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The Main Argument of The Abolition of Man

Image: Screen shot from That Hideous Strength: C.S. Lewis's Prophetic Warning against the Abuse of Science.

Editor’s note: Published on August 16, 1945, C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength is a dystopian novel that eerily reflects the realities of 2020. This week and next, to mark the book’s three-quarter century anniversary, Evolution News presents a series of essays, reflections, and videos about its themes and legacy.

Dr. Cameron Wybrow is a scholar, teacher, and writer with academic and popular publications on a variety of subjects. He has a particular interest in philosophical and theological critiques of modernity, and hence in the thought of C. S. Lewis.

This post is adapted from Chapter 11 of The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, edited by John G. West. See also:

In this essay I venture to presume on the reader’s part a familiarity with the plot of That Hideous Strength. I therefore do not summarize the novel, but refer to it as if the reader knows the characters and can easily recall the main events in the story. However, I do not presume the same level of familiarity with the contents or argument of The Abolition of Man, and, as my purpose is to elucidate the connection between the two without constantly interrupting the flow of my discussion of That Hideous Strength with blocks of necessary information from The Abolition of Man, I have judged it helpful to the reader to first set forth a brief summary of the argument of The Abolition of Man. Those who are already very familiar with The Abolition of Man might choose to bypass this brief summary; on the other hand, those who have never read it, or who have not read it in a long time, or have read it but found it difficult, may find that the summary is exactly what they need to enable them to understand the argument of the rest of this essay. 

The full title of Lewis’s book is The Abolition of Man; or, Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools.1 From the second part of this title, one might infer that the book would be mainly of pedagogical interest, an essay on the goals and methods of English instruction in the senior grades (“upper forms”) of the British high schools. But the two titles are juxtaposed for a very good reason: Lewis sees, in the defects of the teaching of English literature in the British schools, signs of the decay of long-standing affirmations of the civilization of the West. His critique of English pedagogy will thus pass into a critique of the philosophy which dominates modern Western culture.

“The Green Book”

The work opens with a discussion of “The Green Book,” Lewis’s pseudonym for The Control of Language (1939) by Alec King and Martin Ketley, a textbook intended for use in the senior grades of the British schools.2 Commenting that he did “not want to pillory two modest practising school-masters who were doing the best they knew,”3 Lewis suppresses the authors’ real names in favor of the pseudonyms “Gaius” and “Titius.” 

Lewis zeroes in on the response by Gaius and Titius to a famous story about Coleridge at a waterfall, in which Coleridge endorses the judgment that the waterfall is “sublime”: 

Gaius and Titius comment as follows: ‘When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall … Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime,” or shortly, I have sublime feelings…. This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.’4

Lewis’s critique of this statement occupies the rest of the first chapter. Early on in the critique, Lewis writes: “The schoolboy5 who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker; and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant.”6 Against these propositions (and related propositions offered by Gaius and Titius), Lewis urges: “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.”7

The Tao

Augustine, Lewis tells us, “defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that… love which is appropriate to it.”8 The same notion, he argues, is found in Shelley, Traherne, Aristotle, Plato, early Hinduism, and ancient Chinese traditions.9 Summarizing this universal tradition, Lewis writes: “This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’…. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”10

There is thus a conflict between the Tao and the view advocated by The Green Book. This conflict necessarily produces two different views of education:

Hence the educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind; or else encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy’.11

Developing the last point, Lewis argues that for teachers outside of the Tao, education can only be: (1) the rigorous “debunking” of all noble sentiments, with the consequent production of a moral vacuum; (2) propaganda, consisting of pseudo-moral principles which, though groundless, are deemed desirable for getting people to act in certain ways.12

Lewis grants that the authors of The Green Book do not endorse propaganda. This leaves them with the first alternative, i.e., to debunk every noble sentiment in sight, and to presume that is there is some biological or other natural basis for morality that does not require noble sentiments.13 However, in the rest of the chapter, Lewis goes on to show the hopelessness of such an assumption. He argues:

Let us suppose for a moment that the harder virtues could really be theoretically justified with no appeal to objective value. It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism…. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism (such as Gaius and Titius would wince at) about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.14

This insight brings Lewis to the argumentative climax of the chapter:

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest — the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment — these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. 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.15

In the light of his Platonic understanding, Lewis summarizes his criticism of Gaius and Titius thus: “The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests.”16  But without “chests,” i.e., without the middle part of the soul that Plato called thumos, neither creative energy nor self-sacrifice, neither enterprise nor virtue, is possible.17 Thus, in seeking to abolish thumos, the authors of The Green Book unwittingly seek to abolish man. 

