"The Abolition of Man" today
AMEN! A great article delivered with prophetic insight! Huge thanks for this!
Currently re-reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” and now I’m seeing it everywhere: “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.”
This is a nice way of re-framing the essay. I’m not *totally* convinced that the reversal works, as I think the “chests” don’t necessarily correlate to the emotional moralizing we’re experiencing in our culture, and I think there’s a way of looking at the essay through a contemporary lens where we still have “men without chests”, although I have to admit that the reversal makes for a nice hook to read the article 😬.
And of course, you are correct that either way, what we need is the whole package, especially as Christians navigating this whole epoch. I’ve been reading the Abolition of Man at least once a year since 2016, and it never fails to punch.
Most of CS Lewis' works published during his life-time are available in the Samizdat Ebook catalogue (all public domain in Canada since 2014).
May I write a comment as a non-subscriber? (For self-discipline issues I limit myself to ONE Substack subscription at a time, but I've loved reading you and following your growth as a writer; I'm guiltily tempted to break my rule!) What would CS Lewis say about flattery??
Anyway, I think you are absolutely right in tracing the change from Lewis' time to ours. You made me think of Carl Trueman and his chronicling of expressive individualism. Modernism vs. Post-Post-Modernism and all that. We certainly live in a world where the tables of emotion and logic have been turned.
I think, however, that Lewis' analogy of the chest STILL fits perfectly in our circumstances. Without re-reading Men Without Chests in Abolition, I seem to remember that Lewis posits human existence as the Head and the Belly, in conflict. Logic vs the Passions. For him, the Chest is the development of virtue (more than simply courage or boldness, as you state), the personal alignment with the Tao (which in subsequent essays in the book he develops as shorthand for General Revelation or Wisdom or Human Conscience), that every society has recognized and aligned with, to some extent. The Chest, then, links and directs both the Head and the Belly. So in Lewis' world, the Head needed more Belly, always in submission to transcendent truth via the Chest. In ours, the Belly holds sway and again we need the virtue of the Chest to connect humanity to Reason (or even just a smidgen of Common Sense). Either way, Virtue, Tao, General Revelation, the Chest, is a crucial need for humanity and any moderately successful society must recognize this.
Maybe my memory is all wrong and I'm overstating or oversimplifying this. Certainly overstaying my welcome. But I appreciated your essay and the ending I expected was for you make point about the Chests still being so needed in the opposite direction today, so I couldn't resist my own comment. Thanks!
*** I followed your link to find this: "it may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal." I think this indicates that Lewis is using Chest for Wisdom, Virtue, or that which allows humans to live with rationality and emotions in harmony.
Thanks for this article and the analysis of "The Abolition of Men", it broadened my horizon and helped me see more clearly. While I find your reversal interesting and believable, I would like to add my own 2 cents as a practicing teacher.
In a way, even though our cultural moment has shifted, I still believe that Lewis' analysis is helpful today. I teach lots of adolescents between 13-18 years old and one observation I frequently make is that students still need to be made somewhat more sensitive. Not necessarily only to their own needs, feelings and identity, but to their peers and the world at large. Especially boys can be quite numb and once you ask them to write anything creatively, be it an essay, their own proposition, a fictional letter, a dialogue, they just blank. It's hard for them to imagine things, to sense what is going on in a character in a novel and so on. There is of course a rough easy understanding of obvious problems such as oppressed people, war victims etc., but really grasping and articulating nuanced emotions is not easy for many young people.
I do think that rationalism still plays a role in our world. While some vague forms of spirituality have gained popularity, the majority of young minds do not have any appreciation for the transcendent and no sense of wonder.
Another reason might be one of your favorite topics - the digital life with its constant and often mindless consumption has numbed many people, which makes them “deserts” that need to be "irrigated", to use Lewis' words.