John Richardson takes another look at C.C. Lewis's wartime lectures
The Britain into which I was born in 1950 was a curious mixture of hardship and optimism. Many of the hardships resulted from a war which was fresh in the memories of adults. Rationing was still in force, as would be National Service until 1962. Men in uniform were a common feature of life. Yet there was optimism about the future.
The Labour government so enthusiastically elected in 1945 was running out of steam, but we now had a National Health service for all, and nationalized railways, coal and electrical industries to show for its efforts. And even as Labour went out of office, the 1951 Festival of Britain became a showcase for the nation’s best efforts, attracting well over eight million visitors in just five months.
This mixture of struggle and optimism was reflected also in the intellectual life of the nation. In 1957 John Braine’s Room at the Top expressed the determination of many to break with the past, coupled with the recognition that all was not well with the present. Even the Bishop of Woolwich’s Honest to God may be seen as a late manifestation of this new outlook.
Fifty years on, our material prosperity has indeed increased as much as we could have hoped. But something is wrong. Identity cards, brought in as a wartime emergency in 1939 and abolished in 1952, are about to reappear. Speakers’ Corner is still a tourist attraction, but limitations on free speech are being seriously debated in Parliament. House arrest, once the prerogative of despotic regimes, seems set to become a British institution.
How, we may ask, did we get here? Materially we seem to be increasingly full, but ideologically and intellectually we seem increasingly empty. Part of the answer surely lies with factors identified in three short lectures delivered by C.S. Lewis in 1943, published under the title The Abolition of Man. From today’s perspective, these essays seem horribly prophetic. Indeed, the very anachronistic quality of the title is itself confirmation that Lewis was on the right lines.
Lewis begins innocently enough with the consideration of an English textbook for ‘boys and girls in the upper forms of public schools.’ The Green Book (actually The Control of Language by Alec King and Martin Ketley, published in 1939) purports to teach children about good and bad writing. Thus the authors, referred to by Lewis under the pseudonyms Gaius and Titius, take as an example Samuel Coleridge’s account of a visit to the waterfalls at Cora Linn. A couple (‘neither of whose faces bore much of the stamp of superior intelligence,’ according to Coleridge) commented on the view thus:
‘I say it is very majestic: it is sublime,’ said the gentleman.
‘Ay,’ added the lady, ‘it is the prettiest thing I ever saw’ – on which Coleridge later remarked, ‘I own that I was not a little disconcerted.’
Coleridge, Lewis observes, ‘mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust’. But Gaius and Titius see things rather differently:
When the man said This is sublime he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall... What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word ‘Sublime’, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.
Actually, as Lewis points out, Gaius and Titius have committed an ‘inadvertence,’ for it is strictly untrue to say that the man has ‘sublime feelings,’ only that he has ‘feelings of sublimity.’ But this matters little, for Gaius and Titius have already done immense damage. Thinking he has learned something about English literature, the schoolboy now believes (a) that statements about value are only descriptions of the emotional state of the speaker, and (b) that all such statements are unimportant.
Yet even this seems a trivial matter until Lewis points out how it unravels our entire understanding of life:
The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy...who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake.
What the schoolboy will have learned (which, as Lewis acutely notes, has nothing to do with English composition) is that our emotions about the world around us are merely a projection of our own inner world onto an outward nature. But in fact, nature merits no such irrationality and so the schoolboy will have discovered the truth about the real world – it is just ‘stuff’ and as such is open to our control.
The world of Coleridge and the world of Gaius and Titius could not be more different. Coleridge approved the description of the waterfall as ‘sublime’ because he believed it was true of the waterfall. He and his tourist companions believed that their emotions ought to respond to the material in the way it merited, and part of the purpose of education was to train that response. Gaius and Titius, by contrast, would say that all descriptions of the natural world were only a reflection of the condition of the speaker.
Yet such descriptions are beyond criticism. No one could disagree with the woman’s description of the waterfall as ‘pretty’ if this was indeed how she felt about it. Thus, Lewis observes, a gulf has opened up between ‘the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings, without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice.’ They confront one another ‘and no rapprochement is possible.’
When describing waterfalls this perhaps matters little, but what about more serious issues? What, Lewis asks, will Gaius and Titius do with a sentiment like dulce et decorum est pro patria mori? For it is demonstrably not true that the contemplation of one’s death evokes feelings of either sweetness or seemliness. On what grounds, then, can young men be asked to die for their country? The answer is, only on rational grounds (for example that we are threatened with weapons of mass destruction). But will this rationality produce courage under fire or devotion to duty?
To take another example, will such rationality stop the card-player from cheating? Indeed, will it promote any of the real virtues? According to Lewis, ‘The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it,’ for it has abandoned the notion of fundamental values – what Lewis calls the Tao – on which all societies have hitherto been built.
Yet in fact the proposers of this ‘rational’ principle do not stick to it. On the contrary, ‘Gaius and Titius will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values’ of their own social class. Indeed, they promote these values with an irrational zeal, even though, if the same critical process is applied to them as to the ones they would criticize, they all are found to be equally groundless.
In the end, Gaius and Titius cannot find a justification for their value systems other than in something like ‘instincts.’ The valueless ‘is’ of the natural world in which they believe cannot provide the rational ‘ought’ that they need in order to live as human beings. They have created, Lewis writes, ‘men without chests,’ driven by desires, but without any heartfelt principles by which their impulses may be controlled.
Of course, society will still have ‘values,’ but they will no longer be set in the context of ‘higher values.’ And without that framework we are faced with a new possibility – of refashioning the human race to our own design. Having seen through the old values, we will simply put new values in their place.
This is the subject of Lewis’ third lecture: the abolition of man. But the power to decide man’s new nature will not belong to everyone – least of all to the generations yet unborn. The Innovators who rejected the old view of traditional values will be superseded by the Conditioners who will decide for the rest of us what is to be a ‘value.’ And because they can have no values on which to base these decisions, they will simply act according to their pleasure.
We will increasingly be controlled by people who do not share the very values they can create within us and who, indeed, may hate us for still having the illusion of meaning to life, created by those implanted values. But they themselves will be ruled by base nature.
In 1943 this must have sounded implausible, not least because the audience for which Lewis wrote was very aware of the dangers posed by those who would manipulate and control society. But as Lewis said,
The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists.
The dictator was not the only threat:
Many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany. Traditional values are to be ‘debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape.
And so it has proved. The Fifties gave way to the Sixties and a cultural wrecking-spree. Of course, some of it was needed. But looking back we can see, like beacons of darkness, key moments when the old values were torn down, particularly the reform of the law on divorce and homosexuality, the trial of Lady Chatterley, and the 1967 Abortion Act. In every case, the arguments were entirely positive – the new way would relieve suffering or oppression. And in every case, the result was a deluge of unforeseen damage.
And now, without the old values, we must have new controls, even though those introducing these controls do not take seriously the notion of absolute values. They tell us how to live, but do not live by, or even believe in, any higher values themselves. They resolve to tackle the problems on our streets with ASBOs and curfews, but undermine the morality which can promote stable families and neighbourhoods. We are already a nation of ‘men without chests.’ Who knows what we will become when man is finally abolished?
John P. Richardson ministers
in the wilds of Essex
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