The Basis of Value Judgments

In the second chapter of The Abolition of Man, Lewis notes that, despite the ferocity with which the authors of The Greek Book debunk the basis of all judgments of value, they in fact are driven by such judgments themselves: “Gaius and Titius will be found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars.”18

Lewis gives something of the content of that “system of values” in his note to the comment: Gaius and Titius disapprove of terms like “brave” and “gentleman,” and of the feeling of patriotism. But they approve of peace, cleanliness, democracy, and education.19 The suburban, middle-class values of comfort and security, rather than either heroic or aristocratic values, are what motivate them.

Having noted that Gaius and Titius are not, for all their debunking, “value-free,” Lewis wonders why it is that they think that their moral judgments, as opposed to those of more old-fashioned people, should be invulnerable to debunking. He suggests that they imagine that they provide a more “realistic” foundation for morality than the traditional, sentimental basis.20 However, Lewis is also determined to test the foundations of this allegedly more realistic morality, and by the end of chapter 2, he has shown that all the alleged non-sentimental arguments (e.g., utilitarian arguments) for Gaius and Titius’s particular set of moral values can be “seen through” or “debunked” just as surely as can the noble sentiments connected with the Tao.21

This conclusion sets up Lewis’s third and final chapter. Having shown that the “debunking” spirit of The Green Book is inconsistent with the maintenance of any firmly held moral system or stable society, Lewis considers what might happen if teachers like Gaius and Titius were to abandon their inner inconsistency and reject the concept of value altogether.

Lewis envisions a future society in which “man’s conquest of nature” is complete. Human beings have mastered external nature and can use it to produce food, shelter, medicine, and infinite creature comforts and entertainments at will. The survival and physical contentment of the race is thus guaranteed. But mastery over external nature will eventually involve mastery over biological and psychological nature, as the tools of science become more probing and powerful; thus, mankind will be able to remake, not only the external environment, but even itself. The human race will be able, for the first time, to define itself, to create its own future reality. This creates the paradoxical situation in which man is at once master and slave: master over the externalities of nature — heat, cold, hunger, sickness, etc. — but enslaved by the science which will control his own genetic constitution and his own emotional makeup through high-tech biological and psychological manipulation. And who will be in charge of that scientific manipulation? 

The Conditioners

Lewis foresees a class of men called “the Conditioners.” The Conditioners, more consistent than Gaius and Titius, have “seen through” all attempts to ground behaviour in any ultimate truth about the way things are, and consequently have rejected the authority of the Tao or any fragments of it (such as the liberal, humanist fragments which still guide Gaius and Titius). The Tao-less Conditioners are charged with deciding what man is to be. They will choose the physical talents of future generations of human beings, and they will choose the set of emotions and valuations to implant in those future generations, in order to get them to behave in a desired way. But Lewis asks the question: What will guide the Conditioners in their choice of the “values” which future men will have?

These Conditioners may at first, out of habit, inconsistently rule under the sway of the old-fashioned morality, i.e., under the impression that as rulers they have some obligation of stewardship, some duty to promote the good of those ruled. Thus, there might be a period of the government of the many, by the few, for the many. But this state of affairs, Lewis points out, cannot last.22 At some point the Conditioners will fully realize that their sense of obligation was nothing more than the result of the social conditioning of previous societies, and will cast it off; after that, the only thing governing their behaviour will be their current whims. They will make the kind of human beings that they please, and condition them with drugs and education and propaganda as they please. With the last traditional moral restraint gone, the mastery of the human race over nature will turn into the mastery of the few over the many It will be government of the many, by the few, for the few.

What will control how the few will act? Will they act, as in Brave New World, with the goal of giving the many a life of comfortable convenience, spiced with erotic and drug-induced pleasures? Or will they act, as in 1984, with the goal of enslaving and crushing the human spirit? There is no way of predicting, since the Conditioners will act on the basis of their strongest current impulses. Those impulses are as likely to be bad as to be good. And where will those impulses come from? They cannot come from the Tao, which the conditioners have rejected as an artifice corresponding to no ultimate reality. They will then come from chance factors that affect the rulers, e.g., “heredity, digestion, the weather, and the association of ideas.”23 That is, they will come from unregulated Nature. The rulers, having repudiated the Tao, will let the previously subdued Nature back in, through the doorway of their own unguided wills. And since their wills are the ruling power over their civilization, their civilization, and all the human beings within it, will be ruled by the random impulses of nature — a massive irony for a civilization which started out in hopes of liberating itself by the conquest of nature.24 And this civilization, if technologically competent, will never be overthrown: “Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness… and if the eugenics are efficient enough there will be no second revolt, but all snug beneath the Conditioners, and the Conditioners beneath her, till the moon falls or the sun grows cold.”25

