C.S. Lewis on Human Nature
C. S. Lewis on Human Nature In the Abolition of Man, Lewis argues for a world where “certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it – believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, or reverence, or our contempt”(15). He believes that the nature of man comes from the universal law of nature, or what he refers to as the “Tao”, an education that enforces knowing what is right and wrong through educating what are true and just sentiments of moral objectivity.
The only way to understand right from wrong is to be educated within the Tao and it is the only way for a society to flourish. He argues that past generations passed on this education but the today’s educators have abandoned it. This starves man of a correct education, which leads to domestication of nature, and ultimately human nature because of the consumption of power and conditioning of one man over another. This ultimately will lead to the abolition of man.
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To better understand Lewis’s argument it is necessary to further delineate the themes within the three chapters of his book, which will help illustrate Lewis’s teaching on human nature and reason for his opposition. The inception of this problem leading to the de-bunking of man begins with mal-education. This is covered in Lewis’s first lecture, “Men Without Chests”. As an example, Lewis explains that in The Green Book, a grammar schoolbook by Gaius and Titius; young students are taught, “all values are subjective and trivial” (5).
In this book, Gaius and Titius refer to a story about a waterfall where one tourist describes it as “sublime”, and the other who says it is “pretty”. Gaius and Titius say the description of the waterfall as “pretty” should be rejected but “sublime” accepted. They state that the description “sublime” refers to the tourist’s feelings, not the waterfall itself. In cases such as this Gaius and Titius add that “we appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings. (2) Lewis rejects this explanation by pointing out its falsities and absurdities. He says it is as though something contemptible would mean that the person themselves saying it are having contemptible feelings, which makes no sense. This is dangerous because students do not learn the lessons in literature and grammar The Green Book is intended to teach but rather come away with two false conclusions.
First, that “all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker” and/or that “ all such statements are unimportant” (4). Unfortunately, the students are unaware of this knowledge in ethics, theology, and politics they are absorbing unconsciously under the cover of “grammar. ” Titius and Gaius in the textbook are putting and “assumption, which ten years later… will condition [the students] to take one side in controversy which [they] never recognized as controversy at all” (5).
While Gaius and Titius think they are doing a good service to the students by fortifying the students minds against emotion, they and the schoolteachers are “cutting out the soul of the school child, long before he is old enough to choose the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane” and ultimately starving them of sensibility thus making them easy prey to propaganda (9). Starving someone of knowledge is not the way to prevent him or her from learning understanding what is evil and wrong.
The only way to understand this is to be taught what is correct and good, which comes from an education within the Tao. Education within the Tao is one that implements a need for objective moral values and “the belief that certain attitudes are really true and other really false, to the kind of thing the universe and the kind of things we are” (18). The Tao creates men with chests where the head is the seat of reason, the chest is the seat of the heart, and belly is the seat for appetites. The well-educated person has all of these.
Their mind knows right and wrong, and can control its desires. In other words, in the Tao, the task is to train the student the right responses by transmitting humanity to the youth, to love the good and true and to admire the beautiful but disapprove the false. Those who are outside, men without chests, do not have rational sentiments and affections and must either be given new sentiment, which have nothing to do with the above qualities, or must be removed. Gaius and Titius are guilty of producing men without chests because they too have no chests.
Modern education, like that of Gaius and Titius, teach values that are nothing but the expressions of feelings, which try to “debunk” the theories of the Tao and ultimately destroy humanity by creating a culture where subjectivism rules. This leads into the next step of Lewis’s lecture, “The Way”. When the youth does not believe in the natural law of moral absolutes, the result of the education in The Green Book, the humane society cannot survive. However by writing the book, Gaius and Titius prove there may be values that they are not subjective with at all.
If the educators can find another basis for ethical behavior, there may be hope for the society. Lewis goes over two possibilities, both of which are ultimately failures in their justification. The first is the failure of utilitarianism. The educators can attempt to build and ethical system by saying certain behaviors are “useful” to society and others are not. This does not work because the educators cannot give a fair answer as to why one man must die for his community as opposed to another. Yes, one man is better than many, but why must the one man have to sacrifice himself for the others and not vice versa?
