to explain how modernity differs from the pre-modern world view; and another several hundred pages to explain the dangers of modernity. C.S. Lewis manages it in under one hundred pages. And he even makes it fun.
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.
on January 3, 2002
As I read this, I was shocked to see exactly how many of Lewis' predictions are now upon us. Lewis' condemnation of public education's relativism is desperately needed is today's culture. By condemning public education's abandonment of objective truth, Lewis clearly paints a picure of the world we will have as a result, specifically the world in which we live today.
Through a series of three essays Lewis shows that when we lose objective truth and force everything into subjectivity we effectively destory any basis for reason. Right and wrong become illusions. Ultimatly, we will destory ourselves from the inside out. This speaks volumes about the current condition of our culture. In a world were disagreement in considered oppression and anything that opposes my personal morality is considered politically incorrect, Lewis is "a voice crying out in the wilderness." How long will it take before we see that Lewis was right and our politically correct subjectivity will finally make us a people incapable of thinking anything at all?
on August 5, 2001
The Abolition of Man is a stunningly brilliant masterpiece, prophetic in its insight. Several of the other reviewers here who gave the book is plainly deserved five stars have done a fine job of reviewing its contents. Let me respond briefly to the fundamentalist (rousaswgnr) in Campsville, CA and the leftist bigot in Vancouver, WA. Both fail to scratch the surface of the book for opposite reasons.
The reviewer in Campsville (rousaswgnr) apparently thinks that any appeal to right and wrong that doesn't simply quote Bible verses is anti-Christian. Obviously, he would be completely incapable of trying to convince nonChristians that there are universal moral laws that are contravened at our peril -- the very thing Lewis was trying to do. At one point this seeming "fundamentalist" wrote that only scripture teaches right and wrong and things about God. That statement is ironically contrary to scripture itself which says "the heavens declare the glory of God" and that God has revealled His ways and parts of His nature in nature itself and in human consciences (Romans 1). The reviewer rousaswgnr contradicts scripture while trying to defend it. That's a pity. For if he really understood scripture or C. S. Lewis he would know that Lewis is saying what scripture says: God has universal moral laws that He has written into nature that all people can see and that have been generally recognized by major civilizations throughout the ages. Lewis also says it with breath-taking beauty.
The leftist from Vancouver, WA is even more vacuous than the fundamentalist. (That's typical.) Like the typical leftist, he imagines that he's brilliant while proving that he doesn't have a clue. He thinks he's clever by quoting Lau Tzu on the meaning of "Tao." But if he'd bothered to have really read Lewis or found out the meaning of the Chinese word "Tao", he would know that Lewis was not referring to Taoism but to the much more pervasive use of the idea of "Tao" in Chinese culture: that offered by Confucianism. The humanist from Vancouver, WA condemns Lewis for not getting it because he assumes that anyone who disagrees with his leftist ideology is empty-headed. His mindless repitition of Marxist ideology -- that moral systems are the mere fronts for political powers -- shows he's the one who hasn't understood Lewis. The Vancouver, WA leftist's statement that Lewis is merely defending "western" morals is absurd to the point of questioning whether he actually read the book -- or whether he's capable of really reading anything that isn't pre-committed to his Marxist politics. Indeed, the Vancouver leftist demonstrates that he's one of those men without chests about whom Lewis is writing while the fundamentalist from Campsville shows why modern conservative Christianity -- so frigthened of innovative communication -- has been so impotent, even though it holds the solution to the cultural problem Lewis diagnoses if only it could get over its reactionary anti-intellectualism and rigidity of mind that the reviewer exemplifies.
on June 17, 2001
I read this book after a few different sources mentioned it as a book that deals with moral relativism. After reading the book, I don't know if I can honestly agree with many of the other reviewers. I have read two other books by C.S. Lewis, "Mere Christianity," and, "The Screwtape Letters," so I think I have some idea what his approach is. I can only hope that I am failing to grasp his ideas or that I am misunderstanding him.
Definitions: moral relativism: The position that there are no moral absolutes, no moral right and wrongs. The philosophical position that all points of view are equally valid and that all truth is relative to the individual.
moral objectivism/absolutism: The position that there are universally binding moral principles that apply to all persons, at all places and at all times.
The book discusses the consequences of moral relativism and shows the difficulty of replacing absolute ethics with relative ones. However, I don't come away from the book thinking, "All right. I know how I can show moral relativism is false in a debate. I now know how to defend absolute ethics against objections." Perhaps this simply was not the objective of the book.
