The Abolition of Man and the Need for Christian Humanism

“It would be no exaggeration to say that the more progress ‘humanity’ as an abstraction makes towards the mastery of nature, the more actual individual men tend to become slaves of this very conquest.” (Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society)

Just before the first English lockdown began last year, I read Alan Jacobs’ book The Year of Our Lord 1943, a story of the parallel lives of C.S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain and Simone Weil. The subtitle is “Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis” and, as 2020 wore on, I had much need of a Christian humanism to counter the crisis we then faced, with our loss of contact and liberty, and the narrowing of our ecclesial life together. Jacobs presents his five dramatis personae as cross-grained resistance fighters, who eventually found themselves on the losing end of cultural changes that took place after the war, in a world with less and less time for Christian humanism. It was in AD 1943 that Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man, a series of lectures that became a book whose continuing relevance is shown by Dr. Michael Ward’s having written a new guide to it, After Humanity.

Although Abolition is a book about education, it is much broader, including its take on technology, the focus of my article. What I want to do here is rehearse the argument of the final lecture Lewis gave (a few miles away from where I write) in Newcastle Upon Tyne for the University of Durham’s Riddell Lectures, and then think about how it chimes with where we find ourselves over seventy years on.

The lecture begins by discussing “Man’s conquest of Nature.” After the usual formality of expressing appreciation for the benefits our technological conquest of nature has brought us, Lewis becomes more critical and argues that the conquest in question is really “a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” This is both because some have their hands on the levers of power, and because earlier generations constrain the lives of later ones. (We can easily see this today in the fact that most of us were born into a world replete with nuclear weapons, for example, as well as more benign technologies).

What Lewis predicted as a possibility in 1943 is something that we might want to check against our current social-political reality: “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men.” This rule will extend to human nature itself, and the “thread of life” that the Greeks thought of as spun out by “Clotho” will be in in the hands of the conditioners, who will use the power of eugenics, psychology, propaganda and education to reshape mankind in the image of their choice. Perhaps we are not there yet, but we have come a fair way towards this, I think.

Next, Lewis brings in a key idea of “Abolition,” as he considers the matter of values. He calls this “the Tao,” borrowing from Chinese, which he elsewhere in the lectures calls “the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are;” he also calls it “Natural Law or Traditional Morality.” This Tao, says Lewis, has been the historical pattern for education, delightfully expressed as “old birds teaching young birds to fly,” namely the passing on of objective values. “The Conditioners,” who have learned to control nature, abandon the old Tao to make up their own values as they “choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race.” An “artificial Tao” is the plan for all the “Brave New Worlds” that fascinate and repel us, and perhaps the “New Normal” we keep hearing about recently. The world Lewis sees is presided over by what he calls “men without chests,” who have ceased to be men at all as they “have stepped into the void” where no objective value is recognized. Here there is no humanism, Christian or otherwise, but people have become artifacts. The masses go along with all this, “labouring to produce” a world of “posthumanity.”

In a couple of asides, Lewis wonders whether there has ever been a leader who has acted benevolently without the constraint of traditional morality, and whether the conditioners will come to hate and envy the conditioned who at least have an illusion that their lives are meaningful, while the conditioners themselves must live more frankly with their nihilism. Returning to his real argument, he is certain that the conditioned must live at the mercy of leaders whose extreme rationalism terminates in extreme irrationalism, with impulse as the only available guide for decision making. All are dominated – the subjects by the masters, the masters by their instincts.

The last part of the lecture leads to Lewis’ much quoted line that “To see through all things is the same as not to see.” In this section, Lewis turns to the problem of reduction and the modern tendency to destroy the integrity of things as we investigate them. As William Wordsworth wrote, “We murder to dissect.” Lewis often put philosophical ideas in his children’s stories, and his warning against reductionism is beautifully captured in the dialogue between Eustace and the “retired star,” Ramandu, in The Voyage of the Dawntreader:

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

A number of modern thinkers such as Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary are similarly opposed to reductionism, a problem which Lewis ascribes to “Little scientists and little unscientific followers.” On the other hand, “The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.” It is the relentless abstracting away from life, the explaining away, that leaves us in a world that is transparent, tasteless, invisible and, today, virtual.

To bring Lewis’s thinking about man’s conquest of nature and the resulting reductionism to bear on our present reality, we need to ask whether our sense of wonder is growing or diminishing, for this is a crucial index of whether we are in touch with reality and living the life for which Christians believe we are created. The late John Berger, in an essay comparing the cinema screen to the TV screen, said the difference was like that between looking into the night sky and looking into a cupboard. Certainly, we will not get our food from searching the night sky; equally, we will get little sense of wonder looking into cupboards and screens.

I believe Lewis’ vision of a diminished sense of reality as laid out in 1943 has largely come to true and is set to become more fully realized. My evidence is drawn from my own experience: the increased crowding out of our inner lives; the confined existence of our children; the politically correct culture of our schools and education system; the absence of the numinous and the prevalence of the purely mundane in our churches (when they are open).

Lewis himself gives only the merest hint of a solution in Abolition. In former times, the recalcitrance of mothers and children was enough to upset the efforts of reformers from Plato to John Locke, but this might not be effective against more powerful modern means. Lewis alludes vaguely to a “regenerate science” that Goethe or Rudolph Steiner might have something to say about, in which there is a place for the whole as well as for the parts. But Lewis admits he might be “asking impossibilities” here and is unconvincing when he says that if the scientists will not stop the process of reducing all things, then ‘someone else’ will have to.

In the absence of “someone else,” perhaps our lot if we side with Lewis will be more like that of the rememberers of great books in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, who we might say keep the Tao alive. The hero, Montag, memorizes Ecclesiastes and Revelation, for example. I might volunteer for Psalm 145: “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.” Such words, whether Biblical or literary, whether divine revelation or expressions of the Tao, are for us and our children, for the good of posterity and for our present encouragement. I was moved recently listening to a sermon by the Church of England vicar, the Revd. Daniel French, entitled “Putting Light in the Monastery of the Mind,” where he tells of Jesus, the Light of the World, coming to us and illuminating the inner world of “those who have hit rock bottom.” Great sermons should be stored up too!

But even if marginalized, we can and should ask questions. We should be prepared to be branded as righteous Elijah was by wicked Ahab, a “troubler of Israel.” Like the apostle John, our longing will be to see one another face to face and to come together around the bread and the wine that extend such fellowship, and the baptisms that initiate it.

Let us be Christian humanists who delight to be the creatures of our great God. To borrow the slogan of some in the Reformed camp, let us “fight-laugh-feast,” knowing with Lewis that we look forward to the end of Queen Jadis’ wintry rule and the arrival of Christmas. For now, as then in Lewis’s day, Aslan is on the move.

Anthony Oughton

Anthony lives in Gateshead in the North East of England with his wife Carla and three children. He teaches Religious Education at Emmanuel College Gateshead, is a Church Warden at Holy Trinity Gateshead, and enjoys writing songs and reading the writings of Wendell Berry and John Berger.

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