The connection between the law of nature and human nature

The Abolition of Man The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lewis famously defended Christianity by appealing to the universal moral law in Mere Christianity. In The Abolition of Man, he argues that modern thought denies the existence of the moral law, which he calls the Tao. He makes a compelling argument that educational and scientific programs that detach themselves from the moral law do not liberate but actually enslave people. At under 100 pages, it’s worth reading to see if you agree.

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18 comments

  1. Thanks for this, Kevin. I finally read it. It was interesting that the author acknowledged the good of natural rights at some level even if they can’t be proven to his satisfaction.

    I think that Lewis would answer him that the law of nature is much more accessible, even without a strictly Christian perspective, because all societies before modern times have recognized some kind of moral law.

    If you want to borrow the book from me sometime and discuss it further, I’d enjoy that. He’s much easier to read than Mill!

  2. The Abolition of Man was great, Scott, thanks for recommending it!

    I agree with Lewis. The tendency of moral relativism that he traces is valid and he frames it quite frighteningly. But I also appreciate how he tempers it at the end: the future is uncertain, and given an objective Tao, I would expect us to converge on it over time. Still, it is remarkable how philosophers have diverged from the Tao in principle — their models abstract away the Tao, thereby assuming control over the Tao that they do not actually have.

    I recently conversed with John, a believer of Hobbes, Rousseau, etc. where a social contract defines morality. Notably, his definition of “morality” was based upon what he is able to do, not what he should do. i.e. “might makes right”, which means that any conclusions he draws can only address ability. He’s essentially speaking a different language that sounds just like English.

    So, anything that can be agreed upon is justified, which directly explains the tendency toward short-sighted, temporary solutions; emotional, empathic whimsy in selecting laws and ethics; deception in convincing people to accept them; and oppression to keep them.

    Anyhow, it was neat how The Abolition of Man paralleled that conversation and it elucidated some aspects of my own thinking, such as how rationalism is actually employed in service to a principle regardless of how well it reflects reality.

    Please let me know if you’d like to go through the book together or discuss any of the parts in detail. It was a good read. 🙂

  3. I don’t think that I’ve talked with anyone who explicitly takes Hobbes and Rousseau as their philosophical guides. That must have been something else. You can see the same principle at work in the disregard for the constitution.

    Did he give reasons that he thought that Hobbes and Rousseau were reliable guides on these issues?

    It might be fun to discuss Lewis’ arguments in each essay and evaluate them. How does that sound?

  4. I think John saw it as self-evident that morality is meaningless if it is unbelieved and unenforced, so he simply asserted Hobbes’ state of nature as foundational and he called upon other philosophers to support that view, such as Rousseau’s thought that one could force another person to be free.

    He also made appeals to Kant’s disapproval of the Golden Rule and Rawls’ veil of ignorance, which I didn’t get into because, from my perspective, the root disagreement was really just a difference of definition. His objective basis for morality was “might makes right”, while mine was future outcomes. And once “what should be done” is collapsed into simply meaning “what can be done” the conversation becomes gibberish.

    Of course, on top of that gibberish, the moralities that he derives are still very similar to mine, which is what causes so much confusion later on, because every so often he subtly appeals to the relativity of morality — as if when he can get enough people to believe something is true, well, then it becomes true.

    He did that with some vague animal rights. I repeatedly stated that he was basing his morality on anthropomorphic empathy, which he just ignored (perhaps because his basis does not matter to his way of thinking). I was actually more concerned with his vagueness than his empathy, but it does illustrate the feelings-based morality that Lewis describes. Of course, moral relativists are not alone in this sort of hypersensitivity, but it sure is one of their tendencies.

    Well, I see that I’ve rehashed the whole argument again and I’m not at all confident that I answered your question, so I’ll stop here. 🙂

    Yes, going through and discussing Lewis’ arguments in each essay sounds like fun! 🙂

  5. Interesting recap. Sounds like you did some good work!

    I enjoyed his first essay quite a bit. I loved the comparison between propagation (birds feeding their young) and propaganda (a farmer raising poultry).

    I also found it interesting that he adopted Plato’s model of the human being from The Republic: the intellect (philosopher-king) enlisting the passions (soldiers and police) to govern the desires (the masses). He supported his argument in very generally philosophical and religious terms, which makes it powerful, I think, although a Christian educator would want a more explicitly Christian basis for educating students.

