The Abolition of Man, Part One

(Beginning a three-part study intended to accompany our reading of  That Hideous Strength this month.)

In February of 1943 Lewis delivered three evening lectures at King’s College in Newcastle.  Later that year the lectures were published in book form under the title of the third: The Abolition of Man.  Over time Lewis came to regard this slender volume as one of his favorite works, if not the favorite.  It’s very short, only 91 pages plus an appendix.  You could read it in an evening but don’t attempt it unless you’re ready to give it your full attention.  It’s incredibly packed: every sentence could be pondered in solitude or discussed in an evening’s literary circle.  In the introduction to That Hideous Strength, he wrote, “this is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ that I tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”  The point was that humanity is in danger of becoming inhuman.

The first chapter, “Men Without Chests,” expressed his concern about certain educational trends.  If you’ve read it, you may recall that he begins with Exhibit A: a literature textbook sent to him by an educational publisher who may have been hoping for an endorsement.  Instead of a favorable blurb, the volume got to go down in history (though anonymously) as the notorious Green Book by “Gaius and Titius,” educated barbarians who were contributing to the gutting of national character.

G & T had apparently bought into logical positivism, which holds that a statement has meaning only if it can empirically proved or objectively demonstrated.  As an example they reference Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s story about the waterfall.  There were two tourists, besides Coleridge, at the overlook of a natural wonder, one of whom said the waterfall was sublime and the other said it was pretty.  The poet mentally endorsed  Tourist A—“sublime” was the proper value given to such a sight, while “pretty” was wholly inadequate.  But G & T informed the young readers that such value statements have no objective reality: isn’t one man’s sublime another man’s pretty?  Thus, statements about feelings, metaphysics, or religion are meaningless in the public square, and the sooner English schoolboys and girls learn to tell the difference between fact and value (and disregard the latter) the better off we’ll all be.

Lewis, of course, wasn’t buying it.  As a classical scholar he could hark back to the finest minds in Western tradition—and even Eastern tradition—to support his contention that hearts must be educated as well as heads, that emotion has as great a stake in human progress as reason.  While allowing for individual preferences, there are right and wrong ways to feel; there are qualities that should be encouraged and qualities that should be condemned in no uncertain terms.  If a man’s emotions are not trained along with his intellect, there will be no arbiter between his brain and his gut, or animal appetite.  That’s what the expression “Men Without Chests” relates to, along with the much-quoted observation that we’re asking young people to demonstrate those very qualities we’ve educated out of them.  “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.”

In That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock and his crowd at Bracton College are victims of “progressive” education.  His wife Jane has been affected by it too, but she’s a little more sensitive to beauty and virtue.  Mark is unwittingly swimming with the sharks, for where there’s no objective scale of value—no consensus on whether loyalty is really preferable to treachery or chastity to unfaithfulness—what’s left is survival of the fittest.  Or the coolest, or the trendiest.  This sliding scale is common in high school, where it’s not necessarily harmful long as the kids grow out of it, but Mark clearly hasn’t.  His one guiding light is to struggle to the top of whatever heap he’s in.  Along the way he’s lost any real pleasure and enjoyment in things for their own sake; during his visit to Cure Hardy with Crosser he feels the tug of the place but puts it aside.  Education has almost nibbled his chest away; he still has a bit left, but will it be enough?

After Chapter 4 the action shifts away from the College and its resident Huns, Curry and Busby, but it’s worth taking a last look at them as men lacking in the chest department.  They’ve become so involved with the process of education that they’ve lost sight of the content, except as it relates to creating soulless young academics like themselves.  Feverstone is on to them: “I see.  In order to keep the place going as a learned society, all the best brains in it have to give up doing anything about learning.”  “Exactly!” says Curry, before realizing he’s been had.  Stamping out approved young minds has become the College’s business, and the educated people of Edgetow, as we’ll soon see, are by far the most gullible.

Go here for The Abolition of Man, Part Two.

If you’re late to our Read-along of That Hideous Strength and would like to join in, you’ll find the Introduction here.  For more about character education, particularly younger kids, see Emily’s post on What Ginger Plowman Taught Me About Children’s Books and Is Your Daughter ‘God’s Little Princess’?

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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