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Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Review: "The Abolition of Man," by C.S. Lewis

One may wonder, “why do a book review on a book originally published in 1947?” The book to which I refer is by C.S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man; or, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools” (New York: MacMillan, 1978). One answer may be the fact that the 121 page book is still in circulation. Another answer may be likened unto climbing a mountain--because the old thing is there--and this unassuming book is a mountain.

This reader recalls journeys up into the Rocky Mountains and the discovering the elusive nature of the summit. Climb, climb, climb, look up, reach the top only to find one has not summited but only acquired the lip of a terrace with another false peak looming overhead. Lewis give us three such chapters (plus an appendix) that lifts the reader up into the clouds of the author’s deep reflections (perhaps a descending metaphor should be more fitting)--heady reflections. This venture is no small hike.

The first chapter, “Men Without Chests” does not bring us to understand the title until we arrive at the end. Lewis writes a critique of an educational textbook he chooses to keep anonymous, protecting the authors as well; however, a little research may reveal the intentional nature of choosing their false names, calling them “Gaius” and “Titius.” The heart of the chapter is explained in the peculiar relationship between children and those who impress them: “ . . . a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all. The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him.” (p. 16-17)

The fact that Lewis pens pages of warnings against teaching that wrongly influences a person with questionable motives yet leaves the work unidentified is a strange sort of warning; however, the wisdom of his choice enables him to address larger issues easily identified in so many other similar works. The consequence remains: “the ‘trousered ape’ and the ‘urban blockhead’ may be precisely the kind of man they really wish to produce.” (p. 22) What is a man sans chest? A man who is convinced he may think without emotion. “We remove the organ [of emotion] and demand the function. 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. 35)

Pause and catch a breath for the second chapter, “The Way” requires a checking of the laces.  This writer fears he may have made the task of reading this particular work easy. Lewis reflects and one must focus to stay with the author’s mindset. His main principle is stated summarily: “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.” (p. 56-57) In other words (and over-simplistically), there is a way to be open-minded and still maintain a firm hold to absolutes. Here we find the author taking relativism head-on, exposing weakness of relativistic arguments throughout; however, the author boldly redefines many ancient doctrines for his purposes, to the confusion of the reader.

Final chapter, “The Abolition of Man” is a hearty beef stew of thought examining the implicit question, “what will man accomplish with his power?” This is where the entire book can be summed in one sentence: if man was to accomplish everything that comes naturally, man will destroy himself, becoming increasingly powerless.

This is no easy read, but one should take the time to climb the mountain of ideas as the discussions started so many years ago are still relevant today.

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