Philosophy Weekend: C. S. Lewis and the Abolition of Man

(This is the first guest post in the Philosophy Weekend series. James Berrettini is a friend and fellow software developer with whom I’ve conducted intensive private debates over difficult questions of philosophy and ethics for many years. He and I often disagree, but I know he shares my belief that these questions are keenly relevant to modern life. Here’s James’s introduction to a popular but misunderstood writer and thinker, C. S. Lewis. — Levi)

Sarah Palin was mocked for telling Barbara Walters for saying that she turns to C. S. Lewis for “divine inspiration.” Richard Wolffe, a commentator on Chris Matthews’ show, thought this indicated a lack of seriousness, assuming that she was referring to “a series of kids’ books.” Defending Lewis, Matthews interrupted saying: “I wouldn’t put down C.S. Lewis.” Wolfe continued: “I’m not putting him down. But, you know, ‘divine inspiration’? There are things she could’ve said for ‘divine inspiration.’ Choosing C.S. Lewis is an interesting one.”

C. S. Lewis was indeed an interesting writer, if not for the reasons that Wolffe believes. Like many people, he was unfamiliar with Lewis beyond knowing that he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia books, which we all “know” now, thanks to the good people at Walden Media, Walt Disney Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. Who was Lewis?

Born in Belfast, Clive Staples Lewis (Jack to his friends) was a novelist, essayist and popular theologian. He and his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien moved in an Oxford literary circle known as “The Inklings.” Early in his career, Lewis was drawn to esotericism and occultism such as was prevalent among both his friends, such as Owen Barfield and his idols, such as William Butler Yeats. His mid-life conversion to Christianity was integral to his views and writings later in life.

Lewis was a critic of aspects of modernity; we see this in his work, The Abolition of Man. In it, he asserts that there’s a fundamental moral truth all mankind knows, regardless of the specifics of race, creed, or culture. Lewis refers to this truth as the Tao. Mankind’s freedom doesn’t consist in mere license. Rather, it follows from our living fully to our potential, which means living in accordance with the Tao. Put simply, choosing to do evil — say, abusing hard drugs, or eating endlessly, or stealing wealth — doesn’t make us free. It enslaves us to drugs, or gluttony, or greed.

Lewis claims the Tao is universal, and nearly everyone acknowledges it, even as individuals fail to live by it. Our recognition of morality doesn’t come from pure intellect, which allows us to ponder without consequence; nor does it come from our appetite, since it merely drives us to consume. Rather, following Plato, he locates the facility for living according to the Tao between the head (intellect) and the stomach (appetites). We follow the Tao from the chest, which we might refer to as the passionate or spirited element of our souls. The book asks the question, is it possible to abolish the moral sense from human life and human culture, to create what Lewis calls Men Without Chests? He sees that, in recent history, it’s been tried both with increasing force and increasing subtlety. He sees the abuse that is possible in various technologies (propaganda, eugenics, etc.) In this, he has a lot in common with Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

Lewis was no facile moralist. In his moving personal reflections, very late in his life, on the death of his wife Joy Gresham, he revealed the kinds of spiritual doubts and despair it caused him. For him, faith was not a matter of consolation on the cheap — it was a gritty, lifelong struggle with black periods and few easy answers or paths. He’s very far from a shallow writer of children’s books — he was a serious thinker, an excellent prose stylist, and worth reaching for, whether or not you find yourself in need of “divine inspiration.”

13 Responses

  1. James, I never knew that C.
    James, I never knew that C. S. Lewis also wrote in the dystopic utopia tradition. I’ve got to read this book! This tradition of literature will always remain relevant because it’s inherently philosophical (as you point out in your allusion to Plato’s tripartite division of the soul) and because societies will (unfortunately) always conduct disastrous social and political experiments. In those, the quest for power will be disguised as some kind of appealing ideology.

    Since you mention Orwell’s 1984, my favorite novel in this tradition, O’Brien (the Thought Police agent) states: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” Thanks for pointing Abolition of Man out to us.

  2. Lovely piece! It’s
    Lovely piece! It’s demonstrative of the intellectual vacuity of Fox News correspondents when a supposed “Christian” fails to even recognize one of the most prominent Christian thinkers of the past century.

    Sarah Palin may have read it, but she certainly doesn’t get it.

    I’m not Christian, but I think CS Lewis is one of the only people to offer a cogent defense of Christianity as a religion and as an ethical framework.

  3. My father, who was a
    My father, who was a Protestant minister, loved C.S. Lewis. He learned a lot by reading the English writer.

  4. Joy Behar is an ignorant
    Joy Behar is an ignorant idiot.

    C.S. Lewis’ “Tao” sounds a lot like Karl Rahners’ “supernatural existential”

  5. Dear oncominghope — I’m
    Dear oncominghope — I’m confused by your comment — wasn’t Sarah Palin the one who did recognize C. S. Lewis in the TV news incident above? I’m no fan of Sarah Palin (hah) but in this case, I think your comment states the situation backwards — it was Richard Wolffe (otherwise, I think, an excellent journalist) who was not aware of C. S. Lewis’s “serious” writings. Chris Matthews and Sarah Palin did seem to be aware.

