Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” To that end, our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series surveys some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today.
In May 2023, Elon Musk’s company Neuralink received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to begin clinical trials on humans. Neuralink develops brain-computer interface technology where an implant is placed onto the surface of the brain, facilitating a connection between the subject’s electrical brain activity and electronic devices.
The company had previously been using animals in trials, and several years ago they released a short video of a monkey, who had Neuralink’s technology implanted in his brain, controlling the cursors and paddles in video games merely by thinking of doing it.
In February 1943, C. S. Lewis gave a series of lectures on education, which were published as The Abolition of Man. When they were delivered over three successive nights 80 years ago for the University of Durham, there was no way he was thinking of monkeys playing video games. However, in his earlier work That Hideous Strength, he depicted a world in which such absurdities could have been imagined.
In a 1955 letter to his American friend Mary Willis Shelburne, Lewis bemoaned that The Abolition of Man, though it was one of his favorite books, had been “almost totally ignored by the public.” We’d do well not to ignore it today.
The Abolition of Man is a powerful work for our day because, in many ways, Lewis predicted the future. He foresaw the rise of trends we’re currently experiencing: ethical emotivism, the sometimes unquestioned authority of science, and the increasing use of technology by states to control their populations.
The Abolition of Man
C. S. Lewis
The Abolition of Man
C. S. Lewis
Harper One. 128 pp.
In the classic The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis, the most important Christian writer of the 20th century, sets out to persuade his audience of the importance and relevance of universal values such as courage and honor in contemporary society. Both astonishing and prophetic, The Abolition of Man is one of the most debated of Lewis’s extraordinary works. National Review chose it as number seven on their “100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century.”
Harper One. 128 pp.
In the first lecture, “Men Without Chests,” Lewis deconstructs an educational model subtly imposed on children via a language arts textbook, which he renames to protect the authors. The unstated worldview behind The Green Book serves to inoculate young minds against objective values by identifying all values with feelings and emotions. For example, awe in response to a waterfall is simply a reflection of the person’s attitude, not the sublimity of the waterfall itself.
The Abolition of Man is a powerful work for our day because, in many ways, Lewis predicted the future.
Instead, Lewis argues that educators must teach students to detect and respond appropriately to objective reality. Teachers must plant “just sentiments” in the fertile minds of their students (14). In Lewis’s template, “the head rules the belly through the chest”—the chest is the mediator between our animal urges and minds and is the mechanism for training and tempering the belly (24). Without the chest, our disordered loves run wild.
In the second lecture, “The Way,” Lewis asserts, “The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it” (27). This happens when societies become unmoored from objective standards, called variously “natural law,” “traditional morality,” or, as Lewis labels it, “the Tao” (43).
Lewis’s concluding lecture, “The Abolition of Man,” describes what happens when his first two lectures meet means, motive, and opportunity. “Conditioners” will arise to craft values and shape emotions outside the Tao, and they “will be armed with the power of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall at last get a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please” (60).
It’d be safe to say the conditioners have already arrived through a movement called transhumanism. As author Yuval Noah Harari believes, “We are probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens because in the coming generations, we will learn how to engineer bodies and brains and minds.”
This process has already begun as Lewis forewarned. In September 2022, President Biden signed an executive order to advance biotechnology. The order states that to “achieve our societal goals, the United States . . . [must] be able to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers.”
Who gets to make decisions regarding engineering bodies, brains, and minds, and writing circuitry for our cells? These are the conditioners.
Even if their decision-making processes are described democratically, the conditioners become the supreme authority through their choices. Lewis warns, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument” (55).
There’s a transactional element associated with becoming a conditioner wielding this power. Lewis refers to it as “the magician’s bargain,” where one exchanges his or her soul to gain power (72). Once consummated, the effect of this bargain is “de-humanized Conditioners” (73). When men step outside the Tao, “they are not men at all” (64).
The fallout from the magician’s bargain doesn’t stop with the dehumanization of conditioners. Once they’re dehumanized, their vision is clouded by the magician’s bargain and they’re forced to see others such as the unborn, the sick, and the elderly as less than human.
Lewis points out that in previous ages, wisdom and virtue led to conforming the soul to reality in pursuit of becoming truly human. Now, the conditioners discard humanity by subduing “reality to the wishes of men” (77). Lewis argues that reality is subdued by replacing conformity with technological solutions, which may include rewiring the circuitry of our cells, implanting chips in our brains, or providing teenagers with puberty blockers.
In previous ages, wisdom and virtue led to conforming the soul to reality in pursuit of becoming truly human.
In an earlier version of the magician’s bargain, Goethe’s Faust is blinded as a judgment for harm he committed in his pursuit of power. Lewis’s final warning in The Abolition of Man points toward a similar result.
In their arrogance, the conditioners assume they can “see through” the Tao and objective value to something deeper and more meaningful. Instead, Lewis argues that the magician’s bargain only leads to blindness because “to ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see” (81). Thus, the whole world becomes invisible.