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C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, “Men Without Chests”: A Critique

November 10, 2011

C.S. Lewis may very well be one of the most prolific writer’s of the 20th Century, having gained eminence through his apologetics writings (Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, etc.) and the popular children’s book saga The Chronicles of Narnia.  In his 1944 lecture compilation, The Abolition of Man, Lewis sets out to defend the reality of universal, absolute, human values, against what he perceives to be the relativistic subjectivism of modern society. His first lecture, “Men Without Chests,” attempts to raise the reader’s consciousness to the prevailing menace that Lewis insists is eating away at the essence of humanity, and the method by which it permeates into popular thought.

Lewis sets up the lecture as a critical response to a pair of elementary textbook authors (referred to as Gaius and Titius), and the faulty reasoning by which the prose in their work (referred to as The Green Book) is irreparably corrupting the minds of young children with its promotion of subjectivist values.  Lewis makes sure to clarify that he does not believe the authors to be doing this out of intentional malice, “I do not want to pillory two modest practicing schoolmasters who were doing the best they knew: but I cannot be silent about what I think the actual tendency of their work.”[1]  In this view, the authors are as much a product of the greater problem they are propagating, than the root cause of it.  Lewis presents his first case against the authors by quoting a section from their textbook, “‘When the man said This is sublime, he appears to be making a remark about the waterfall…Actually…he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feeling,’” which they clarify with, “‘This confusion is continuously present in language as we use it.  We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.’”[2]  Lewis takes issue with these two statements for two specific reasons: firstly, it will teach a young student, “that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker,” and secondly, “that all such statements are unimportant.”[3]  Lewis goes on to acknowledge that neither of the authors have actually stated this much in so many words, but Lewis, “is not concerned with what they desired but with the effect their book will certainly have on the schoolboy’s mind.”[4]  Since Lewis has already conceded that the authors are as unaware of the harm they are causing, as the young pupil is of the harm that is subconsciously being done to him.[5]  Lewis’ position is that the reduction of emotive language to the realm of subjective thought is a subversion of the greater essence of humanity; it cuts out man’s soul, long before he is able to fully appreciate the transcendent reality of his emotional experiences.[6]  Lewis sees this as going well beyond providing young minds with a proper education, and calls such tactics as an attempt to debunk emotions on the basis of commonplace rationalism, “They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from traditions that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotions.”[7]  An action Lewis loathes, because “by starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.”[8]

What Lewis is doing here (as he does in most of his apologetic works) is setting up a false dichotomy, infused with imaginative hyperbole: either educators teach a student to give full credence to the objective truth of his emotional introspections, or they “have cut out of his soul.”[9]  Lewis presents no logical, coherent argument to support any of his claims, other than his own subjective opinion that he is clearly right on this matter.  It is not self-evidently true how explaining to a young student that our tendencies to attribute traits to inanimate objects is a reflection of our own personal feelings about the object and not an actual attribute of the object, will cause them to develop long-lasting character deficiencies.  When I stub my toe on my coffee table, my instinctive reaction is to curse the table for hurting me.  I know that the table is not alive; I know that the table didn’t actually set out to hurt me; I know that the table is not malicious; I know that the foul words I’m attributing to the table are a subjectively emotional response, and not an actual reflection of the table itself; I know that the table cannot hear or sympathize with me, but I still can’t help but animate the inanimate object.  Why?—Because I’m human, and I can’t control the chemistry in my brain that dictates my responses to the stimuli of my environment.  Knowing and recognizing this reality has not hindered, or stunted, my emotional development, nor has it done so for anybody else.  And even if it did have negative repercussion to our human psyche, this still would not be an argument against the veracity of our emotional attributes to the surrounding world being an entirely subjective experience.  As it stands, Lewis’ entire reasoning for opposing this view rests on the basis that he finds it unpleasant and harmful.  To which the only salient response can be, so what?  The veracity of a claim does not depend on its supposed bleakness and implication of unpleasantness.

