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A blog dedicated to the Source of everything good.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The abolition of man

I continue my review of C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man (Part V). We are now in the middle of the final chapter, of the same title.

In the previous installment, we saw how Lewis established man’s power over nature as being double-edged – it is also man's power over himself. In wielding this power, the social Conditioners (as Lewis calls them) must determine the new “Tao” they will create, having abandoned the original one as passed down from time immemorial.

First, Lewis examines the Conditioners’ motivation. They are motivators themselves, yet how will they be motivated? Perhaps at first by vestiges of the “old ‘natural’ Tao” that remain within their minds: they may at first be driven by the idea of being “servants and guardians of humanity and conceive that they have a ‘duty’ to do it ‘good.’”

But it is only by confusion that they remain in this state. They recognize the concept of duty as the result of certain processes which they can now control. Their victory has consisted precisely in emerging from the state in which they were acted upon by those processes to the state in which they use them as tools. One of the things they now have to decide is whether they will, or will not, so condition the rest of us that we can go on having the old idea of duty and the old reactions to it. How can duty help them to decide that? Duty itself is up for trial: it cannot also be the judge. And “good” fares no better. They know quite well how to produce a dozen different conceptions of good in us. The question is which, if any they should produce. No conception of good can help them to decide. It is absurd to fix on one of the things they are comparing and make it the standard of comparison.

Lewis contends that some will think he is contriving a difficulty for the Conditioners, and that others may wonder why he supposes the Conditioners will be bad men. His point, though, is that they are escaping their old identity in order to redefine and reinvent humanity. They are redefining the terms “good” and “bad” themselves.

Any attempt to characterize what the Conditioners are doing by using concepts derived from the Tao cannot hold, for the Conditioners are eschewing the Tao and seeking to create a new one. If they are not truly doing this, then they are not truly conquering Nature. They cannot honestly and truly find any ground in the Tao for what they are doing.
It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man. (final italics added)

Though they be not men (ouch!), “yet the Conditioners will act.” But upon what motive? The only one remaining: emotion. Or rather, a “felt emotional weight at any given moment.” For, every other motive “has been explained away.”

But what never claimed objectivity cannot be destroyed by subjectivism. The impulse to scratch when I itch or to pull to pieces when I am inquisitive is immune from the solvent which is fatal to my justice, or honour, or care for posterity.** When all that says “it is good” has been debunked*, what says “I want” remains.
It cannot be exploded or “seen through” because it never had any pretensions. The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure...those who stand outside all judgments of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.

More to come :-)

*reference to chapter one, reviewed here.
**reference to chapter two (review Part II) found here
Part III
Part IV


  • According to Arevanye, at "The Window on the Garden Wall," Lewis gave the first lecture that became _The Abolition of Man_ on Feb 24, 1943.

    By Blogger Martin LaBar, at 8:45 PM  

  • Thanks for the info, Martin.

    It would be interesting to do an in-depth analysis of historical context as it relates to Lewis' thought.

    Anyone game? :-)

    By Blogger Bonnie, at 11:20 PM  

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