The idea of “infinite unilinear progression” is made up by our imagination, says Lewis (p. 90) and is not necessarily an accurate view of reality. The steps of human progress do not advance like the numbers on a ruler with an even spacing between them, but rather wind their mysterious course with astounding diversity of directions and effects.
Lewis explores this idea of progress within the context of time itself. Those who in this generation succeed in ‘overcoming nature’ have really imposed their thought and actions upon all generations to come, leaving them subsequently enhanced and weakened at the same time. Sir Isaac Newton pointed to his greatness coming from “having stood on the shoulders of giants.” However, his apparent strength is also his apparent weakness in that he was totally dependent upon those who came before him. It is impossible for mankind to extricate himself from the stream of time in order to obtain some kind of advantage upon nature in a way that does not immediately translate into an advantage upon the other men existing at the same moment. Even in a worldwide socialist utopia, it could not but be apparent that the government exercised dominance over the individuals (p. 69). A balance of human power does not appear to be possible in the war against nature. “Each new power won by man is power over man as well (p. 71).
“For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases mans, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please” (p. 72). In this, Lewis celebrates the failure of education systems because those proposed throughout history would have eradicated relationships, poetry, and the independence of a child from the state. He is less optimistic about the future, considering that some age in history will grant to some men the power to decide what other men should be without the historical dependence upon what they have received from humanity before them. In this way, mastery of nature, and especially over human nature endangers the very idea of mankind. It is not that those placed in the position of power to determine the course of human nature might be bad men, but that if they become the arbitrators of what humanity should look like outside of a submission to the Tao, they no longer have any basis for understanding what humanity looks like at all. Rather than shaping men to conform to some standard of human nature, they decide what it will be on no other basis than their whims and fancies. The outcomes of such a system, Lewis suggests will no longer look like human beings, but “artefacts” of an educational or eugenics machine (p. 77).
One can see the potential benefits of mastering the process of human development, through genetic manipulation, psychological construction, and the shaping of a human life toward some particular form. The problem arises when choosing what shape the human shall be in when he finally emerges from the system. In the past, those who took the responsibility of enlightening the next generation did so by passing on what they had received (p. 73). Because the Tao (as Lewis uses this concept) prescribes that individuals act upon their impulses of benevolence rather than selfishness, individuals were formerly trained to comply with this certain way of being. On the other hand, when concepts like benevolence are open to being changed and completely reshaped through a system that cannot judge them as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than violence, one can only hope that the outcome is not disastrous.
When the ‘Tao’ becomes a product of the educational system, it no longer has the power to keep mankind from destroying himself through utter submission to natural and irrational impulses. These will be exercised by a few over all the rest in a haphazard manner that invites no judgement of good or evil because these concepts in themselves are open to being shaped by those who happen to be in power at the moment.
Thus, Lewis, proposes that our quest to become independent of the Tao (or the way that nature has made us to be) is really a quest for the abolition of man. Those who presume to be above the Tao in order to define what it means jeopardize the future of civilization itself. Though, if there is no Tao, it is quite impossible to say whether or not this is a good development.
All references from “The Abolition of Man: How Education Informs Man’s Sense of Morality” by C S Lewis. For more blog posts in this series, click here.