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Friday, January 07, 2005

Men without chests

Have I got your attention? LOL I'm referring to the first chapter of C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, a very interesting read.

In this chapter, which apparently was intended as a lecture, Lewis discusses a certain English textbook that he claims exerts an unfortunate type of educational influence. He speaks of the subtle insinuations in the book’s manner of instruction concerning the value or lack thereof of sentiment, and of the effect this can have on young, impressionable students. I found this fascinating, especially in looking back over my own education. I wonder whether it is just a certain type of student that is more susceptible to this sort of influence (one that leads the student to doubt or abandon previous sentiments), but Lewis does not suggest this. He generalizes students into one susceptible group. At any rate, I appreciate the implied admonition to teachers regarding the moral weight that rests upon them to teach with great care, integrity, and wisdom.

In considering the school-masters who wrote the textbook, and others like them, Lewis first suggests that they “do not fully realize what they are doing and do not intend the far-reaching consequences [their manner of instruction] will actually have.” Then he suggests another possibility: “They really may hold that...ordinary human feelings...are contrary to reason and contemptible and ought to be eradicated. They may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set.” (p. 25) The end result for students is that “Some pleasure in their own [thing they appreciate and have affection for] they will have lost: some incentive to cruelty or neglect they will have received: some pleasure in their own knowingness will have entered their mind.” (emphasis added.) All this from a textbook purporting to teach English composition.

As Lewis states, if this “is the position which [the writers] are holding, I must...[point] out that it is a philosophical and not a literary position.” (p. 26) In other words, the writers are not really teaching what they profess to be teaching. (Keep in mind that this book was first published in 1944) Lewis goes on to say that perhaps the writers “see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda...and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion.” (pp. 26-27) He responds:

The right defense 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. (p. 27)


Lewis suggests that such an “educational predicament” as faces the writers of the textbook “is quite different from that of all their predecessors,” whose teaching was based in natural law as it relates to the heart: “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it – believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.” "'Can you be righteous,’ asks Traherne, ‘unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem?’” (pp. 27-28)

Lewis invokes Augustine, who “defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.” And Aristotle: “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible...” And Plato, who said the same thing before Aristotle. And early Hinduism: “conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta – that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order; the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality.” And the Chinese Tao – “the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator himself.” (pp. 28-31)

Says Lewis, “what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” This lends an ability “to recognize a quality that demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.” (p. 31) “No emotion is, in and of itself, a judgment: in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.” (pp. 31-32)

I would agree, as long as the heart has been properly trained, as per what Lewis says.

Going on with the ramifications of the school book’s method, Lewis says that, rather than replace old sentiment with new, which would merely “condition” and be “propaganda,” it serves to “debunk” sentiment entirely. (p. 34) Says Lewis, “this course, though less inhuman, is not less disastrous...Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,' than against an irreproachable moral philosopher, who had been brought up among sharpers.” (p. 35)

He then describes men without chests: “The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest – Magnanimity – Sentiment – these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man...The operation of [the school book] and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests.”(pp. 35-36)

“...And all the time– such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamor for those very qualities we are rendering impossible.” (p. 36) “...We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” (p. 37) (emphasis added)

When considering Lewis’ words in light of our culture today, I find that what has developed is not a society devoid of sentiment entirely, but of the type Lewis says his school-book does not embrace*: the replacement of “old” sentiments with “new” ones, which “condition” rather than “initiate,” and serve “propaganda” rather than “propagation.” (p. 34) Ones that which, rather than “remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind, encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy.’” As Lewis suggests, this course involves "the questionable process of creating in others by ‘suggestion’ or incantation a mirage which their own reason has successfully dissipated.” (p. 33)

I hold that such individuals are a type of Men without Chests.

(Is this an indictment of our times or what?)

I hope to comment on chapter 2, “The Way,” soon.

*Update: Actually, I don't think this is exactly what he meant, which is made clearer by the 2nd chapter. He was speaking of a merely cynical type of propaganda.


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