    I had read the concluding passage of the essay about “men without chests” a few times before, but had never realized (and then forgot before I read it a second time) that it was something of a reference to Plato.

  6. Sorry for the delay! I agree, that was a particularly apt and poetic comparison:

    Lewis wrote:

    Where the old initiated, the new merely ‘conditions’. The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds— making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.

    Like you, I didn’t quite realize the pervasiveness of Plato either. Thanks for connecting the dots. It makes perfect sense now that you point it out, and it ties it all together nicely.

    The fractal nature of “the intellect (philosopher-king) enlisting the passions (soldiers and police) to govern the desires (the masses)” is fascinating, and I can see how it is apt in the sense that our desires, like the masses, resist direct compulsion but are instead more effectively channelled, and in that way trained.

    Nevertheless, the morality of suppressing the masses is obviously different from suppressing one’s desires, so I rebel against the manipulations of a king unlike my own intellect. I suppose Plato’s philosopher-king is above such reproach, by definition, but there’s a reason he only exists in utopia.

    And perhaps that’s where a Christian educator might diverge, citing the same sin and fallibility of philosopher-kings as with us all, which is the reason for liberty, decentralization, and checks and balances on power. I’m not a fan of injecting religious trappings into everything, but the basic principles are simply foundational truths.

    I also thought Lewis started out strong, dissecting the comment from The Green Book. I hope it is not representative of rest of The Green Book, but it helped build his case well. Here are a few excerpts I enjoyed:

    The schoolboy who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant.
    […]
    If Gaius and Titius were to stick to their last and teach their readers (as they promised to do) the art of English composition, it was their business to put this advertisement side by side with passages from great writers in which the very emotion is well expressed, and then show where the difference lies.
    […]
    What they have not noticed, or not cared about, is that a very similar treatment could be applied to much good literature which treats the same emotion
    […]
    From this passage the schoolboy will learn about literature precisely nothing. What he will learn quickly enough, and perhaps indelibly, is the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible.
    […]
    literary criticism is difficult, and what they actually do is very much easier.
    […]
    The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

  7. You wrote:

    Nevertheless, the morality of suppressing the masses is obviously different from suppressing one’s desires, so I rebel against the manipulations of a king unlike my own intellect. I suppose Plato’s philosopher-king is above such reproach, by definition, but there’s a reason he only exists in utopia.
    And perhaps that’s where a Christian educator might diverge, citing the same sin and fallibility of philosopher-kings as with us all, which is the reason for liberty, decentralization, and checks and balances on power. I’m not a fan of injecting religious trappings into everything, but the basic principles are simply foundational truths.

    I think that’s a good way to deal with it. Also, I think that the Christian, unlike Plato, has to put trust in God’s renewing work through the Holy Spirit in giving us new hearts and minds that rightly order the pleasures and desires. Plato thought that we (and only a few of us) could achieve that with the intellect alone. I tried to get at this point here: https://temporachristiana.wordpress.com/2013/01/10/do-you-see-any-way-in-which-the-philosopher-can-be-preserved-in-his-calling-to-the-end/.

    I’m glad that you excerpted from his critiques of the Green Book. I thought that he showed well how modern education can drain the human element from our studies and either engage in or unwittingly prepare the way for propaganda.

  8. God’s renewing work through the Holy Spirit in giving us new hearts and minds that rightly order the pleasures and desires

    I think that is the wisest choice (which dovetails philosophy, as you indicated) and it has the greatest positive effects socially, too, but ironically, I don’t think that is particularly pertinent to government, which should be structured so that it minimally depends upon having the right people in office. In other words, we have to assume their corruption.

    That is a lovely post of yours, relating Plato and Christianity, btw.

  9. Chapter 2

    As I said in the initial post, I think that there’s a relationship to his argument in Mere Christianity, that there is a moral law in the universe. I wonder if he does overlook some of the differences between moral systems in this chapter, but of course there are some really important broad agreements on morality.

    I thought that his best point was that education ultimately requires values, which have to be borrowed piecemeal from the Tao. Instinct can’t work as a basis for education.

    This gets to the heart of why progressives often have a difficult time convincing people as a whole that their ideas are right, I think. They have a tough time providing an ultimate basis for their arguments. Of course, people coming from some kind of tradition also have a tough time convincing those who don’t share their tradition.

  10. Lewis wrote:

    There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.