    I was not aware of C. S. Lewis much at all myself, and I think James for turning me on to “The Abolition of Man”, which I recently finished. It’s an extremely powerful book, very much a polemic of modern politics in the century of fascism and communism. Lewis is clearly a very sharp and very clever writer. His high tone of moral urgency (mixed with deadly, precise sarcasm) reminds me not of J. R. R. Tolkien (thank god for that) but of a better peer: T. S. Eliot.

  6. I wasn’t clear I think. Sarah
    I wasn’t clear I think. Sarah Palin did recognize C.S. Lewis, but her theological absolutism suggests that she either didn’t absorb or didn’t understand his message. (My confused comment is precisely why one should not comment without sleeping for more than 3 hours ;P)

    I haven’t read Abolition of Man, but I have read Screwtape Letters, which is full of precisely that sarcasm which you mention. And there’s no comparison in my mind, Lewis is far superior and far more thoughtful than Tolkien.

  7. I have also loved several
    I have also loved several books I’ve read by C.S. Lewis. He uses logic with metaphors that are so clever. I think Lewis is one of the top-quoted authors by Mormons, so I’m not the only one who has read his works.

  8. cs lewis is a giant in many
    cs lewis is a giant in many categories, mainly as a thinker and his ability to connect through the written word. with folks of all types, ages, etc. mere christianity has influenced millions–the porkchop chapter a highlight, and the screwtape letters cold have passed as the first modern psychedelic book. it’s a ride. i have no opinion on the palin/nbabcbscnnfox scandal. who gives a morning eff.

  9. Contrary to the thesis is
    Contrary to the thesis is Hobbes’ Leviathan, that the ‘Tao’ (goodness + sensibilities) is not part of the individual but manifests itself in the collective. That the collective’s governing role is to keep individuality in check so that we cannot act as the monsters we are. Therefore, any functioning government (democracy – fascisim) is a better alternative to man left to his own devices.

    Making the nature of Satan, in Xtian doctrine, an entity which loves man for who he is and what he wants: The Individual. While the God CS Lewis writes about, offers a love that is conditional to the individual giving in to the collective.

    Not really a fan of Lewis, who I find to be a superficial thinker. I have a lot of philosophical problems with The Narnia series/allegory and, have some qualms about marketing its messages to children. Since he goes out with his agenda on his sleeve, as a reader, I have trouble investing the suspension of belief needed to enjoy his fiction.


    Tolkien, on the contrary, is more ambiguous and nuanced. Lord of the Rings is an exhaustive meditation of good v evil, where you have a million words in the shade of grey. Sure, there’s the white + black knights of evil, but you also have a lot of eccentric characters who are baffled and lost in the sheer scope and rush of history. It’s how the individual is effected by events that are completely out of his control and comprehension.

    A bit like War and Peace, yet for an age bookended by Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow.

  10. Like some of the others I
    Like some of the others I find Lewis far superior to Tolkien. I once had a minister who agreed with Lewis, idolized Tolkien, and yet tried to ban the Harry Potter books from the children in his congregation. His logic? Tolkien was a Christian who converted Lewis to Christianity, while J K Rowlings was not. How he knew this is beyond me. For myself, I found the reading of the Lord of the Rings to be a very heavy chore, while the “Harrys” were an easy read about the struggle between good and evil – “and a little child shall lead them”. (I always read a new children’s book before giving it to a grandchild).

    What Sister Sarah had to say about Lewis was simply that he inspires her, as he does me. This time I find myself in the odd position of defending a political figure whom I otherwise despise. Meanwhile, Richard Wolffe really ought to have researched C. S. Lewis on the Internet before making his comment. Lewis was far more than the writer of a famous series of chidlren’s books – although there is a message even in this saga of Aslan the Lion and the four Pevensie children. To get back to that minister, if a Christian can appreciate The Chronicles of Narnia, then likewise he or she can appreciate the Harry Potter books.

  11. My favorite C. S. Lewis book
    My favorite C. S. Lewis book is called Mere Christianity. It started as a series of BBC radio broadcasts by Lewis in England during WWII. I read it back in the late 70s and it appealed very much to my beliefs at the time. Some of my beliefs have changed since then, so I wonder what it would be like to go back and read it again. I probably should.

  12. theoncominghope wrote:

    theoncominghope wrote:
    “It’s demonstrative of the intellectual vacuity of Fox News correspondents when a supposed “Christian” fails to even recognize one of the most prominent Christian thinkers of the past century.”

    Chris Matthews’ show is on MSNBC, not Fox.

  13. My goodness. How do you know
    My goodness. How do you know what she does or doesn’t get?

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