Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Can Ideas Destroy Humanity? Lewis on Abolition

On this day in 1943, C.S. Lewis delivered the first of three lectures that later became his book The Abolition of Man. Lewis gave the Riddell Memorial Lectures, as they were called, at University of Durham.

After being asked, Lewis took a great interest in studying Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics by James Hastings. Much of the material in the appendix of Abolition about common ethical standards is derived from the work of Hastings.

Although initially not well received publicly, Lewis considered The Abolition of Man one of his best works. Indeed, the lectures contain some of his most timeless, prescient, and some would say prophetic insights regarding the slippery slope of human destruction. The primary emphasis of Abolition is on showing the logical and destructive outcomes of thinking that disregards universal moral and aesthetic standards.

Examples of thinking exemplified in Abolition are found in Lewis's books That Hideous Strength and The Magician's Nephew, where characters have removed themselves from moral standards and "stepped into the void."

Abolition is full of wonderful phrases such as, "The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts"; "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise"; "Stepping outside the Tao [natural law], they have stepped into the void ... They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man's final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man." His phrase "the man-moulders of the new age," found in chapter 3, resonates broadly in an age of genetic engineering and bioethics issues, as do other salient passages.

For more on the arguments presented in The Abolition of Man see my book Conversations with C.S. Lewis, chapter 5 ("Can Ideas Destroy Humanity?").

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