By Wayne Allensworth
The great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis tackled the question of education and the shaping of values in his short 1947 book The Abolition of Man, an amalgamation of his lectures on the subject. Lewis was prompted by what he detected taking place in the British education system of his time, especially in the teaching of “English prep.” What Lewis detected in an English textbook he simply dubbed The Green Book was what we would now call the deconstruction of a sense of value in its young readers. All judgements, said the authors of The Green Book, dubbed “Gaius” and “Titus” by Lewis, were entirely subjective, devoid of any actual meaning in the sense of being related to something beyond the subjective human consciousness. Gaius and Titus used the example of Coleridge’s observations of tourist reactions to a waterfall in the text, Lewis observed. One tourist called the waterfall “sublime,” the other said it was “pretty,” with Coleridge endorsing the former and reacting with disgust to the lame response of the latter. The authors of The Green Book asserted that there was no objective value of beauty in any of those statements—they were merely expressions of subjective feelings or emotions.
What Lewis understood about such an approach to education was that, as he wrote, “ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake.” It may have been that Gaius and Titus were not aware of what they were doing—but it could be, Lewis allowed, that they were. “They may be,” he wrote, “intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values [which assumes a transcendent sense of beauty, for example—WA] and start with a new set,” one designed by people Lewis called “the Conditioners” or “The Innovators,” who had set them themselves the task of sweeping aside the collective wisdom of humanity accumulated through the ages by experience, intuition, imagination, and revelation. That collective wisdom is something Lewis called “the Tao,” the Way, the Path in life followed by civilized human beings. The Ten Commandments, the Code of Hammurabi, Confucian wisdom, all were the Tao, another way of stating the natural law. Its claims on us—to honor our parents, not to steal, not to murder, and all the rest—needed no further explanation. They were self-evident, not subject to cold calculation or rationalization. Without the Tao, Lewis was sure, only chaos and the loss of any meaningful freedom (not the license implied in Gaius and Titus’s text) would result. The masses would be “men without chests,” the “chest” or heart acting as mediator between cold rationality and the baser drives of “the belly.” “We make men without chests,” Lewis wrote, “and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
What would be left if the Conditioners had their way? A technocratic regime “conditioning” the now ignorant minds of the masses, reduced to an easily manipulated mob. People, Lewis observed, the technocrats were likely to treat with contempt. Innovators would manufacture new values suited to their ends—control, manipulation, rationalization, abstraction. The result would be the “abolition of man,” or the end of organic society, as the Conditioners and Innovators would likely attempt to produce a revamped human race through eugenics, organized along parameters set by a technocratic system. They would gain the whole world but lose their souls. In effect, it would be a vain attempt not to simply conquer nature (which Lewis noted), but of the finite to assert control over the infinite. Lewis does not say so in The Abolition of Man, but that infinite, that Absolute, God is the ultimate source of the Tao and of all value.
Modernism and post-modernism in The Abolition of Man
Here are some thoughts prompted by rereading The Abolition of Man recently:
Lewis’s Conditioners or Innovators and their attempts to reconstruct the world to create a technocratic Utopia, while lacking awareness (as he supposed many of them did) of an essential contradiction in their mode of thinking, or of relating to Being (more on that below), represented a transition from modernism to post-modernism.
Here’s what I mean: By 1947, materialism and “scientism,” the notion that everything worth knowing could, and eventually would, be uncovered by “science,” including a supposed science of state administration, social organization, and industrial production, had been prevalent among Western elites for some time. This worldview was essentially mechanistic (man was a machine, the world operated according to machine-like laws), relied on rationalism (rather than what Lewis might call “natural Reason” derived from the Tao), abstract theorizing, planning, and bureaucratic institutions. Lewis’ Conditioners and Innovators were James Burnham’s “Managers,” operating “managerial” systems, whether Capitalist, Communist, or Fascist. The Managers/Conditioners/Innovators, saw themselves as superior in ability, as more rational than the masses, and thus, suited to be their overseers. Ideologies and a detached, even clinical, view of humanity were rapidly replacing tradition, religion, and the mediation of the “chest” between “head” and “belly.”
This was a given by Lewis’s time, an outgrowth of industrialization, the scientific revolution, urbanization, and the concomitant erosion of organic communities. Fragmentation and alienation were common symptoms of this brave new world, which, in turn, created more “problems” for the managerial administrative class to regulate. All problems were theoretically solvable by rationalistic means that would be implemented by a homogenizing bureaucracy that sought to smooth away what it viewed as irrational and unmanageable local, regional, and cultural peculiarities (which the Tao would allow for). At the ground level, this meant the creation of centralized states.
But the dream was for something larger. What we know as globalism, which did not yet have a name, was on the horizon, already foreshadowed in Communism’s ideology of world revolution. The worldwide imposition of Utopia would be a matter of who would carry out that revolution. Indeed, we are now beyond the abolition of man in the sense that Lewis meant. Witness, for example, the rise of something called “trans-humanism,” which would literally abolish humanity as an organic entity. The mad trans-humanist dreamers would genetically engineer humans who might be enhanced digitally, creating a new cyborg species that the Conditioners themselves would replicate. Some of the techno-mystics even foresee “downloading” human consciousness into computerized robotic machines, eventually fulfilling the man-is-machine assertions, even achieving a cyber conscious immortality. It’s Dr. Frankenstein writ large, a sci-fi fantasy horror show.
