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Chests Without Men
"The Abolition of Man" today
C.S. Lewis’s line about how moderns “make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise” is famous. It’s become an eminently meme-able quote, and you can find it used in all kinds of diatribes and debates, from transgenderism to pop music. If I had to guess, I would bet that fewer than 30% of the people who quote this line have read the entire essay, and even fewer would be able to correctly answer the question, “What does Lewis mean here by the word ‘chest’?” The answer is not courage or boldness. In the context of the essay, Lewis is saying that a spirit in modern education encourages students to not feel anything at all. Here is an illuminating quote from the essay:
In the second place, I think Gaius and Titius may have honestly misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda — they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental — and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.
I want to draw your attention to the reference in the first sentence to “the pressing educational need of the moment.” Lewis’s argument is certainly prescient and evergreen, but its also deeply contextual. The rationalism that had become ascendant in the first half of the 20th century is what Lewis is talking about here, especially the kind of rationalism that instrumentalized literature into little more than an experiment of self-realization. Lewis is interrogating the same intellectual tradition from which he emerged (which is one reason why he speaks so incisively about it) and which still held sway, thanks in large part to Freudianism.
Let’s think alongside Lewis for a moment. Could it be that what Lewis perceived as the “pressing educational need of the moment” has changed, at least somewhat? Let me offer a few brief points about how I am thinking we should apply Lewis’s warnings here in our own day.
It seems apparent to me that Lewis’s description of a “cold vulgarity” that was dominant in his experience of education is likely tied to the religious and philosophical context of his day. I’m open to being corrected on this point, but it does not seem to me that the current condition in Western eduction is one of emotional suppression and psychological reductionism. Instead, the entire legitimacy of educational insitutions themselves is now up for grabs. Why? Because those institutions are no longer presumed to have a right to cut across the emotional autonomy of their students. What Lewis described as “weak excess of sentimentality” is decidedly not the culprit behind, for example, colleges that fire administrators over a dumb joke, or professors who lose their jobs because they taught Huckleberry Finn or the benefits of Western civilization. Further, the omnipresence of therapeutic language in nearly every walk of life, including education, suggests that many people can perceive very little other than their own emotional state.
On that basis, it seems a mistake to apply Lewis’s insights as a call for bigger, louder, more “un-winsome” language. The digital habitat in which the American evangelical church lives is not a habitat that cultivates cold, vulgar rationalism. Rather, it cultivates a pure surrender to base instinct, an actualization of the self through emotional autonomy. Lewis’s indictment of The Green Book is that it subjects the world of the given (Natural Law, the Tao, etc.) to the world of the psychological, so that there is no longer any moral structure to our speech, but endless self-revelation. Our own age is one in which self-revelation functions as its own moral structure. Your behavior is your “identity,” which is unassailable. Your choices come from your personality type, which exists above confrontation or correction. On the Christian side, expressive individualism manifests through “lone prophet syndrome,” in which passionate polemicists can convince themselves (and sometimes others) that the only thing they owe their fellow Christians is their personality as a truth-teller.
The besetting sin of my generation is the inability to subject our temperament and instincts to something greater than our felt needs. My generation does not stand in front Coleridge’s waterfall and say, “I must be having sublime emotions.” Rather, it stares into a palm-sized piece of mirrored glass and says, “Everyone should be made to feel what I am feeling.” My sense—and again, I could be wrong—is that if Lewis were to deliver this lecture in 2023, his formulation might be reversed. He might observe that the need of the hour is for teachers, writers, pastors, and parents to show students the glory and utter necessity of being able to think outside of their emotional state. He might indict educators, not for emptying feeling of its meaning, but for investing it with ultimate meaning. He might say that our age is one that makes chests without men: explosive pockets of inward-curving sensation that drive traffic, empower activism, and explode churches because they are disconnected from a deep maturity.
Toward the ending of the essay, Lewis observes:
For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.
Bending reality to one’s wishes is not merely what happens during “Pride month.” It is that, but much more than that. It is what happens when Christians, dazzled by the technological power they have over not just the world, but each other too, bury their spiritual and emotional lives beneath layers of performative self-righteousness. It is what happens when we craft prophetic identities that our spouses, children, parents, church members, and coworkers would not recognize, but likely flee. It is what happens when we ourselves, under the pretense of speaking truth to the spirit of the age, buy-in to expressive individualism, bypassing the fruits of the spirit and the demands of gospel love.
It is impossible to awaken our neighbors from this mentality if we ourselves have surrendered to it. Men without chests will not serve the risen Christ faithfully. Neither will chests without men. We must be whole.
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