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The Abolition of Man
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on October 25, 2003
The Abolition of Man is curious. It begins from a mere germ of an idea, inferred from an unchallenged source, and then slowly balloons until it is a diatribe against eugenics, modern education, moral relativism, egoism, secularism, scientism, Nietzche, Darwin, and Jeremy Bentham.
It's a rather audacious trajectory, and would be ludicrous if it weren't so... accurate. As the saying goes: "I'm not paranoid if they're really out to get me." Lewis makes some bold statements here, extrapolating from a relatively subtle implication in a textbook to a metaphysical humanist conspiracy. But Lewis understands Natural Law, and understand the penalties of disobedience. Consequently, the picture he paints of the evolutionary abolition of anything recognizably human in man is disturbing and all too believable.
Anyone familiar with today's college campus, or today's journalist, will realize the total victory of relativism (unless, of course, he is a relativist). Conditional eugenics, so thoroughly disgraced by the Nazis and the New Deal, is replaced by Genetic eugenics, praised and lauded ala the human genome project. Anyone who sits back and wonders what we'll do "once we crack the code," ought to read The Abolition of Man for his answer... or "Dumbing Us Down" for confirmation.
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This book will not be easy for everyone, but it will be rewarding to engage with it, even if you disagree with Lewis' thinking. The series of lectures known as _The Abolition of Man_ (TAoM), which are presented here as essays, are not intended to be thorough or in-depth refutations of the positions which Lewis takes issue with. So people who complain that he doesn't successfully refute things like emotivism in this work are right - but he didn't intend to launch into that in depth. These lectures were meant to paint a portrait, to explore a perspective, and to breathe a few whispers of supporting argumentation within the space afforded. Judge his work according to what he intended to accomplish by it, and don't posh-posh it because you demand more - or less - from it than what he expected to offer by it.
Many people seem to think that Lewis' is arguing, in the first section, against "Moral Relativism" (MR). While MR is an aspect of what Lewis is here concerned with, it is not what he directly addresses. Morality, popularly used, merely refers to "rules for behavior," whereas what Lewis is talking about is not directly behavior, nor rules for it, although there are behavioral implications to what he is talking about.
What he _does_ address is the problem evidenced in the grammar textbook he quotes from, that students are being taught to think of their own sentiments/value judgments as 'merely' their own emotions having nothing to do with the objects or events upon which they are passing judgment. Once, he says, you teach a student in one instance to sunder their evaluation of a thing from the thing itself (i.e., to teach that when I say that a waterfall is sublime, I'm not saying anything about the waterfall, but only about my own emotions: I'm really saying "I am having sublime feelings," not "the waterfall is such that the most proper response from me is to feel that it is sublime"), the result is that you train the student to snap any perceived link of the correspondence between their sentiments/value judgments and the world. Lewis is claiming that there are qualities intrinsic to objects and events themselves that ought to call forth proper responses in us. Furthermore, he claims that the correspondence between our sentiments/value judgments are more or less true by virtue of their conformity to an Order that roots reality, and Order which, in relation to proper sentiments/value judgments, we perceive intuitively and kinesthetically, if at all (he calls this Order "the Tao" for convenience, and demonstrates that ancient civilized cultures were quite familiar with such an experience and understanding of the world). This Tao is what we try to articulate in all of our moral principles (our moral principles, therefore, may be provisional - if we discover that the Tao is better articulated by a competing principle, we are not abandoning the Tao by discarding our old principle to embrace the one we have just come across. We are simply claiming, then, that our older principle was an inferior articulation of the Tao, and thus corresponded less perfectly with it). This is a much subtler point than what I understand many to have in mind when they rail against MR.
The final section of the book was an interesting and haunting perspective on where Lewis sees these new habits can lead if left unchecked. For any interesting related reads on education, morality and such, feel free to fire me off suggestions and/or to pick my brain, if you think it's worth picking.
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on October 8, 2002
I am not a Christian, but I find C.S. Lewis to be one of the most rational Christians I have ever read. This is the second book I've read by him, not counting the Narnia books, and I have a sort of conditional love for his work. Here Prof Lewis takes a little story about false values accidentally impressed upon students in public schools, and takes it to a far-spanning level. He goes on to explain that values only work if they are expansions of past values, because human values are all traced back to the primordial Tao. Not every example he makes works. For example, he mentions Nietzsche's morality as an innovation without grounds, when, first of all, Nietzsche DID NOT ADVOCATE MASTER MORALITY, but rather encouraged personal morality; and Nietzsche's ideas all have solid ground in ancient Greek philosophy. Nevertheless, Prof Lewis advocates a fair system, where new ideas are acceptable, but we never forget our roots. After all, without this book, we might end up like in Brave New World. That would be bad!
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on February 18, 2003
I'll admit that some of Lewis's comments left me in the dust, but I did appreciate how well grounded some of his arguments were. If there is not some common shared moral or ethical viewpoint in the mass of humanity, then all will be lost and undoing the teaching of the past is undoubtedly a BIG mistake. If we do dismantle the teaching of the past and build something knew, just what foundation will it be built upon if the moral or ethical foundation is as small and individualized as grains of sand? Certainly some will jump all over this essay published as book (actually it reads more like lecture notes than an actual book or essay), but I found little fault with it other than the parenthetical one mentioned above. Highly recommended.
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on September 11, 2011
This is one of those books to be read at different times and seasons of life. It was not an easy read, however brief it is. Anyone concerned with traditional societal values (not just Christian) held in antiquity and rejected in modernity, may be interested to give this a go. I feel like Lewis has defined and qualified what I had believed for a long time, but lacked the faculties required to sense it.
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on October 14, 2001
It's truly amazing how correct C.S. Lewis was in this book. From a single example of a new school book, he foretold exactly what the Liberals (in the American sense) would do to mankind via the educational establishment. A very short book, but a very good one.
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