The Abolition of Man

We are rightly dismayed and horrified by the exposed abuses of persons in trust such as Jerry Sandusky, Dr. Larry Nasser, and lately Cardinal Theodore McCarrick whom, I would maintain, go well beyond the level of being monstrous Cretans. In fact such men are unfortunately becoming the everyday face of this modern culture of subjectivism. The #MeToo movement is essentially a long overdue reaction to an underground culture of abuse and deception that has been fully operational for decades. But while it serves as a welcome expose on contemporary social dysfunction, like so many reactive movements it skirts the very root of the problem, preferring to focus its energy on the effects rather than the cause.

How do men with no apparent moral compass rise to such positions of power and authority in the first place? Or perhaps we need to consider that it is precisely their lack of moral conviction or scruple which aided them in their chosen notorious careers. No society ever likes to examine that side of the question too closely because of the implication that such corruption on so many levels may be systemic to our most cherished institutions. So while a few individuals are discovered out and jettisoned amid widespread public indignation, yet the culture which breeds and encourages such abuses remains intact and unassailable.

The great 20th century novelist and social critic C.S. Lewis provides a keen insight into how such loathsome men are formed through the educational system in his short but powerfully insightful analysis titled, The Abolition of Man. In a series of lectures from the late 1940s, Lewis identified a philosophical rupture that began to manifest itself in education with the theories of educators like John Dewey, starting around the time of the First World War. Lewis astutely recognizes that even obscure ideas may have major consequences, often unintended but real nonetheless, on the attitudes and behavior of later generations.

In the Abolition of Man he appeals to what he calls the ‘doctrine of objective value,’ namely that certain things are really true, and others really false, regardless of one’s personal feelings on the matter. In opposition to that belief is a school of thought whose general theory is that all values are subjective and trivial.This philosophy may then be presented in the classroom under the guise of ‘English,’ or ‘Social Studies,’ or even ‘Science.’ He uses the example of a literary passage where the word sublime, used to describe something like a sunset or a waterfall, is transposed to designate the viewer’s subjective feelings instead. “We appear to be saying something very important when in reality we are only saying something about our own feelings,” the textbook tells the student.

Lewis argues that such impromptu textual criticism plants in the student’s mind, “not a theory but an assumption which, ten years hence, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.” Sublime is not really a description of the viewer’s subjective state of mind but of the objective beauty of the waterfall. But in the student’s mind the two have been thoroughly confused. He may then assume that his feelings constitute the only aesthetic reality because he has been innocently led to that very assumption by a textbook passage.

Will such confusion be sufficient to eventually turn Johnny into an ax-murderer or a sexual predator? Most likely not. But what it does accomplish is to possibly turn him into a cynic when his observations and his emotions, i.e., reality v. feelings, later come into conflict. For he has never learned how to rightly integrate his thoughts with his feelings; his head and his heart.  “The head rules the belly through the chest,” meaning that place where feelings and desires are trained by habits into more orderly sentiments. Lewis adds, “It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is pure spirit and by his appetite mere animal.”

He then proposes that what such an education produces is, “what may be called Men without Chests.” That critical linkage between the  reflective mind and the animal drive is somehow missing. The result of this vital connection regulating the Apollonian and Dionysian halves of the self being absent is to create a sort of schizophrenic hybrid. Lewis describes it thus: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without Chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Today we see ample evidence of Men without Chests all across the strata of society, a kind of Jeckyll and Hyde syndrome. Without some doctrine of objective value in place ~ a moral system that applies to all people in all times and all places ~ a deadly subjective vacuum exists. There is an impulse in human nature which in the West has been identified as the ‘Natural Law’ (the Tao being Lewis’ shorthand for the same universal law). If this law is short circuited then a culture of abuse can only grow and flourish like the cancer it is. Such a pathological condition will continue so long as we continue to teach the young that their personal feelings are what validates the world they experience ~ and not the other way around.

In the meantime expect more Sanduskys, Nassers; McCarricks and Cosbys to surface with depressing regularity. In the interim I would recommend you obtain a copy of The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis to peruse. In 80 pages or so you will gain a whole new, and edifying, perspective on how we got to where we are today.

Francis J. Pierson   +a.m.d.g.

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