The first essay (it was originally a lecture) titled, "Men Without Chests," was probably the best in my opinion. Lewis examined a common elementary level school English textbook and looked at the philosophy that it taught. The implication of the wording and the subtle way in which relativism was communicated is prophetic. This same analysis could no doubt be applied to our current trends of political correctness.
In his essay titled, "The Tao," Lewis provides much argument to show that a moral system cannot be based on instincts. However, much of his argument seems to reduce to: moral objectivism is axiomatic. He argues that there are simply moral first principles, analogous to the three laws of logic, which cannot be denied. However, I think there are many people who would deny that moral objectivism is self-evident. If I were a moral relativist, I would hardly be convinced by Lewis' arguments here.
The last section is titled, "Illustrations of the Tao." Lewis calls natural law or moral objectivism the Tao. This section simply provides excerpts from different books around the world (e.g. ancient Egyptian, ancient Chinese, Roman and Jewish) to show the universality of certain ethics.
I would have liked a book that looked at the founders of moral relativism and their opponents. Then, a point-by-point analysis of their position followed by some examples of how moral relativism fails. I would much prefer the rigorous argumentation of Dr. William Lane Craig to this. I just honestly think that relativism is false but this book does not show that fact. I am going to read and review, "Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air," by Francis J. Beckwith, Gregory Koukl; I think this book may be better at refuting relativism.
on June 9, 2001
If it be in fact true that the Scriptures are the only source of knowledge & truth about all things, why then did the reader from Campbell, California even contemplate reading this book by C S Lewis? You won't find any knowledge or truth in C S Lewis, because C S Lewis is not Scripture.
There are some Scriptural admonitions that seem relevant at the moment, most notably Exodus 20:16 and Ecclesiastes 5:3. And if we're thinking of sending any C S Lewis books to persons who are either incapable of understanding them, or eager for whatever reason to misrepresent what is found therein, we may just be in violation of Matthew 7:6.
C S Lewis does not claim equality between all religions; he claims, however, that there is sufficient similarity in the various creeds' understanding of the moral law as to make the moral law universally binding. He chose the name of Tao to describe the moral law, because it is (unless we are mistaken) a Chinese word meaning "the Way." Lewis was fully conscious of Christ's declaration "I am the Way" and never exhibited -- in this work, or in any other -- the slightest sign of disagreeing with that. He was no syncretist; he was no Taoist; he was no secular humanist; and he was no trousered ape incapable of understanding plain English!
on November 3, 2001
Although this is probably the Lewis book most thick with philosophy, and is a bit difficult to read, it is defnitely my favorite. Since reading this book I have been haunted by Lewis's theory that in attemp to control nature we only gain control over our fellow men.
Lewis proposes that the philosophy of moral relativism, guised as freedom, is actually an archetype for enslavement for both those controlled, and those controlling. If society is reduced to no values, power becomes the only thing worth attaining. Those in power, unchecked by morals, have the ability and freedom to manipulate the subjects in any way they choose. Lewis is saying that man, in his attempt to make progress, learns to control more and more of nature. However, in his attempt to control nature he only gains control over fellow men. In giving up the Tao and allowing himself to do this, man succumbs to cruel nature which, as is obvious by this pattern, he has no control over at all.
on May 2, 2004
Those who read this book, might also want to read Alston Chase's Harvard and the Unabomber. There Chase traces Ted Kaczynski's hatred of technology to two factors, one of which was the education he received at Harvard between 1958 and 1962.
At that time, the sorts of ideas that Lewis blasts in The Abolition of Man were beginning to take over Ivy League campuses. In a effort to counter them, aging humanities professors managed to add 'Great Books' to the required courses. They also warned of the dangers if the technocrats (value-free science) took control of society. To counter them, the technocrats blasted books by "dead white men."
Ironically, while both Lewis and Kaczynski hated what the technocrats were doing when they regarded human ideas such as truth, goodness and beauty as meaningless, only Lewis offered constructive answers. Kaczynski could only hate the evil and, in the end, become as evil as what he hated.
Lewis was also influenced in this area by Arthur Balfour's Theism and Humanism, which argues that a healthy humanism benefits from a belief in God. As some have put it, if God is dead then all that matters in man must die--truth, beauty and goodness.