No Society Without Values: A Book Review of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man

This review of The Abolition of Man is the second in a series of reviews in honor of the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death. The first was a review of The Great Divorce which can be found here.

While it is probably fair to say that The Abolition of Man is one of Lewis’ lesser known works, when one reads it, one can see its relation to some of his best known books, including Mere Christianity. Abolition starts with Lewis examining a literary textbook which Lewis calls The Green Book. In the book, the authors discuss the story of Coleridge at a waterfall with two tourists. One tourist calls the waterfall “sublime” while the other calls it simply “pretty”. Coleridge agrees with the first and rejects the second.

The reason the textbook references this story is interesting. The authors of the textbook insist that when the tourist says that the waterfall is sublime, the tourist is not saying something about the waterfall. According to the textbook, when the tourist says that the waterfall is sublime, he is actually saying something not about the waterfall, but about his own feelings. This is where Lewis steps in with his first helpful observation. These authors, who are writing what purports to be a literature textbook, are smuggling in philosophy under the noses of unsuspecting students. This is dangerous, Lewis says, for the “boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake.”

So what is the dangerous philosophy that the book proposes? That is the subject of the rest of the book. Remember how the authors use the waterfall story: when the tourist says the waterfall is sublime, he is not actually describing the waterfall. He is describing his own feelings. In other words, according to the textbook, there is no such thing as an objective value statement. Values are relative to our own feelings. This is the dangerous philosophy that Lewis says Continue reading