Even if such an action “ought to be done” for the preservation of society, Lewis argues there is no rational justification for it because “a refusal to sacrifice oneself is nor more rational than a consent to do so and no less rational” (31). Ultimately, no practical conclusion can be drawn from this, and finding rationality behind all the debunked sentiments is impossible because practical reason only comes from the Tao, which has already been rejected. This leads to the second possibility for ethical behavior, the failure of instinct.
Through instinct there is an urge for the “preservation of society, and the species itself”(33). There is “no instinctive urge to keep promises or to respect individual life: that is why scruples of justice and humanity- in fact the Tao- can be properly swept away when they conflict with our real end, the preservation of the species” (33). Lewis refutes that this cannot be true because we have so many instincts that eventually they conflict. Furthermore, there is no concrete evidence of an instinct to preserve the species and society.
Ethical behavior therefore cannot be based on anything other than the Tao. Moral absolutes cannot be proven by usefulness of instinct. They have to be self-evident principles for all morality, not a syllogism. It is either fully accepted or rejected along with the values. The “rebellion against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree or its trunk” (55). No new moralities can be created on any basis aside from the Tao because it is just juxtaposing two things within the Tao against each other.
Lewis adds that although it is not common, improvement and development within the Tao is possible through open-minded criticism, removal of contradictions, and better insight so long as it is not rejected. Lewis uses Jesus’s notion of the golden rule over Confucius as an example of this, i. e. , “do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you” (46). Although Lewis is theist, he says that it is necessary to accept the Tao regardless of theological basis.
This presents the final lecture for Lewis- since science has conquered so much of nature (the environment), why not conquer human nature and be the master of our own environment and reject all values? In his last section “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis focuses on the future, on what kind of human being is likely to be molded in the future, “The Conditioners” (like Gaius and Titius), who have rejected the Tao, and what will everyone become. “Man as the possessor of increasing power over nature” can be seen through the development of scientific technology (i. e. contraceptives, radio, and airplanes) that requires production, buying, and selling (54). These three reasons ultimately result in some people using nature as an instrument to gain power over others. Lewis sates in the old Tao, the elder generation “handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike”(61). By looking towards the future, Lewis explains, it is more than just science; it is the power of earlier generations of later ones that will modify power of previous generations.
The few people who are lucky enough to gain this power will become the “scientific makers” and remake humankind to be slaves of their desires and entirely reject the Tao so they can remold their morals any way they want (56). Because all has been debunked within the Tao, whatever irrational impulse is most powerful will guide the Conditioners because “they themselves are outside, above” (61). They too have lost their humanity, and human nature has been conquered.
With all values rejected, the question of the invention of a new artificial Tao is presented. While Lewis suggest for a while it may be remnants of the old Tao which help form the new foundation, it cannot last long because all humankind has been trained subjectively to reject the Tao’s objective morals and duty of teaching what is good. Lewis stresses that although the Conditioners seem like bad men because of this horrible result, they are not, because “they are not men at all… by stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped outside into the void” (64).
In the end, Mans conquest of nature is really Natures conquest of man because “nature, untrammeled by values, rules the Conditioners, and through them, all humanity (68). Every conquest by man over nature from this point on is simultaneously just natures increasing conquest. From this, it is evident that it is only the Tao that can provide a common human law for everyone to live under, where there is a universal rule that is not tyrannical. Only within the Tao does man has power over himself and self- control.
Once “we step outside and regard the Tao as a mere subjective product, this possibility has disappeared”(75). To conclude, Lewis suggests science as being a possible cure rather than a problem. He points out that science is more like magic that “real science” and dates back to the wisdom early ages like the Renaissance. Lewis calls for a new science that would pursue knowledge and respect nature and combine the quantifiable measurements of modern science with sensibility to perceive quality which is a long shot, but what society needs.