    Yeah, whether in education or politics, it’s virtually impossible to convince people without utilizing at least some parts of the Tao, because it is true, even if other parts are distorted or ignored. For example, progressives might confuse charity for justice, which begets injustice and even irresponsible behavior, thereby increasing demand for charity.

    But I doubt that such progressives intentionally share the philosophical underpinnings of Gaius and Titius that Lewis traces to their logical conclusions. It seems far more likely that they would instead assert that their basis is the Tao itself, which is far more challenging. And in that pragmatic sense, Lewis may be following a rational strawman.

    The caveats you note struck me, too. Lewis leaves the question of the firm basis for the Tao unanswered. I don’t really mind that so much since it’s a difficult question not given to formal proof, but he dances around it in a way that is at times illuminating of the edges and at other times dubious depending on his intended implications.

    In other words, I can imagine some people would uncharitably interpret him as asserting that asking “What good does it do?” is “never permissible” (i.e. do not question the Tao) and that we should not “postpone obedience” even if we do not understand it (i.e. be blindly obedient).

    He adds enough to the context that my own interpretation is more nuanced, but it would have been nice for him to expound upon how to gain entrance into this catch-22 cycle where you can only understand the Tao if you already understand the Tao.

    I like how Lewis reflects some good arguments against himself. e.g. he set up the third chapter really well:

    But many things in nature which were once our masters have become our servants. Why not this? Why must our conquest of nature stop short, in stupid reverence, before this final and toughest bit of ‘nature’ which has hitherto been called the conscience of man?

  11. Yeah, it’s interesting how when it comes down to it, the question is going to be what happens when we decide that the Tao can be discarded or modified. OK, throw out the old oppressive system. Is the new one going to be as liberating as they promise?

    You wrote: But I doubt that such progressives intentionally share the philosophical underpinnings of Gaius and Titius that Lewis traces to their logical conclusions. It seems far more likely that they would instead assert that their basis is the Tao itself, which is far more challenging. And in that pragmatic sense, Lewis may be following a rational strawman.

    Yes, I think that for progressives “progress” is the Tao. Progress is defined as something like the continuing liberation from traditions and the authorities that they legitimate, so something like that. How might you define the progressive Tao?

  12. “Progress” is a good umbrella. More specifically, I think the ProgressiveTao is often based on their sense of equality of outcome.

    Progressives conflate their ideal outcome with the Tao. That is a subtle, common error, but it’s not terrible. What is terrible is that they then retrofit their morality to achieve their ideal with the tacit assumption that their ends justify their means. Ironically, this often results in elevating their intended ideals over the actual outcomes.

    So, for example, they see resources simply as allocated (the end state) rather than owned and freely exchanged (a moral process).

    For money, this means that the rich inherently owe the poor. For race, gender, etc., this means a statistically equal distribution in society. For marriage, at the moment, this means special treatment for pairs of people.

    To the progressive, achieving these ideals warrants the use of government force against society.

    Gay marriage strikes me as a particularly apt example of progressives convincing society that their context-free ProgressiveTao is the actual Tao, which they use to moralistically bludgeon opponents as religious bigots.

    And it certainly bears a passing resemblance to the Tao — the government should not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Yet they ignore that the rationale for marriage bias is largely based upon procreative potential, not orientation. And even more significantly, they ignore that the government should not have been discriminating on the basis of marriage in the first place.

    Even libertarians are taken in by the belief that expanding legal marriage increases liberty, when in fact legal marriage is often like a subsidy, wherein expansion further infringes the liberty of the rest of society.

    And on the fiscal side, there’s the remarkable Modern Monetary Theory, which conveniently bolsters the progressive ideal of infinite government spending due to its monetary sovereignty (i.e. the ability to create and mandate use of its own money). It’s very alluring and ultimately corrupting.

    On and on I go, where I stop, nobody kn- HERE. I’ll stop my rambling here. 🙂

  13. Good explanation!

    The third essay is really haunting. Lewis’ idea of power over nature as also power of some people over others was interesting, as was his return to the idea of propaganda vs. propagation through the Tao, now expressed in the idea of the Conditioners and their subjects. I also appreciated his call for science to be grounded in the moral law, something that we can see the need for with bioethics issues today.

    His idea of the Conditioners totally detached from the Tao and holding their subjects in contempt was quite striking. I wonder if that was a prophetic description of some of the higher-ups in late-stage communist societies in, say, the 1970s. I wonder if there are analogies to that kind of mindset in our own society.

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