Lewis also tries to give further authority to his position by claiming how, prior to modern times, all men believed that, “objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval and disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.”[10]  Prior to modern times, men also attributed the occurrence of epilepsy to demonic possession, instead of a treatable neurological disorder; the mistaken beliefs of the past need not hold credence to us in the present, especially as we gather more information and knowledge about the world.  Also, the claim that objects can merit approval and disapproval is a baseless assertion.  Objects can cause us to respond towards them in one manner or another, but they do not merit our response, since objects are devoid of any kind of intent, and thereby, do not/cannot strive to live up to anyone’s conceived expectations.  Not to mention, out responses to objects are entirely dependent on the context of the situation we find ourselves in, and likely to change under different circumstances.  Hence, our emotional responses remain a subjective experience every way one wishes to look at it.

At times, Lewis seems to acknowledge that emotional attributes are person-specific, he states [quoting Plato], “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses.  It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.”[11]  So, to clarify, our emotional responses towards objects (or anything else for that matter) are objectively true, but we need to be trained in order to feel the “right responses”?  Does that not imply that if my initial emotional response to an object strays from the response Lewis considers to be the “right response,” my emotional response is not objectively true to begin with?  If my emotional responses have to be trained to follow suit with that of others, are they even still my emotional responses anymore?  Am I not just subverting my emotions in favor of someone else’s?  And if that’s the case, how can I trust that Lewis’ interpretation of what constitutes the right emotional responses are anymore trustworthy than my own?  Lewis’ response to this is to posit the existence of a universally recognizable “greater thing,” that he identifies as the Tao, “It [referring to the Tao] is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself.”[12]  It would be completely appropriate to stop Lewis right there, and point out the disingenuous way he is presenting an Eastern concept, the Tao, as if it was congruent with the monotheistic, Abrahamic, worldview of the West.  (Although, his following sentence does a better job of characterizing the Tao, “It is the Nature, it is the Way, the Road.  It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time.”)[13]  It is of importance to note that no warrant is given by Lewis to justify this sleight of hand, where he tries to misconstrue the Tao by associating it with his Christian conception of a conscious “Creator,” and in particular his desire to designate this creator as a “Him.”  Lewis’ motivation here is to demonstrate that since our emotional responses are kind-of-sort-of similar across cultural lines, we must collectively be appealing to a universal, objective, authority as a point of reference:

And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it).[14]

But Lewis has failed to logically establish that out approvals and disapprovals are recognitions of anything but our own subjective experiences.  It certainly has not been shown that our value judgments are any indication of an objective order (or arbitrator of any sort).  Not to mention that Lewis’ only defense against the prevalence of divergent emotional responses to particular situations/objects seems to be a weak call for the need to “train” people to have the “right responses.”  The question he continuously ignores to definitively answer is why, if he is right, people’s experiences are not convergent on all matters of emotional responses?  And even on matters where they do converge, people will often demonstrate no unified reasoning for their responses.  It can be said that my observational experience that the sky is blue is objective; no one absent of some kind of physical or neurological disorder would deny that the sky is blue.  However, my emotional experience that the sky is sublime is not objective, since another person can honestly say that his emotional experience is that the sky is dull; or he could agree with me that the sky is sublime, but for a varying array of reasons that have nothing to do with my own experience. Neither one of our subjective claims holds more merit than the other.  And no resolution on the matter can be reached, since we can both accuse one another of not be “trained” to hold the “right response” towards the sky.