The contradictions of the Conditioners
Backing up a moment to the contradictions in the modernist worldview, Lewis would more explicitly note in some of his other works that a deterministic materialism undermined its own vision of truth. Why? If our very thoughts, emotions, loves, hates, sympathies, and sentiments, and general personality, were the predetermined outcomes of the motions of atoms and the codes in our genes, then how could one trust one’s own thoughts? Whose “facts” were correct or even could be correct? What could “making up one’s mind” possibly mean? And if that was the case, how could one trust the plans, assertions, declarations, and claims to knowledge of the Conditioners and Innovators? How could one determine what was real and what was not real or even what “real” might mean? What would be the point of arguing over social or economic policies, much less questions of Being, meaning and purpose? What could one possibly “know” if our very thoughts were the results of deterministic processes? Any arguments would amount to howling into the void.
Lewis correctly noted that in such conditions, whose preferences won out would be a matter of an assertion of the will to power. But he did not realize that he was essentially describing the basic assumptions of what would come to be called “postmodernism.” Under careful scrutiny, the “wave function,” if you will, of modernism would collapse into postmodernism.
If all institutions, all traditions, all ideologies were merely “social constructs” imposed in the service of the power of competing forces and groups, then there is no capital “T” truth, nor could there be. Ultimately, prevalent social constructs had been built in the service of raw power. There is no such thing as good or bad, only what is good or bad for me or you or for dominant groups and subservient groups. Questions of value are irrelevant.
Lewis noted that nobody, neither supporters of the Tao nor modernists/postmodernists, actually behaved as if they did not believe there were any objective values. To expand on what he wrote in The Abolition of Man and elsewhere, even the claim that social norms are merely “constructs” and the forces that built them simply oppressors (AKA “The Patriarchy”) is based on a value judgment drawn from the Tao itself.
I’ve written elsewhere that “The New Atheists” protest too much. If God does not exist, if there is no ultimate source of value, if Truth does not exist or cannot be determined, then why all the anger, indeed, the rage that has been directed at a Being who supposedly does not exist? Who cares what meaningless, purposeless values anyone asserts? Why not just indulge one’s appetites and wait to die? Indeed, that does seem to be the “choice,” which itself is a derivative of notions of human will and value, of hedonistic men and women. But, really, why get out of bed in the morning if everything is really nothing? If all that one does, whether in the service of the oppressive Patriarchy or liberating postmodern identity groups, is meaningless, then why do it?
Conclusions: The Rage in the Machine
In wrestling with this, I’ve reached some conclusions.
Lewis says little about motivation in The Abolition of Man. But that is an all-important factor in trying to understand our current situation. Milton’s Satan is a good guide to and descriptor of the motivations that have driven the avatars of existential, even metaphysical, revolution since the Tower of Babel. Satan is an archangel in Paradise Lost, a being so consumed by intellectual arrogance that he chafes under what he perceives as the Divine yoke. What can God—or the Tao—possibly teach him? Resentment of Divine restraint leads him to organize what I’ve called Pandemonium’s Rebellion, a revolt of Satan and his angelic allies against the authority of God and all His creation.
Existential rage–destruction for its own sake, a rejection of the world and its Maker–is at the heart of the great rebellion.
Lucifer is the light bearer, a fallen angel of spirit and intellect. He is also that within us that makes a cardinal decision, sometimes intermittently, sometimes once and for all, that it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. That is what is meant by Biblical condemnations of pride.
The Conditioners, Innovators, Managers, Globalists, that conglomeration of state and transnational networks, they are the heirs of Lucifer, seeking by rationalistic means to transcend the transcendent. They are the finite asserting itself against the infinite, and barring that, they would destroy a world that will not submit to their yoke. Luciferian rebellion yields to existential rage, the rage of the school shooter and the anarchic hard Left.
We may fancy ourselves as victims of God, of Fate, of an unjust universal order that denies us all that Satan promised Christ when He was tempted in the desert. Resentment of our condition can fuel a general resentment of all of Being, of all that would bind us, restricting opportunities to slake our thirst for absolute, unbounded expression of our own will.
That resentment, that dejection, can be understandable. Life is tragic and hard. We may grow angry at a world that seems bent on our destruction. But Luciferian pride and resentment are the way to dusty death, to emptiness and the void.
Lewis would well understand existential rage himself. He expressed just such a rage in his initially anonymously published A Grief Observed, a diary of the despair and anger he experienced during his wife Joy’s extended, painful illness, and eventual death from cancer. At one point in his diary of grief, Lewis asks, when Joy had seemed to be in remission, then relapsed, whether God “when He seemed most gracious,” was actually “preparing the next torture.” Was God nothing more than the Great Vivisectionist? A “Cosmic Sadist?”
At the end, Joy said “I am at peace with God.” Lewis wrote that “She smiled, but not at me.” He concluded “How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back!” Lewis pulled out of the depths, back from the Abyss, but his anguish had been all too real.
This is not something that can be easily dismissed. It’s a human universal, which explains the deep appeal of post-modern victimology. And it explains just how formidable our foe is. We can only put our trust in the Suffering God and do what we can to resist the great rebellion in ourselves and in our society and daily lives.
The Left likes to imagine that it is always on the outside, the perpetual victim raging against the oppressive Machine. Replace “Machine” with “God,” and we can further understand our present reality. The raging Left is now the militant arm of the Machine itself. They represent the rage in the Machine.
Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood.
[…] sense, a sense of awe that shows up again and again in myths and religious texts, along with what C. S. Lewis called “the Tao” , or natural law, in cultures around the world. It wasn’t something worked out by a committee, or […]
Superb article, and it has clarified my thinking on a host of subjects. Interestingly, I have recently reread The Abolition of Man and applying its lessons to the chaos of our culture and politics. Your writing has helped me to understand what I have been thinking in an inchoate sort of way, that the battle is between the human heart and mind, in the sense of reason untampered by faith and revelation and the body, in the sense of belly, that is desire unconstrained by either reason or morals grounded in faith. What a sorry state of affairs! But in times like these such clarity is needed more than ever. Thanks.