Friday Book Pick: The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis
Picking up The Abolition of Man again resurrected a memory of a time in my early
20’s when I declared this my favorite book. Mostly I was in awe of Lewis’ ability to make a crystal-clear case for the natural law without appealing to belief in God. I was smitten by the clarity of his thought and the succinct and compelling way he puts forth his case for what he calls “the Tao.”
In The Abolition of Man Lewis shows that there is a universally-experienced value system which is the measure of right conduct (we would call it the natural law), and if these fundamental values are abandoned or ignored the result is disastrous for mankind—not just for one man or another, but for the whole human race. If man chooses not to be guided by natural law (for example, if he no longer accepts lying, stealing and murder as intrinsically wrong), then the universally held values of honesty, respecting what is possessed by another, and life itself will simply be replaced by other values—values arbitrarily determined by the person in power.
For instance, if we abandon the idea of the right to possess or own, then the stronger person, or perhaps the more cunning person, or the one with better platforms on social media can simply decide to take what belongs to another for a purpose he arbitrarily determines is of higher value. If we abandon the universal value of every human life, then the older person, the more powerful or influential person, gets to decide what subjective value is higher than the value of a life. In other words, Lewis argues that remaining under the natural law allows values to protect people.
The Abolition of Man was written in 1944, and to read it in 2021 is like hearing an oracle uttered by a far-seeing prophet. Drawing out his ideas to their logical conclusion, Lewis contends that if the Tao is abandoned, then the next frontier will be deciding for ourselves the nature of man and simply deciding for ourselves who or what we are. Playing the devil’s advocate, he puts words to the position of many: “You say we shall have no values at all if we step outside the Tao. Very well: we shall probably find that we can get on quite comfortably without them. Let us regard all ideas of what we ought to do simply as uninteresting psychological survival: let us step out of all that and start doing what we like. Let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that: not only on any ground of imagined value but because we want him to be such. Having mastered our environment, let us now master ourselves and choose our own
If man declares himself to be whatever he pleases he next moves to make other men what he pleases and, in the end, we have the abolition of man altogether. This could be food for thought for 21-century Americans caught up in the culture wars. At bottom it is a question of objective reality, right and wrong, life and death. Lewis made a clear, logical argument in 1944 that is more than applicable today—it’s urgent.
This is the fourth in a series on the books by the great English author C.S. Lewis.