I read The Abolition of Man for the first time about 30 years ago and consider it amongst the most important books I have ever read. It’s a tough little book, but worth the time.
It was a tremendous relief for me as a young Christian to discover that Christianity not only made sense, but could be approached critically throughout. Lewis’ particular gift was to expose the facile nature of much of what passes for modern intellectualism, and demonstrated for me that informed Christian belief is intellectually rigorous. If we take into account all we experience in life, it gives a sounder explanation of our world than anything else on the market.
The Abolition of Man begins by examining a book on English grammar in which Lewis notes a disturbing trend; not in how grammar is taught, but in the philosophy of its authors.
Morality is based on the idea that creation is inherently good; that it possesses real value. It is only by dismissing half of what we experience as mere sentiment that modern thinkers can pass a materialistic reductionism off as the whole truth. This is the view Lewis warns us against in Lecture One; the authors of the Green Book would inculcate not better grammar in young minds, but a skeptical outlook that brushes off value statements as emotional, subjective fluff. In debunking experiences that better men considered profitable, humane and generous, they undercut even concepts of justice and truth, cutting out the heart of all it means to be human. They would make us “men without chests”.
And where does that lead? In Lecture Three the author takes this worldview to its logical conclusion, examining its inconsistencies and the danger it poses.
Lewis sensibly points out that we cannot go on seeing through everything; there has to be some sort of objective truth at the bottom of things for anything to make sense. Yet the true skeptic must (if he is to be consistent) discredit all value statements; they are to be viewed only as natural phenomena to be managed with no overarching morality – the “Tao”, as Lewis calls it – to inform them. Such a world would be incapable of any sensible or actually moral action. The debunker has become the blindest of all, for he sees through everything – and gazes into a void.
And should a group of skeptical Conditioners arise with the power to determine the course of subsequent generations, what motives could they have? Having denied value – and hence moral thought – as objective, all that is left is raw utilitarianism and their own fallible desires: both dangerous grounds for any program of conditioning. We may (for instance) consider how the discredited science of eugenics worked in the value-free world of the Third Reich. Having decided that certain races and types of people were a drag on humanity, Hitler’s government set about – albeit in very modern, scientific ways – to eliminate them. By deeming justice a mere sentiment, they became in practical fact the embodiment of evil.
It is not Lewis’ purpose to defend Christian belief in particular with this book, but to rather demonstrate the nature of moral thought, its reality in our lives, and the terrible danger of trying to get around it. Morality is necessarily transcendent, and Lewis cites a number of sources to demonstrate that most religions and cultures share, and always have had this understanding. Morality must, if it is objective fact, be something that originates outside ourselves if it is to make any genuine claims on our lives; and in this we may allow that no religion is entirely wrong – though some are closer to the truth than others.
But it is the modern materialist who strays the furthest, with his truncated, wilfully ignorant worldview denying at least half of the reality he encounters. This is the position Lewis shows untenable: by trying to interpret reality on his own terms, the skeptic winds up with exactly nothing – at least nothing of value. In their quest to be their own masters, they would emasculate humanity. To borrow from the book’s title, they seek nothing less than the abolition of man.