The Abolition of Man | Book Review Oct 30, 2018

The Abolition of Man Book Review - Book Cover
The Abolition of Man; C.S. Lewis; 2015 (1943); HarperOne; 128

In no particular order, I am working through reading the CS Lewis Signature Classics. This is an 8 volume box set released in 2015. I started last year with my review of A Grief Observed. To give perspective, The Abolition of Man was published in 1943, a near two decades earlier than A Grief Observed and during World War II. This means as of 2018, I am reviewing a book published 75 years ago.

The English language, and how we communicate with it has changed so much in 75 years. Lewis sentence structure carries an intellectual weight. At times it can be difficult to grasp. There is a sense his writing comes across more as an academic essay rather than a book. I found myself needing a dictionary to understand some of his writing. His extensive vocabulary uses words such as 'Subterfuge', 'Bequeathed', 'Omnicompetent', 'Neophyte', and 'Obscurantism'.

At 128 pages, The Abolition of Man contains 3 chapters. The remaining pages are for the appendix and notes. In these chapters, Lewis shares his concern of a specific textbook. One that is being used in the elementary schools of English Literature. Lewis does not reveal the actual names of the two philosophers behind this textbook. He does not even reveal the name of the actual book. He refers these two men as "Gaius" and "Titius" and their book as The Green Book. Lewis has respect for these professors, but has strong criticism towards their teachings. One of their main teachings from this green book is on statements of value. This being that all statements of value are merely statements about one's feelings. They say nothing about the object. So if two people look at a waterfall, and one states "This is sublime", who is correct? One places value on the object, the other on their feelings. Well according to Gaius and Titius, the one speaking about his feelings is correct. Not the one speaking about the waterfall.

Lewis, annoyed by this illogical thinking did not agree. That statement to in essence mean, "I have sublime feelings" Lewis found to be absurd. He was so frustrated by this nonsense that he felt compelled to write this book. He crafts three lectures against the philosophy of subjectivism. As Lewis states, "The whole purpose of their book is so to condition the young reader that he will share their approval". He goes on to say that "this would be either a fool's or a villain's undertaking unless they held that their approval was in some way valid or correct. He challenges these subjective values by arguing a case for 'objective' values. To put in blunt words, Lewis sees subjectivism as poisonous.

What I find fascinating about Lewis, is how ahead of time his writing and thinking was. So much of his words published in 1943 still hold true today. When I observe the reality around me, he speaks on the danger of Mans conquest over Nature. He shares how this is impossible. Mans power over nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument. We see these efforts today with the emergence of artificial intelligence. All men that live after AI become the patients of that power. They become weaker, not stronger. Hence the title, is what Lewis calls, The Abolition of Man.

Lewis shows intellectual integrity and removes his personal bias. He does not argue a case for Theism or Christianity. He makes this clear in some of his quotes I found insightful such as:

You 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. - page 26

In order to avoid misunderstanding, I may add that though I myself am a Theist, and indeed a Christian, I am not here attempting any indirect argument for Theism. I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become sceptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more realistic basis, is doomed. - page 49

I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently. - page 66

It is worth noting that I dont believe subjectivism is completely poisonous. Which I dont assume that is what Lewis believes either. It has its place in society, but can be a poisonous philosophy. A person can have their own subjective feelings and preferences. But once morality and value are involved such as good or evil, those preferences become dangerous. The danger being that it demolishes practical reason. There has to be an objective standard of morality and value, or else nothing is good or evil in an absolute sense. Morality and value are based on people's feelings. Without an objective standard, nobody is right and nobody is wrong. That type of philosophy is the poison Lewis sees in subjectivism.

It is clear The Abolition of Man is a challenging book for many modern readers including myself. In 1955, Lewis almost considers this book as his favourite among all his others. The irony is that his other books are actually the ones people have read far more. Even to the point that is was ignored by the public. Well that is not the case anymore. If he was alive today, he would see his book is far from ignored. This book does not use objective moral values and duties to argue the existence of God. But some of the greatest apologists of our time are using it as a strong argument for the existence of God. It has become one of the most airtight arguments that has never been refuted. William Lane Craig, John Lennox, Frank Turek, and Cliffe Knechtle are only a handful of many that see the foundational importance of this book. If you can follow along with Lewis' logic, you will see the same.

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