In my second semester of seminary—fall 2011—I took a course called “Classics of Christian Devotion.” The instructor for the class was my future doctoral advisor, Chris Chun. One of our first assignments was to read a 1944 essay by C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) called, “On the Reading Old Books.” In the essay, Lewis makes the case for reading books that have withstood several generations of scrutiny. Time has a knack for weeding out what has—by form or content—proven by later readers to be, well, dated. Lewis doesn’t specify what qualifies as “old,” though he expresses concern that contemporary readers cite his own works far too frequently. Incidentally, the essay has itself become a modern classic 76 years after its publication.
The Abolition of Man (1944) is one of Lewis’ most important apologetic works dealing with anthropology. The extended alternative title reads, Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools. Lewis’ chief concern is the erosion of objectivity and its unforeseen consequences. The prompt is a quotation from an elementary school book he calls The Green Book in which the authors minimize judgements of objective value. For example, a quotation from the Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834) whose comment that a waterfall was sublime is in The Green Book authors’ opinion, “not…a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about one’s own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated with the word “sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.”
Innocuous as it may seem, the belief that in making judgments, we are “only saying something about our own feelings” is dangerous when accepted as normative, and absurd when subjected to close scrutiny. To claim subjectivity can, of course, be a mark of humility—intellectual or otherwise. But to conclude that all judgements are private sentiments will not, argues Lewis, make people more wise or tolerant. The authors of The Green Book intend to steer students away from dogmatism to a neutral place that doesn’t sacrifice individuality. For his own part, Lewis rejects the idea that modern students are excessively impassioned and must be made to temper their convictions. He explains that on the contrary, “cold vulgarity” is more common among the young. Teachers need to cultivate a healthy passion for knowing and choosing what is right over that which is wrong.
The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to incubate 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.
Lewis suspects that educators who debunk traditional values have in mind values over their own. One of these options is an ethics based on instinct, of which he memorably replies,
“Telling us to obey Instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people’. People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war….Each instinct, if you listened to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest. By the very act of listening to one rather than the others we have already prejudged the case.”
His proposal is in effect, an old one: Natural Law. By using the term The Tao, an ancient Chinese term meaning “the way,” Lewis hints at the universality of values that cut across cultures and through time. In fact, an appendix in The Abolition of Man contains a compilation of shared ethical injunctions, respectively, from ancient non-western and Judeo-Christian traditions. Understandably, the notion that there are moral standards binding on all people is vigorously debated. The Stoics of Ancient Greece are credited with articulating a philosophical basis for Natural Law. For Christians, a moral consciousness imparted by God is implied in the creation of humanity (Genesis 1:26-28).
Lewis anticipates his interlocutors’ assertion that modern science has advanced to such a degree as to alter human nature. Any claim to fixedness, they say, is vacuous. But here Lewis turns this argument on its head. Using the examples of communication, transportation, and contraception, he observes that manipulation over nature can actually make us subject to its forces. Likewise, the negation of life can result from tampering with the natural world. In the example of contraception, Lewis comments,
“By contraception simply, [future generations] are denied existence; by contraception as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. What we call Man’s power over nature turns out to be power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”
If science doesn’t fundamentally change humanity, then men and women must look to another source to determine how, and to what end they will use knowledge gained. Scientific advancements invariably benefit elites who understand its workings and have access to the resources necessary to accomplish its goals. But what are these goals? By rejecting the Tao, guidance by instinct makes the most sense. But as Lewis argued earlier, instinct is ambiguous. Thus, our options are limited. He writes,
“Either we are rational spirits, obliged forever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes by masters, who must, by hypothesis, have no more but their ‘natural’ impulses.”
The urgency of The Abolition of Man ‘s message has not diminished in 76 years. Much of what Lewis feared describes the world in which we live. The ability to perform reconstructive surgeries and hormone treatments that render male and female interchangeable. CRISPR technology allows scientists to alter what was once thought inviolable. The reach of Big Tech and the power of a few to shape the behavior of billions was on full display at the U.S. Capitol this week.
Humans can alter themselves and the world around them in unprecedented ways. However, to answer the fundamental question of human nature and its proper destiny, a person must venture into the transcendent, the rational, the spiritual—even if in “old books”—and recognize that without a known destination, one cannot even speak of progress in a meaningful way.
1] Lewis discusses the subject of progress in The Abolition of Man and other writings. His thesis is that for modern society, there is progress in some areas, but digression in others.