Over the years I have expressed in various ways my great debt to The Abolition of Man. This book was published as a non-fiction companion to my favorite novel, which is That Hideous Strength. Every year that goes by simply reinforces Lewis’s prescience.
In this post, I want to summarize The Abolition of Man in a paragraph, then take issue with a passing reference that Lewis makes near the end of his argument, and then go on to make some observations about Lewis’s profound insight into the precise nature of the modern rebellion.
Lewis begins with the modern effort to debunk statements of value, showing that this debunking spirit is a universal corrosive. It will eat out any container you try to store it in. He shows how our brand of relativism is arbitrary and capricious, tending to select one aspect of traditional morality, and absolutizing it randomly over against the rest. The result of this rejection of the Tao is something that Lewis calls “men without chests.” They have no fixed system of value and so it is that they are adrift in a blind and stupid cosmos. Now at the same time we are embracing an inchoate hot mess as an ethical system, we are simultaneously making tremendous advances in the technocratic sciences, such that more and more of nature is coming under our authority. But because we have jettisoned fixed ethics, of the sort that presuppose a natural thing called humanity, the imperial prerogatives of science have now strapped man to the table as a subject, man as part of nature—and hence subject to being cut up into little pieces if we like. We have no consistent way to arrest ourselves. But, as Lewis shows, man’s conquest of nature is actually the conquest of some men over other men, using nature as the instrument. Then, at the end of the day, because the rulers in this system have no standard above them, no Tao to submit to, no practical reason anchored in their chests—for they have no chests—their decisions over the ruled will be made as a matter of caprice. There is no arche, and so their decisions will be driven by the weather, by their digestion, by their mood swings, by anything other than right reason. In short, their decisions will be driven by nature. What was trumpeted as man’s triumph over nature turns out to be, on close inspection, the triumph of material nature over man.
The passing comment Lewis made is this one. “In the same spirit [as alchemists and magicians] Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress from pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit” (p. 88). I agree with Lewis that modern science is lawful, but that it was born in “an unhealthy neighbourhood and at an inauspicious hour” (p. 89). But if you are not against science as such, as Lewis stoutly maintains he is not, then you have to have a standard by which you distinguish the various actions that can be performed on the natural world. When is nature a spouse for fruit, when a mistress for pleasure, and when is it just a rape victim?
I take Lewis’s central point about science, technology, ethics, and nature, but I do think he is missing an important limit in Bacon’s thought. Bacon was a Christian, and did not believe that we should do to nature whatever we could do. And what Lewis says about Bacon points to one of the limits set for us by natural revelation. A spouse is fruitful, and the works of darkness are frequently described in Scripture as fruitless.
At the same time, Lewis’s point about humanoids (who have rebelled against the idea of humanity) forcing their will upon nature, as though nature (including human nature) is simply so much plastic material, to be rearranged at will by our humanoids aspiring to the position of witless demiurge, is a point that every Christian leader today has to master. If we don’t master it, we will be mastered by those who are far gone in their rebellion against the point Lewis made.
And this is what lies behind every sex change operation, every breathless announcement that “a man” is now pregnant—look at science go—and every attempt to tie apples onto orange trees and call it a horticultural breakthrough. Sex reassignment surgeries are to sexual health what strip mining is to landscape architecture. Every sex change operation is a rape, not of the patient, who consented, but it is a rape of nature, which did not consent, a rape of natural law, which does not consent, a rape of the Tao, which will never consent, and an attempted rape of God’s law/word, which will descend and execute judgment on their woolly scalps (Ps. 68:21).