One book I always include in my C. S. Lewis course is his Abolition of Man. It’s a weighty book, and I sometimes wonder if my students will be able to grasp its message. Yet I also believe it is worth requiring it because the message is so relevant, even more so today than when the book was published during WWII.
The overall theme is the replacement of the natural law God has implanted within his creation with whatever new values man comes up with out of his own mind. Then those new values are to be infused into the young through the educational system; they will be conditioned to accept and believe what they are told. The “conditioners” will determine the nature of the new reality.
A grammar book of his day is the basis for Lewis’s critique. It’s supposed to be teaching good composition, but is, in fact, teaching a philosophy instead. “In filling their book with it,” Lewis contends, “they have been unjust to the parent or headmaster who buys it and who has got the work of amateur philosophers where he expected the work of professional grammarians.” As he always does, Lewis then offers an example from life: “A man would be annoyed if his son returned from the dentist with his teeth untouched and his head crammed with the dentist’s obiter dicta on bimetallism or the Baconian theory.”
The amateur philosophy of the book is that youth are so sentimental that they need to be fortified against their emotions. Too many students, the book asserts, are carried away by their sensibilities. Yes, there are some students who allow their emotions to dictate to them in their studies, but Lewis doesn’t think that’s the biggest problem.
For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.
The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.
And some sentiments are really “just,” Lewis believes. Some things merit our approval and others do not. He references Aristotle’s comment that “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” And Plato noted that youth “must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”
Lewis uses the word Tao to describe what is really the Christian concept of natural law—an objective standard that permeates all cultures, “the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false.” Education has always been the propagation of those eternal values. That, says Lewis, is changing: “The old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.”
I love the contrast he makes between those two words: propagation vs. propaganda. How much of modern education has become propaganda, a mere indoctrination into the latest societal trend or fad? My students come to college with their heads and hearts filled with a lot of propaganda but very little robust thought about what they have been taught to believe.
Then Lewis gets to the main point of chapter one.
The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat . . . of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.
The problem with the new value system imposed by man upon man? It produces “Men without Chests.” Why is this a problem? Lewis ends the chapter with these poignant thoughts:
And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.
Your can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more “drive,” or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or “creativity.”
In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the gelding be fruitful.
This is why, despite how difficult it may be for students to work through Lewis’s thoughts in Abolition of Man, I believe it essential that they do. They need to know what is happening and how God wants them to counteract the propaganda they are being fed daily through the dominant culture.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord.Isaiah 55:8