What Does C. S. Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man” Have to Say After 80 Years?

What Does C. S. Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man” Have to Say After 80 Years?

Written by Joseph A. Kohm Jr. |
Friday, September 1, 2023

Lewis points out that in previous ages, wisdom and virtue led to conforming the soul to reality in pursuit of becoming truly human. Now, the conditioners discard humanity by subduing “reality to the wishes of men” (77). Lewis argues that reality is subdued by replacing conformity with technological solutions, which may include rewiring the circuitry of our cells, implanting chips in our brains, or providing teenagers with puberty blockers.

In May 2023, Elon Musk’s company Neuralink received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to begin clinical trials on humans. Neuralink develops brain-computer interface technology where an implant is placed onto the surface of the brain, facilitating a connection between the subject’s electrical brain activity and electronic devices.

The company had previously been using animals in trials, and several years ago they released a short video of a monkey, who had Neuralink’s technology implanted in his brain, controlling the cursors and paddles in video games merely by thinking of doing it.

In February 1943, C. S. Lewis gave a series of lectures on education, which were published as The Abolition of Man. When they were delivered over three successive nights 80 years ago for the University of Durham, there was no way he was thinking of monkeys playing video games. However, in his earlier work That Hideous Strength, he depicted a world in which such absurdities could have been imagined.

In a 1955 letter to his American friend Mary Willis Shelburne, Lewis bemoaned that The Abolition of Man, though it was one of his favorite books, had been “almost totally ignored by the public.” We’d do well not to ignore it today.

The Abolition of Man is a powerful work for our day because, in many ways, Lewis predicted the future. He foresaw the rise of trends we’re currently experiencing: ethical emotivism, the sometimes unquestioned authority of science, and the increasing use of technology by states to control their populations.

Subjective Poison

In the first lecture, “Men Without Chests,” Lewis deconstructs an educational model subtly imposed on children via a language arts textbook, which he renames to protect the authors. The unstated worldview behind The Green Book serves to inoculate young minds against objective values by identifying all values with feelings and emotions. For example, awe in response to a waterfall is simply a reflection of the person’s attitude, not the sublimity of the waterfall itself. 

Instead, Lewis argues that educators must teach students to detect and respond appropriately to objective reality. Teachers must plant “just sentiments” in the fertile minds of their students (14).

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