The Abolition of Man Review

The Abolition of Man has been one of the most interesting books I've reviewed so far. As someone who is not very far removed from a childhood of Christian indoctrination, I certainly faced some personal challenges and baggage. It also really forced me to consider the value of Lewis' writing outside of a purely Christian perspective. I tried to read this as if he were a philosopher, storyteller, or researcher like Joseph Campbell and Clarissa Pinkola Estes (my last two reviews which you can find on this same blog). While I struggled at times to divorce Lewis from the philosophy and religion I know he followed, ultimately I found a lot of value in this argument for a universal morality (Lewis calls it the Tao). I think the Abolition of Man has much to offer us if we can remain objective and open-minded reading the text.

The Abolition of Man is actually a series of essays attempting to critique textbooks and the teaching of high school students in 1940s England. The specific textbook Lewis was critiquing, he referred to it only as The Green Book to subtly hint at it's identity, was called The Control of Language: A Critical Approach (I wanted to link to it but it seems to be out of print and only available through some exclusive databases online currently). Lewis' main complaint with this book and the entirety of 'modern' British education was that it focuses on rationality and excludes feeling. The first essay, entitled 'Men without Chests', mostly focuses on this point. The authors of the textbook seem to imply that emotional writing and description is pointless and therefore bad literature. The purpose of their textbook was to teach proper use of language and writing, emotion seems to have no role in their approach. Lewis takes great offense to this and proceeds to pull apart their statements with logical reasoning. I found it a bit ironic that in a critique of authors who wanted their students to write purely rationally, Lewis responded with a rational and logic argument. Perhaps this was intention, but I still find it ironic.

The value I found in 'Men Without Chests' comes from his introduction of the concept of Tao. This is not quite Taoism that he is referencing but certainly the concept of Tao the belief system is based upon. For Lewis, Tao is 'a doctrine of objective value.' He goes on to reference this idea in many of the classic religions and philosophies (Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Christian, and Oriental, to use his word). This Tao is a recognition that there is a correct way of living, the "Way in which the universe goes on." He refers to both Analect and Jewish beliefs in Nature as sacred and true. This draws me back to Joseph Campbell explorations of the old Goddess religions that viewed all of Nature as divine. "Of course the Nature is sacred and shows us the Way to live," they would say. "It is divine, after all." The idea that Nature shows us true living has been around since the dawn of time. This is where I see Lewis' Tao as something so much more than just a way to advocate for Christian ideals. It is a link between so many religions and philosophies, exactly what Campbell refers to in many of his writings. The common themes that run through religion become very apparent when they are presented side by side like Lewis does at the end of these essays.

The second essay, 'The Way', approaches the subjectivism in The Green Book and attempts to logically break down their subjective viewpoint. As someone who does have a seemingly subjective view of truth, I did find myself challenged in this section. However, I also found my belief in subjectivism as I approach it strengthened by the end. Personally, I do believe that there is an absolute truth that exists, I just don't believe a mere human could discover it nor understand it. While our souls (spirits, inner beings, insert your term here) are divine and eternal, the physical body and conscious mind we inhabit are not. They are limited and I believe that one of those limitations is an inability to know absolute truth. Therefore, I think we can be subjective and allow each person to find their truth while also recognizing that there is an absolute that exists.

In Lewis' argument, he first breaks down that 'Reason" and "Logic" can lead us to an understanding of what is good and bad, right and wrong. These tools only take us so far and cannot back up ideals like sacrificing oneself for a community or caring about posterity. Logic would not support one's death, even if it was for a 'greater good' because that greater good is not based on logic but on an ideal or Tao that acting for the good of all is better than acting for personal gain. After debunking this logical argument for ideals, Lewis approaches that argument that 'Instinct' guides us to make these decisions that seem to go against logic. If this is the case, Lewis wonders why we need books like The Green Book or any instruction at all. If 'Instinct' guides us toward the right decision, then we could all only trust instinct and never need to be taught anything. He also presents the argument that our instincts are often opposed to each other and that rarely do we instinctually act to care for posterity or other forms of self-sacrifice. If we do take these instinctual actions, Lewis argues that they are rooted in the Tao that we have been instructed or indoctrinated in and not pure instinct.

I found it interesting that Lewis lumped the "new sexual morality" (referring to concepts of free love and homosexual liberation that were still fringe philosophies in the 40s). His idea that it was the Tao that created taboos around sexuality is quite misinformed and shows his Christian roots. It was Christianity and the other dominant Common Era religions that enforced these taboos and tried to make them a part of the Tao. Free love across genders and a non-binary system has existed outside of the West for all of history. Our modern concepts of sexuality (straight, gay, etc) don't even exist in older and non-Western cultures, they are relatively new labels and definitions science has created. If the Tao is what has been commonly accepted across history, then the "new sexual morality" is actually a return to true Tao. Okay, stepping off my queer soapbox and back into the review.

Lewis ends this essay trying to defend what he calls "traditional morality" (which I believe refers to Christian morality in his opinion) by saying that it cannot be forced to hold the burden of proof. I disagree completely with the premise that Christian morality cannot be challenged except by itself because you could apply that to any morality and make it an absolute. Lewis values his 'traditional morality' because it lines up with his religious beliefs. The traditional morality of another would differ in some ways because each religion has a different set of rules. And we will see in the final section how Lewis' examples of the Tao do not come close to including all of Christian morality (for instance there are no mentions of theism). To give him some credit, Lewis follows this defense of traditional morality by claiming he is not arguing for a Christian or Theistic viewpoint and while that may have been his intent, the implication is still there as I read. Perhaps that is my own personal baggage I am projecting onto the text.