Not Men at All

In such a situation, man himself will have been abolished. The Conditioners, Lewis says, will be neither good men nor bad men; they will not be men (in the true sense) at all. To be “men” in the old sense, they would have to be within the Tao (which determines what it is to be human, and what it is to deviate from the human), and thus to be capable of feeling the shame which comes with such deviation. But they are not within the Tao. They lack the middle part of the soul by which impulses are controlled in the name of something higher than impulse; they are, in Lewis’s image, “men without chests,” and hence, outside of humanity altogether.26

And what of the conditioned? They will not live under the Tao, but only under whatever substitute moral principles the Conditioners have instilled in them. Still, to the extent that such moral principles are internally consistent, might they not be said to participate in some dim way in humanity? They will have at least an “artificial conscience,” unlike their rulers and masters.27 Yet Lewis’s judgment upon them is clear: “They are not men at all: they are artefacts.”28 Thus, the civilization which shall have completely conquered nature (and in turn become completely enslaved by it), consists of rulers who, being beyond good and evil, are above (or at least outside) humanity, and subjects who are beneath it.29

Such, Lewis teaches, is the fate of the human race if it consistently abandons the authority of the Tao: a mastery over nature which puts man under the heel of nature to a greater extent than ever before; a global tyranny of the conditioners over the conditioned, and the abolition of man himself. And since the abandonment of the Tao is encouraged and justified by the kind of arguments against noble sentiments which the authors of The Green Book would make a standard part of public education, the abolition of man will be the ultimate outcome if the philosophy and pedagogy of The Green Book is allowed to stand.

Tomorrow, “The Education of Mark Studdock in That Hideous Strength.”


  1. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man; or, Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools (New York: HarperOne, 2001). All references in the present essay are to this edition. The work consists of three unsectioned chapters, an appendix, and endnotes. The references will use the short form of the title (or, where appropriate, “Ibid.”), and will include the chapter number, followed by the page numbers of the HarperOne edition; e.g., The Abolition of Man, ch. 2, 49. The Abolition of Man first appeared in the form of a series of lectures at King’s College, Newcastle-upon-Tyne [now part of the University of Durham]. The lectures were delivered in February 1943 and published in book form late in that year.
  2. Lewis’s copy of this book is now housed at the Wade Center at Wheaton College.
  3. The Abolition of Man, ch. 1, 1.
  4. The Abolition of Man, ch. 1, 2–3.
  5. Lewis throughout the book seems to have in mind what the British call “public schools” (which in North America would be called “private schools”); such schools in Britain in his day were always (or almost always) “boys only” or “girls only”; Lewis has in mind such boys’ schools as he himself attended; hence it is only “boys” of which he writes
  6. The Abolition of Man, ch. 1, 4.
  7. Ibid., ch. 1, 14–15.
  8. Ibid., ch. 1, 16.
  9. Ibid., ch. 1, 15–18.
  10. Ibid., ch. 1, 18.
  11. Ibid., ch. 1, 20–21.
  12. Ibid., ch. 1, 21–23.
  13. Ibid., ch. 1, 23.
  14. Ibid., ch. 1, p. 24.
  15. Ibid., ch. 1, 24–25.
  16. Ibid., ch. 1, 25.
  17. Ibid., ch. 1, 26.
  18. Ibid., ch. 2, 29.
  19. Ibid., n. 1 to ch. 2, 105–6.
  20. Ibid., ch. 2, 30.
  21. Ibid., ch. 2, 30–50.
  22. Ibid., ch. 3, 62.
  23. Ibid., ch. 3, 67.
  24. Ibid., ch. 3, 67.
  25. Ibid., ch. 3, 68.
  26. Ibid., ch. 3, 63.
  27. Ibid., ch. 3, 66.
  28. Ibid., ch. 3, 64.
  29. It is hard not to see in Lewis’s sketch of a future society the scathing portrait, first sketched by Nietzsche, of a world of “last men” ruled by an elite of “nihilists.” Indeed, Lewis’s conception of Frost (in That Hideous Strength) seems inspired by Nietzsche’s portrait of the nihilist.