The Abolition of Man: A Critique

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis is a wonderfully witty and insightful treatises on the societal and education ills of subjective moral reasoning and values. It is an age transcending piece of literature that is profound in its theological implications while proclaiming bold philosophical warnings against the trepidations of eroding objective morality and virtue throughout global humanity. Many theologians recognize the power of this small book and include it in many apologetics’ polemics.

One such example is David Baggett and Jerry L Wall’s seminal work:  God & Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning, in which they give an assessment of The Abolition of Man and its impact on their subject of morality and meaning. This essay is a critique of their appraisal while offering further analysis of this fine piece of apologetic literature. 

God and Cosmos

Baggett and Walls begin their analysis of Lewis’s book with a profound claim that Lewis makes in his book; that he was arguing for morality on the basis of a divine God: “There he relied only on philosophical arguments that do not invoke theism.”[1] This is a extremely important foundational for this book because from a purely apologetic worldview, much argumentation is rooted in theistic principle or theology. Lewis’s task is to remove this by implementing the Tao, what he refers to as traditional moral value and objective truth. They postulate that that thesis of Lewis’s claim is that: “objective moral truth, which he calls the Tao, is axiomatic and that we cannot prove it any more than we can prove the axioms of geometry.”[2] From there the authors attempt to qualify Lewis’s position on the basis of reason and practical rationality.

The two authors first broach the practicality of Lewis’s argument on “death for a good cause” aspect that Lewis uses to show moral duty and obligation and how subjective morality runs against these claims. This purely rational person must beg the question of what the cause is and why is it worth dying for and how does this not conflict with self-interest. Moreover, without the Tao, how does the practical innovator (as Lewis calls the abolitionists) wrestle with the greater good of that good is not the best interest of the self.   Baggett and Walls explain: “if our best sentiments are not veridical, and do not put us in touch with an objective set of moral values, and all we have recourse to is a narrow discursive process using the fodder of sense impressions, then neither the rationality nor irrationality of self-sacrifice can be shown.”[3] This is the classis ought from the is conclusion that Hume famously advocates and show an interesting intersectional defense from a theist and an atheist against subjective morality.

Next, the two authors unpack the instinct idea that Lewis postulates on behalf of the innovator. If one cannot simply disregard the Tao (traditional moral values) from practical rational alone, instinct can be invoked on behalf of moral reasoning. However, instinct poses a solid rational problem; how could dying for a good cause be axiomatic from any instinct? Instinct, itself, is mere emotion and cannot be qualified. One person’s instinct for moral value could easily be another’s instinct toward amoral value. While one person may have great instinct to die for a good cause, another may have an instinct to murder for any cause.  As Baggett and Walls write: “Instinct yields a particularly problematic cacophony of varied voices, rendering it all the more difficult to take as the definitive source of the moral law.”[4] The authors conclude their analysis with the topic of eugenics and further show the absurdity that Lewis writes in defense of objective morality. They argue Lewis’s point that the problem of sacrificing oneself for the greater cause of humanity has extreme rational and reasonable difficulties in a society that views truth as subjective and morality as non-binding. It is a sharp analysis and very useful to anyone who might find C.S. Lewis’ literature pedantic.

One criticism of their analysis is how Baggett and Walls seem to miss the conclusion that Lewis was making with the abolitionist analogy and how it erodes the historical man. They ultimately conclude that arguing for objective morality without any appeal to God is problematic, but it seems as if they miss the value of Lewis’s final chapter. Even in the appendix, which they reference, his last example of various Tao illustrations is a biblical one; John 12:24,25.[5] Lewis did not wholly defend morality from a philosophical basis but let religion in the back door.

Lewis ends the book with the most profound conclusion that leaves the reader with only one answer: that the abolition of man is the abolition of the historical narrative of human history. Removing objective morality (Tao) leaves society with no history of moral value. What Lewis is postulating is that everything humanity as ever concluded in terms of reason, rational, and value is, and has always been, rooted in truth birthed from theism. He alludes to the inescapable fact that even subjective relativism evolved, from one way or another, from Judeo-Christian value. Lewis slips this in toward the end of the third chapter where he writes: “The real picture is that of the dominant age – let us suppose the hundredth century a.d. – which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species.”[6] Baggett and Walls missed what Lewis is saying here; in the first century a true abolition of man was actually accomplished and it changed the course of human history and ushered in the civil age. What happened in that century was the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ sparking the creation of Christianity. Without explicitly spelling out theism, Lewis masterfully shows how the actual abolition of man was once carried out in real time; it swept away the ills and moral horrors of the ancient world and herald in civilization based in principled objective truth that dominates all cultures around the world to the day.  

In conclusion, Baggett and Walls do a magnificent job at unpacking the philosophy of Lewis’s The Abolition of Man but they stop short of it most powerful point. All-in-all both books are quite helpful in understanding moral apologetics and deserve to be read by anyone interested in the field of moral apologetics.

Bibliography

Baggett, David, and Jerry L. Walls. God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Lewis, C. S. “The Abolition of Man.” VitalSource Bookshelf Online. Liberty University, 2009. https://libertyonline.vitalsource.com/#/books/9780061949135/cfi/6/16!/4/4/172@0:33.9.

Footnotes:

[1] David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, God and Cosmos: Moral Truth and Human Meaning (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2016), 244.

[2] Ibid, 244.

[3] Ibid, 248.

[4] Ibid, 249.

[5] C. S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man,” VitalSource Bookshelf Online (Liberty University, 2009), https://libertyonline.vitalsource.com/#/books/9780061949135/cfi/6/16!/4/4/172@0:33.9.

[6] Ibid.

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