C.S. Lewis in a Secular Core: The Abolition of Man and a More Natural Science

The problem with modernity’s conquest of nature is that it works toward obliterating the distinction between creature and creator, a distinction that is essential for maintaining a humane and non-totalitarian politics.

The standard account of the history of social and political thought—offered, perhaps, as part of a core curriculum—rests on a distinction between “ancients” (such as Plato and Aristotle) and “moderns” (such as Hobbes and Locke), with classical Christian thinkers (such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas) occupying—at least temporally—a position between the two. This, indeed, is the basic narrative structure of one of the sophomore-level core courses at Oglethorpe University, my institution.

In many respects, I embrace this general narrative. John Locke—whose language of rights and free and equal individuality rolls trippingly off the tongues of my students—cannot fully be understood without also coming to grips with the position against which he defines himself: the Christianized Aristotelianism of Richard Hooker. In our course, we consider the separate classical and Christian components of Hooker’s work.

I also introduce students to the writings of C.S. Lewis. Lewis represents another synthesis of classical and Christian thought, and he addresses some of the issues central to our course from a vantage point that is significantly closer to our own. We discuss The Abolition of Man (1943) in class, and students write an essay on That Hideous Strength (1945), linking it to the themes of the first book and of the course as a whole.

In this two-part essay, I explain some of the ways in which these two books are useful for problematizing the modernity many of us so uncritically embrace. Today, I discuss The Abolition of Man, focusing particularly on what it tells us about our contemporary society’s quest to conquer the natural world and, ultimately, to transcend humanity through science. In tomorrow’s essay, I analyze That Hideous Strength, a “fairy tale” centering on the clash between a scientistic conquest of nature and a conception of the world and of ourselves as men and women, complementary, relational beings who depend on and are meant to respond to others—including our creator—with love.

The Modern Conquest of (Human) Nature

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues for the plausibility of “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”

He directs his fire first against “Gaius” and “Titius,” the authors of a high school grammar textbook, who invoke a kind of value relativism in opposition to Lewis’s more traditional view. To be sure, they are not devotees of Nietzsche’s will to power, but rather, as Lewis observes, “hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars.” “Their skepticism about values,” he continues, “is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values.” Like many others—in particular, for our purposes, like Hobbes and Locke—they seem to seek a foundation for moral values in allegedly objective “natural” or pre-moral urges, such as the desire for self-preservation. Some of my students, at least, will recognize the kinship between this sort of argument and what they encounter, for example, in evolutionary psychology.

Lewis emphasizes that if nature has no necessary moral content or direction—if all morality is, so to speak, unnatural or anti-natural—then it provides us only, as Locke says, the almost useless materials that we can assemble and transform into any shape or form that we please. The conquest of nature—an explicit theme and project in the works of Machiavelli and Bacon and in the foreground, as well, of Locke’s treatment of property in the Second Treatise and Hobbes’s treatment of science in Leviathan—follows quite directly from the commonplace attitude expressed by Gaius and Titius. More accurately, perhaps, they are heavily indebted to these early modern progenitors of standard-issue twentieth-century liberalism.

In this context, I can open up for discussion a wide range of contemporary issues—from genetically modified organisms, environmentalism, sustainability, and climate change, to the increasingly dominant role of technology in our lives. But in so doing, I have only, so to speak, baited the hook. The following passage from Lewis makes this clear:

The final stage is come when Man, by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall . . . henceforth be free to make our species whatever we wish it to be.

Because the conquest of nature implies, permits, and perhaps even requires the conquest of human nature, we have to ask not only about genetically modified organisms but also ultimately about genetically modified humans. What’s more, in the light of all the recent talk about psychometric profiling made possible by the immense quantity of data that Facebook has collected on its users, we may be quite close to the “perfect applied psychology” that Lewis anticipated.

Some might be tempted by the argument that we can devise institutional and procedural safeguards against the abuse of the power that we acquire over nature and over ourselves. That, after all, is the stock in trade of democratic republicanism. But it seems to me that our institutional and procedural devices depend on a kind of freedom and transparency that Lewis suggests will not be present. Someone regarded by a “conditioner” as essentially matter to be molded may not be asked for his or her consent. Is not the point of eugenics to choose so that the products of the choice in effect have no choice of their own? And is not the point of perfect applied psychology to “condition” its objects so as to determine their behavior? Consent can thus be manufactured to satisfy those of us who continue to be fastidious about such things. While those who lead us down this path may have set out with the best of intentions—intentions that begin within what Lewis calls “the Tao”—it is hard to see why, in the end, they will continue to regard themselves as governed by traditional human categories and concerns. “It is not,” Lewis observes, “that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void.” They lead us, he says, to “the world of post-humanity which, some knowingly and some unknowingly, nearly all men in all nations are at present laboring to produce.”

Seeking a More Natural Science

This is an apt and prescient description of where we are today, with science enjoying an overwhelming cultural authority and the state supporting this authority with coercion, where necessary. We do not yet reside in Francis Bacon’s insidious “New Atlantis,” but unlike the narrator of that work, we do not have to be blown off course to reach it.

In Abolition, Lewis suggests that we are not yet consigned to this fate, and that to eschew this path is most emphatically not to reject science. It is “from Science herself,” he avers, that “the cure might come.” After making this remark, he offers a very brief sketch of what, in his view, a more natural science (to borrow Leon Kass’s phrase) might look like, though he concedes that “I hardly know what I am asking for.” A science that aims at knowledge rather than power and that does not, like Bacon and Hobbes, equate the two would explain without explaining away. It might well analyze and abstract, but would always be mindful of the whole that lay above and beyond its abstractions and analysis. It would take our self-consciousness, which is both moral and teleological, as a template for understanding nature as a whole, rather than engaging in facile reductionism. Such a science may not be as “useful” for the “relief of man’s estate” as its Baconian counterpart, but it has the virtue, Lewis believes, of preserving the humanity of the being whose estate is to be in some measure relieved.

These hints are suggestive and leave us wanting more. I will argue in tomorrow’s essay that Lewis provides us with a good bit more in That Hideous Strength, the third novel in his “Space Trilogy,” which he explicitly presents as a fictional working out of themes in Abolition. But I cannot in concluding this part resist elaborating just a bit on one point made above: if our moral and teleological consciousness, with which we are intimately familiar and that we cannot ignore without simply denying—that is, without good reason explaining away who we are—is indeed a clue to nature, then we cannot avoid looking for a being whose character lies at the foundation of the whole of which we are a self-conscious part. Lewis does not argue as a theist in Abolition, but he prepares the ground for the fuller realization of his view in the novel that will be the focus of what follows.

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