The final essay is eponymous to the book, The Abolition of Man. Here, Lewis confronts a singular question: In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power of Nature? It is science's 'conquest of nature' that brings his question on. Much of this reads as someone who, in the mid-20th century, was becoming increasingly fearful of technology but I think Lewis had a deeper point as well. When we gain 'power over nature', the airplane is one example used, what is actually created is the power of some over others. The people who control this power and those who can afford it are given some power of nature but they also have power over the rest of humanity that does not have access to it. This is an interesting observation because I feel that will only be true in a capitalistic system. It is the nature of capitalism to require both oppressors and the oppressed, those making money and those losing it, those with power and those without. Power over nature becomes something that can be controlled, monetized, and sold for consumption. I think most of Lewis' reservations about 'power over nature' would evaporate in a system where power became collective, shared, and accessible instead of exclusionary.

He goes on to talk about the dangers of 'controlling human nature' with things like contraceptives and eugenics. He warns of a group of "Conditioners" that would gain control over all future generations and dictate a singular mode of living and existence through birth control and genetic manipulation. Here is where I feel the fear-mongering about the development of technology slips in. Personally, most of these fears seem unfounded because here we are 75 years later and eugenics is still fiercely debated and regulated even if it is more possible due to technological advancement. But all of that is beside the point. Lewis' assumption is that this development in order to control nature will give a select few ultimate power. That dominating human nature would effectively end humanity as we know it. I don't understand at all how a Christian worldview would even allow for that to happen, for humanity to lose the free will that allowed for sin to occur in the first place. It seems that a fear of advancement and development has informed some of these thoughts more than a worldview.

Lewis also postulates that older systems (I can only assume he means the last 2000 years of western civilization but perhaps farther back as well) conditioned their children based on the Tao alone and that this new style of conditioning through eugenics will be aligned with any 'Tao' that the "Conditioners" choose to create. But is that really the case? Each society and culture had a Tao that it followed. These Taos were created by the leaders of the society so that their young children would become useful adults in their society. The everyday people may have believed that they were teaching their children based on the 'true way' but the religious and political leaders were the ones creating that 'true way.' The Western history of binary and gender oppression is rooted in the creation of a binary and gender hierarchy in order for one group (men) to gain control. The same is true of race and ethnic hierarchies. For a long time in our country and across Europe, ethic and racial slavery was affirmed by religious tradition as the 'true way.' It had nothing to do with the actual religion and its truths, instead religion was manipulated to fit the truths of those in power. Children have always been subject conditioning based on the beliefs about right and wrong of those instructing them. And each generation has rebelled against some of those truths and created something new. I think that Lewis' view of older systems is blinded by his place within the dominant system (Christianity) and as a member of dominant identity (white, cis-gender, heterosexual male).

The final paragraphs of "The Abolition of Man" contain Lewis' dream for what science should be and a recognition that it may be impossible. I really don't have a problem with how Lewis would like science to be approached. He asks to not reduce everything to mere data and object, instead maintaining a view of the sacredness of humanity and nature. That 'seeing through' things should not be the end goal because with that perspective we ultimately lose sight of everything. We don't need to reduce each thing to the sum of its parts and forget the whole. I agree with all of this. Reducing all things to the sum of their parts has created the gender binary, sex for procreation alone, intense racial persecution, and a disregard for the health of our planet (to clarify I mean the unrestricted and mismanaged technological advancements that created global warming). Remembering to see the whole and not just the individual would have stopped technology and science (what I would call pseudo-science) from supporting all of these mistaken concepts. I think that 'holistic science' (if that even is a thing) would approach scientific development with an awareness of the whole and a recognition of life's sacredness without ignoring science because of a particular belief that some in society don't want to let go of.

I want to briefly talk about the Appendix of the book where Lewis lays out what he considers to be the Tao. While, "the list makes no pretense of completeness," Lewis comes nowhere close to including the entire 10 Commandments let alone all of Christianity's rules. I see this as something to praise, what Lewis considered Tao was not exclusively his religion's views. Really any religious and spiritual belief system would agree with the 8 laws he puts forth. They are:


1. The Law of General Beneficence (essentially be good to all people)

2. The Law of Special Beneficence (be good to those you are connected to especially e.g. nature, family, and your country or tribe)

3. Duties to Parents, Elders, and Ancestors (respect those who came before you)

4. Duties to Children and Posterity (respect those who come after you)

5. Law of Justice (He offers three types: don't commit adultery, don't take what isn't yours, don't lie)

6. The Law of Good Faith and Veracity (essentially don't lie but in other non-legal contexts)

7. The Law of Mercy (treat those who are needy with kindness)

8. The Law of Magnanimity (Be ready to sacrifice, fight, and die for your beliefs and the people you care about - and I would extend that to being ready to defend anyone who is mistreated regardless of your relation to them)

I have no faults with any of these laws. They are teachings present universally in religions, mythologies, and philosophies. Even better, there is no mention of heteronormativity or gender binaries, only that we shouldn't sleep with people who have made commitments to another. I think if we presented these laws to every person on the planet, a large majority would agree completely. If this is the Tao, I can definitely get behind it.

In the end, I gained a lot from reading and analyzing The Abolition of Man this last week. It pushed me out of my comfort zone reading an explicitly Christian author but I enjoyed it. My baggage around Christianity made me forget how much my own beliefs are strengthened when I read someone whose philosophy I may disagree with and how much universal truth exists in all philosophies, I was also able to engage in some quality conversations with my mother about Lewis and what he wrote about. Her Gemini Mercury loves to talk about all of these philosophical concepts as much as my intense Sagittarius influence does. I definitely want to continue exploring the universal themes that run through religion and mythology so look out for more reviews like this. Oh, and if you're in the Philadelphia Area, I'm teaching a class on Tarot and Mythmaking in March so check that out here!!!

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