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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

C. S. Lewis and “The Way”: abandoning the concept of value

Can the concept of value be abandoned altogether if we abandon the Tao, which, as C. S. Lewis shows in this chapter from The Abolition of Man, is the only source that value itself can possibly have?

I suppose I should have set up these posts as a series from the beginning. Oh well. In this post I will conclude my presentation of the chapter.

(The Way refers to “the Tao, or Natural Law, or Traditional Morality, or the First Principles of Practical Reason,” the Tao being the term Lewis uses “for convenience” to represent what is referred to by these terms.)

At this point, Lewis has established that there is no way to arrive at “the conception that a man should die for the community or work for posterity” outside of the Tao, and asks where the Innovator gets the authority to “select bits [of the Tao] for acceptance and reject others.” Indeed! (See post #1 and post #2 of this series for the process by which Lewis arrives at the conclusion that the Tao is “the sole source of all value judgements.”)

If he [the Innovator] had really started from scratch, from right outside the human tradition of value, no jugglery could have advanced him an inch toward the conception that a man should die for the community or work for posterity. If the Tao falls, all his own conceptions of value fall with it. Not one of them can claim any authority other than that of the Tao. Only by such shreds of the Tao as he has inherited is he enabled even to attack it.”

What purport to be new systems or “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.

(Oh, oh, oh! I can’t help but go nuts over this statement for its brilliance, its truth, its stupendousness of expression. OK that’s out of my system now – sorry about that)

But there’s more:

The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree...The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary color, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.

Lewis asks, “Does this mean, then, that no progress in our perceptions of value can ever take place?” He maintains that it can, and that there is place for criticism, but such criticism must stay within its own language. “There is a difference between a real moral advance and a mere innovation.” “From within the Tao itself comes the only authority to modify the Tao.” “In particular instances it may, no doubt, be a matter of some delicacy to decide where the legitimate internal criticism ends and the fatal external kind begins,” but legitimate criticism is not that which places burden of proof upon the Tao. Legitimate reform may show that a certain precept conflicts with another more fundamental precept, or that “it does not really embody the judgment of value it professes to embody,” and proceed from there.

In Lewis’ words, “You must not hold a pistol to the head of the Tao."

Says Lewis, we can abandon the Tao “...only if we are ready to scrap traditional morals as a mere error and then to put ourselves in a position where we can find no ground for any value judgments at all.

It is the difference between a man who says to us: “You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?” and a man who says, “Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead.”


Lewis then asks the premier evangelical question: “Yet how can the modern mind be expected to embrace the conclusion we have reached?” For the modern, pluralistic mind views the Tao as “simply a phenomenon like any other” – the primal consciousness passed down from our ancestors through the gene pool. (My assessment) “We know already in principle how such things are produced: soon we shall know in detail: eventually we shall be able to produce them at will.” Indeed -- that day has arrived.

“But many things in nature which were once our masters have become our servants.” And why not the conscience of man as well? He imagines the “modern mind” to say,

“You say we shall have no values at all if we step outside the Tao. Very well: we shall probably find that we can get on quite comfortably without them. Let us regard all ideas of what we ought to do simply as an interesting psychological survival: let us step right out of all that and start doing what we like. Let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that...having mastered our environment, let us now master ourselves and choose our own destiny.” (emphasis mine)

As Lewis says, those who hold this position “cannot be accused of self-contradiction like the half-hearted skeptics who still hope to find ‘real’ values when they have debunked the traditional ones. This is the rejection of the concept of value altogether.” (emphasis mine)

Next installment, I will present Lewis’ consideration of this proposition, which he takes up in the final chapter of TAOM, of the same title.


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