A frustrating part about Lewis is his apparent inability to differentiate between the objective fact of a matter (such as the fact that I happen to have feelings XYZ about an object), and the subjective response that stems from it (the actual emotions cause by feelings XYZ, the specifics of which, in any particular situation, are unique to me alone).  He states, “It can be reasonable or unreasonable only if it conforms or fails to conform to something else,”[15] in an attempt to make his notion of an absolute objective value sound assertive.  But being assertive doesn’t make an unfounded claim any more true, because even if one grants the veracity of his statement (namely, that we judge things as reasonable only as they pertain to other things), this admission does not warrant the stipulation of any sort of objective, or absolute, greater value judgment.  Our interactions with our surroundings foster the values and emotional responses we attribute to objects/matters; meaning that we are the fundamental arbitrators of our perceptive values.  Furthermore, our values and emotional responses change as we gain more information and data about out surroundings.  No universally objective point of reference is needed.  This does not invalidate the reality of our emotional experiences, but it is nonsensical for Lewis to claim that the mere existence of our emotional experiences must also confirm the existence of some kind of objective source for our emotions.

Towards the end of the lecture, Lewis begins to settle into a string of fallacious and bullying tactics against his detractors:

Either [Gaius and Titius] must go the whole way and debunk this sentiment like any other, or must set themselves to work to produce, from outside, a sentiment which they believe to be of no value to the pupil and which may cost him his life, because it is useful to us (the survivors) that our young men should feel it.[16]

“Which may cost him his life,” here Lewis is either keen on overdramatizing matters, or he is the most deranged man that has ever lived.  Telling a student that the emotional attributes he assign to inanimate objects (which was the point that Lewis started his argument on), is not in reality a reflection of the objects themselves, but a subjective value that reflects on the feelings of the person making the attributes, does not, in any way, rob said student of the emotions he is experiencing.  Lewis has not established, in any way imaginable, that this is the case.  Being able to understand the subjectivity of one’s emotional experience will not render one as some kind of blasé automaton, since the emotions we feel are involuntary to begin with (we can’t stop feeling them).  Lewis tries to squirm out of the fact that he has not logically presented his case by stating, “In battle it is not syllogism that will keep reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of bombardment”[17]  This, combines with his call that emotional response that diverge from what he perceives to be the “right response” must be trained to conformity, is evidence enough to assume that Lewis is a man who doesn’t accept the fact that a person is not obligated to give even the slightest credence to his subjective, emotional diatribes, absent of any logically coherent, and consistent, argument.  To some readers this might sound especially harsh, but they might want to read the manner in which Lewis addresses his opponents, “It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals.  This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence.”  The last line is particularly ironic, since such form of fallacious engagement is best characterized by Lewis himself, “a perceived devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius could debunk as easily as any other.”[18]  The message Lewis is presenting to the reader here is that one cannot disagree with what he has said, because only those who accept his premises of an absolute, objective, value have any basis upon which to argue about truth.  Of course, this is completely dishonest and unfounded to anyone who does not already agree with Lewis’ [subjective] point of view.  The authors of the textbook he has been arguing against don’t say that there exists no means by which to perceive truth, nor is there any rational extension by which one can make such a claim (this is another one of Lewis’ retreats to fallacies).  Instead, what they rightly say is that one’s personal feelings on a matter are irrelevant when it comes to evaluating reality, because reality is not contingent on the perceptions of any person’s emotional response to it; nor does it ultimately care about your meager opinions.  But Lewis cannot accept this, which is why this entire lecture can be summarized as follows: “I don’t like the implication of X, therefore X needs to be wrong.”  His entire justification of the objective truth of emotional responses collapses into one giant emotional response; one subjectively giant emotional response.

[1] Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. “Men Without Chests,” Harper One: 1944, p. 1-2.

[2] Lewis, p. 2-3.

[3] Lewis, p. 4.

[4] Lewis, p. 4-5.

[5] Lewis, p. 5.

[6] Lewis, p. 9.

[7] Lewis, p. 13.

[8] Lewis, p. 14.

[9] Lewis, p. 9.

[10] Lewis, p. 15.

[11]Lewis, p. 16.

[12] Lewis, p. 18.

[13] Lewis, p. 18.

[14] Lewis, p. 19.

[15] Lewis, p. 20.

[16] Lewis, p. 22.

[17] Lewis, p. 24.

[18] Lewis, p. 25.

  1. Doug Mann permalink

    Thank you for this concise, restrained, and devastating critique. I wish I had written it!

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