16 November 2008

The “Ship of State” and “The Abolition of Man” -- Wisdom Sunday

In both the Republic and in the Laws, dialogues on the creation and maintenance of an ideal state, the role of education is discussed at length. While there are differences between the two dialogues in what constitutes the ideal state and how to bring it into existence, they are agreed that education shall be the means by which the citizens, who belong to the state, shall be formed. Both dialogues are, in effect, discussions of how to create the Humanity that the state wants. And the most important element of the educational process is not Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, but values: the citizens are to be educated in such a manner as to possess those values the state wants them to possess.

In his three lectures, published as The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis is concerned with education and its role in shaping men. One of the questions he treats is, “How does one group of men come to have a right to decide what values all men are to possess?” To put it a different way, “Who are they to decide what humanity shall be?”


[T]he power of Man to make himself what he pleases means…the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have…attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them – how Plato would have every infant “a bastard nursed in a bureau,” and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry – we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and…real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses. But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please. The second difference is even more important. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao -- a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgments of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education. The conditioners have been emancipated from all that.

[…]

[Some] critics may ask, “Why should you suppose they will be such bad men?” But I am not supposing them to be had men. They are, rather, not men…at all. They are…men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the taxk of deciding what “Humanity” shall henceforth mean. “Good” and “bad,” applied to them are words without content: for it is from them that the content of those words is henceforth to be derived.

[…]

They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man. – C.S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man,” in The Abolition of Man, (italics in original; bold emphases mine).
The Abolition of Man is not a sustained plea for mass acceptance of Christian values. Indeed, for Lewis, this thing he calls the Tao or Way (the Natural Law) is so universal that, as an appendix to the lectures, he provides evidence of it from virtually every civilization and culture around the world and throughout history. Lewis didn’t think everyone needed to become Christians in order for society to be good, for men to be men. In fact, he hated the idea that this would be a reason for trying to convert people to Christianity. The point in urging conversion to Christianity was to come to know Aslan by the name he has in this world. Any other purpose would be blasphemous. The Lion of the tribe of Judah is not to be put to use by men to create their ideal states. He thought people, if they did not become Christians, would still live pretty well if they lived as Plato, or Aristotle, or Confucius taught. By doing at least that much, people would be living in accordance with the Tao. They would be living in accordance with a norm external to themselves, from which they could no sooner emancipate themselves than cut off their own heads and go on living.

But the new men recognize no Tao, no set of norms external to themselves and which they must obey and, more importantly, pass on to succeeding generations. Indeed, these new men arrogate to themselves the power to create those future generations by determining, for them and without their consent, what shall be the Tao and, by extension, what they shall be. The Abolition of Man is a shot at these new men. Indeed, there is a reading, I think, of all his works, which shows them all to be a sustained attack on these new men and their divine claims.

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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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