Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Abolition of Man: In Defense of Natural Law


 CS Lewis’ work, The Abolition of Man, depicts a dystopian future in which mankind’s continuous goal to conquer Nature has finally come to fruition. However, this final stage is a paradox because Nature reveals its trap card and it is Man who is actually conquered by Nature (in the end). Despite this gloomy projection of humanity, Lewis offers a ray of hope through his denouncement of man’s attempt to conquer by reducing everything to nature. Instead, he introduces the Tao, a counterpart to Man's attempt to rationalize and gain control over everything. The Tao is a universal and natural law that guides humanity and can prevent the extinction of Man.

The prophetic nature of the abolition of Man - warning of an outcome that has yet to happen - incorporates a new element to the State Apparatus: time. Instead of a static environment where time is frozen, Lewis explains how earlier generations of humanity have power and control over the subsequent generations. The inherent nature of the future is that it is dependent on the present - a connection that will always remain true unless time travel is invented. Therefore even though the world is progressing on a scientific and rational level (things that constitute as Nature according to Lewis), it is the previous generation with the power because they make the plans on how the aforementioned advancements will be used and they define the conditions in which the future will live by. This contradicts the common perception that human power is continuously increasing. But there are breaking points in which the controlled will resist and the system gets overthrown a la revolution although Lewis simply calls it “resistance to all previous ages.” Unfortunately this strength to resist is a double-edged sword because as the base becomes the superstructure, the new base now retains greater control due to the increased power. An important thing to note is that despite the cyclical pattern of the inversion of base and superstructure, there’s also a linear progression in the growth of power.

This progression reaches a final stage in which humanity has conquered the last thing there is left: themselves. Lewis postulates that this will happen through scientific and intellectual advancements such as eugenics, education and propaganda and pre-natal conditioning. It is in the final stage that humans can now entirely map out the future of humanity. As masters of humanity, they are no longer guided by a universal law known as the Tao; instead, they now define the Tao. They are the ultimate planners, the Conditioners.  And the subsequent generations, the conditioned will never be able to resist because the Conditioners see through everything hence the "final stage."

This new framework of humanity presented an interesting dilemma for Lewis. If the Tao is no longer a motivational force, what will motivate the Conditioners? Lewis believed that it would be impulse because “those who stand outside all judgments of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.” In an attempt to conquer everything, they reduce things to Nature. They strip away judgements of value and reduce everything to its natural form. For example, a mesmerizing poem is now reduced to words on paper. There is no value attached to it. And since the very essence of humanity has been naturalized and stripped of values, there is nothing left but irrational impulses.  In the end, the Conditioners are subject to Nature. When Man finally conquers Nature, Nature conquers Man.

7 comments:

Angela Jiang said...

This is an interesting take on CS Lewis' work! Similar to the postulations of multiple other theorists, Lewis discusses the interdependent relationship between the present and future. I don't exactly agree that the past solely defines the conditions in which the future will live by, but I do believe that one generation holds a certain degree of power over the next, just like how guardians shape the environment that their children grow in.

I am perplexed by one thing; what is the meaning behind the second part of your title, "If Marx was a Doomsayer"? I may be missing an obvious point in which I apologize for my ignorance, but currently I am pulling a blank.

Hocari said...

I originally had that title because Marx also believed in a cyclical pattern, but for him, his "final stage" was Communism. It would become a worldwide phenomenon resulting in a utopia. It, or at least the end result, was a foil to Lewis' grim depiction. But the way the two reach the end results and the final message they leave is different so I decided to change the title.

AC said...

You did a great job of conveying the core of Lewis' argument! I do think that your precis could be stronger if you incorporated analysis on the rhetorical techniques that Lewis uses throughout his work.

Kerri Chen said...

I just wanted to make a connection between the first paragraph of your post that introduces a general description of CS Lewis' piece and the movie "They Live". As we discussed, the character names of Nada, Frank, and Holly in the movie could be interpreted as allusions to the forces the characters each represent. (Nada = Nothing/Common Man, Frank = Truth, Holly = Nature) In the movie, Holly turns on Nada and shoots him for the side of the aliens. If this is interpreted in the context of the character names, it could be said that Man is "conquered by Nature", even after the Man had previously seemed to be in control of the woman, as you pointed out in your piece on The Abolition of Man.

Leah Daoud said...

Really appreciated your take on the text! I’ve always enjoyed Lewis based on his interesting objections to a lot of modern philosophers and his mostly straightforward way of speaking. I think you do a good job of conveying the basic essence of what he is getting at here but I was just curious -- what do you make of his defense of the Tao as a universal law? Personally, I was somewhat disappointed that he couldn’t justify it much beyond a vague and general sort of “good” - but maybe that’s to be expected.

King said...

I loved your Précis as I have been a fan of C.S. Lewis since I was a child. Mostly because I love “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” but a fan nonetheless.

I like your take on this reading and think Lewis’s point about making sure that we value the right thing is a serious one. Science and progress are crucial to our future but is that future even worth having if we are leveraging our present to do it.

AC said...

@Leah I've found that if you're reading CS Lewis looking for exhaustive philosophical backing/defense for a lot of his arguments, you'll end up being disappointed :(

The Tao thing that Lewis mentions looks a lot to me like a more "secular" sounding version of some of the stuff he's peddling in Mere Christianity, in which he argues that every human being regardless of time or place of birth will recognize and accept certain moral truths, and share a common sense of "right vs. wrong" that matches up with the Christian theology (thus pointing to the existence of a God that "made us that way"). If you haven't yet read it I would recommend reading Mere Christianity - it's got the same straightforward and warm tone as the rest of his works and it's an interesting read.