07 July 2006

The Unfortunately Fulfilled Prophecy, Part II: The Abolition of Man and Contemporary Global Politics

After Lewis reveals the pedagogical scheme that aims to remove the Tao from our common conversation, he wants to investigate how such philosophy actually becomes popular. This is the subject of his second lecture, "The Way." He understands that we humans want to operate by Reason only, but he believes that will not work because neither social utility nor instinct will make us do anything. That is, we must also believe we ought to do whatever it is. His conclusion: though we keep kicking against the Tao, it clearly remains what we need.

So, Lewis makes a keen observation. We are not likely to submit to the real Tao, but we will probably create a bad substitute instead—because, after all, stuff must get done. Will this work, though? That is, do we really need the Tao, or can some individualized philosophical system do the job? Can a subjective set of values replace the Tao? Lewis decides to test it by setting this experiment: would anyone ever die for a good cause in such a world? He hypothesizes that two options exist: a man outside the Tao would only die for a good cause if he were convinced by social utility or persuaded by instinct.

Now, the social-utility argument fails, for even if someone agrees a death is best for society, no one will ever volunteer himself over someone else for that death. Remember the Monty Python sketch in Ypres, 1914, when a group of five soldiers discovers they only have rations for four. According to the social utility argument suggested here, the armless clergyman played by John Cleese is obviously the best volunteer. He cannot help in the fighting and must be cared for by the others. However, the others will not allow him to elect himself. So, they draw straws, and the ranking officer continually draws the shortest straw but refuses to relent. Not even random selection will convince a man to sacrifice himself for his fellows.

So too, the instinct argument fails, for no one ever determines he ought to be sacrificed rather than someone else for the preservation of the species. Instead, the smart one will determine that he ought to control who gets sacrificed and who does not, just as Weston in Out of the Silent Planet determines he is the only human capable of making such decisions for the rest of the species. Meanwhile, Ransom remains compelled by obligation to something outside of himself—it makes him go offer to help the old woman, and it makes him keep walking to that awful house, and it makes him wonder if he ought to evangelize the Malacandrians. He is a man attached to the Tao.

Lewis always returns to the same problem: neither a strong sense of social utility nor a compelling instinct (especially in the face of another oppositely competing instinct) will always drive an individual to act (29-38). So, he lands again on the Tao, the only is that admits any reasonable ought (40). "It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained" (43). And it cannot be recreated or renewed (44).

The upshot is this: in science or in politics or in the classroom, when we abandon the Tao, we steal men's chests and eventually abolish man altogether. We may live on, but we will cease to be real human beings, for we will have long before abandoned true humanity. My adept summer students suggested some contemporary practical applications: for instance, the mindset of suicide bombers, America's aggressive plan to democratize the entire globe, and (as a counter to that) the more just manner in which America conducts war. In one student's words, we could have ended this war a long time ago if we were willing to kill innocent children and other civilians, like "they" are, but we at least claim to adhere to the Tao and cannot permit such unjust warfare.

Interesting applications. Maybe we need to ship copies of The Abolition of Man to all heads of state across the globe, making sure a bookmark at the end of the second lecture points them to a footnote reading "Think global politics here."

1 comment:

Cynthia Nielsen said...


Thanks for this series--many fine nuggets!