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Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Abolition of Man — Is Our Book for the June 14th Meeting

C. S. Lewis delivered the Riddell Memorial Lectures, a series of three evening lectures at King's College, Newcastle, part of the University of Durham, on February 24-26, 1943.  These were combined to form The Abolition of Man.

The last novel in the Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength, Lewis described as the fictional form of the ideas he presents in The Abolition of Man.  So it is appropriate to treat the two works back to back on succeeding monthly meetings.

The Abolition of Man focuses on the universality of values and takes on the modern moral relativism of our times.  We will be meeting to discuss it on the second Thursday in June, June 14th at 7:30 p.m. in the Barnes and Noble in Harrisonburg.  Ray will be our discussion leader.  After that in July, on July 12th we'll meet to discuss At the Back of the North Wind,  a work by George MacDonald whom C.S. Lewis described as "... his master."  Please come and join us.  If you wish to be added to our mailing list you can send a request to Ray Schneider

Discussion Questions on The Abolition of Man

Introduction: “The Green Book” by “Gaius and Titius” which C.S. Lewis criticizes in The Abolition of Man are pseudonyms for The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing (1939) and its authors Alex King and Martin Ketley. The Green book was used as a text for upper form students in British schools.

Professor Peter Kreeft of the University of Boston, in a lecture on Walker Percy lists The Abolition of Man as one of five "books to read to save Western Civilization," alongside Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. (paraphrase from Wikipedia)

TAOM was first delivered at the University of Durham in February 1943 as a series of three lectures. The book which emerged from the lectures is divided into three sections: 1) Men Without Chests, 2) The Way, and 3) The Abolition of Man and an Appendix which illustrates what Lewis means by the Tao, a term he uses to capture the universality of values across time and culture.

I. Men Without Chests

1. Why is Lewis against the ideas expressed in the Green Book? If you agree, why? If you disagree, why? Why does Lewis call it a pons asinorum? (15)

2. What is "the advertisement" and why does Lewis criticize Titius and Gaius for their treatment of it? How does Lewis suggest they should have proceeded? ((17-18)

3. Is Lewis engaging the modern world when he suggests that Gaius and Titius are "cutting out the soul" of young people when they are still too young to chose for themselves? (20)

4. Lewis speaks of the pressing educational need of the moment and contrasts it with what Gaius and Titius are doing? What do you think of the two suggested points of view? (24)

5. How did you react to Lewis's description of The Tao? (29)

6. Lewis suggests that the effect of the Green Book will be to produce Men Without Chests? Why does he say this? What is the proper action if the Green Book is wrong? (34)

My favorite quote: "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful."

II. The Way

7. "The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it." This sentence leads off the second section of TAOM. Do you agree with Lewis? What does he mean? What does he offer as the proper form of education? (39) What values do Gaius and Titius hold? (40)

8. "The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premises in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed." (43-44) This poses the problem of where do we get the ought in our values?

9. Does substituting "instinct" for the Tao help or hurt the search for the source of values? (45-47)

10. "If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved. Similarly, if nothing is obligatory for its own sake, nothing is obligatory at all." (53) Do you agree with Lewis that we cannot use instinct to justify values? All oughts are slipped in by a hidden appeal to the Tao. Does Lewis demonstrate these propositions convincingly? Illustrate. (53-57)

11. Different kinds of criticism from within and from without. Lewis says that the Tao can be modified from within but not from without. "This is why Aristotle said that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics: to the corrupted man, the man who stands outside the Tao, the very starting point of this science is invisible." Does Lewis make the case successfully? (59-60)

Favorite quote: "Outside the Tao there is no ground for criticizing either the Tao or anything else."

III. The Abolition of Man

12. "Man's Conquest of Nature" is a category mistake. "What we call Man's power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by." How does Lewis making this point affect the rhetoric surrounding the concept? (67-68)

13. Lewis makes much of the influence of time, earlier generations exercising power over later ones. He uses eugenics as an example. What do you think about Lewis's emphasis on this power of some men over the rest? (70-71)

14. Lewis characterizes this phase as not a good thing or a bad thing, only a final thing. Do you agree that this has to be final? "But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please." (73)

15. Lewis sees the conditioners creating an artificial Tao and ultimately not being bound by the conscience they create. The conditioned continue to operate within the manufactured Tao which the conditioners stand outside of. Do you see any tendency towards this state that Lewis predicts? (75-77)

16. "sic volo, sic jubeo" (I want this, I order this.) Man's final conquest is the abolition of man. The men under the rule of the conditioners are not "... necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts." Lewis sees the final triumph of the conditioners as a hollow victory since it has destroyed man making of him simply an artifact like any other construct. What factors in current society do you think are moving in that direction? What factors are resisting that movement? (77)

17. "Man's conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature's conquest of Man." "Ferum victorem cepit" (captured her savage conqueror) ends Lewis's dystopian vision of man's ultimate surrender to the conditioners and hence ultimately to base nature. This is a case of unintended consequences. Such consequences often attend policies which begin with the best of intentions. From what aspect of the human psyche do such things stem? Is there a way to keep the good and eliminate the bad? How? (80-82)

18. Lear, Bacon, and Faust are all invoked as Lewis explores the deification of knowledge and the uncomfortable truce between magic and science. He confesses that he has not solution to the problem – "But if the scientists themselves cannot arrest this process before it reaches the common Reason and kills that too, then someone else must arrest it." How do you think this can be achieved? (90)

Quotation: "A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery." (84-85)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Introduction and Discussion Questions for our May 10th Meeting

That Hideous Strength

INTRODUCTION: “Tidies and fuglemen…………I sheel foor that we all – er- most steeply rebut……..Vood wooloo…Bot are you blammit?........Bundlemen, bundlemen……..Eh? Blotcher bulldoo?” I couldn’t resist beginning with some of the results of the curse of Babel on those esteemed masters of bureaucratic bull do-do, the leaders of NICE. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments, ostensibly applied science for the greater good of all, but actually a front for sinister supernatural forces, the Macrobes.)

That Hideous Strength (THS), published in 1945, is the third and longest, book in CS Lewis’s space trilogy. Unlike Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, all the action takes place on planet earth. This time Ransom stays home and the planetary beings visit him- and also Merlin. As described by the author, THS is a modern fairy-tale for grown-ups. In the preface, he writes:”This is a tall story” about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man…the outer rim of that devilry had to be shown touching the life of some ordinary profession. I selected my own profession, not….because I think fellows of colleges more likely to be corrupted than anyone else, but because my own is the only profession I know well enough to write about.”

Lewis credits conversations with a scientific colleague for sparking one of the central ideas of the tale. This inspiration was later enhanced by the works of Olaf Stapledon. Lewis said that he admired Stapledon’s invention, though not his philosophy. The influence of Lewis’ friend, Charles Williams, is also evident- especially in the Arthurian elements.

Note: The first-time reader of THS may feel overwhelmed by the numerous elements and characters as well as the frequent back and forth from the two main characters and two main settings. Wikipedia has an 8 page article on THS which provides plot summary, context in Space Trilogy, and brief descriptions of the characters. Although I have read THS several times, I still found this helpful, despite a few minor errors.


1. One of the main points in The Abolition of Man is that modern education and philosophy tend to create “men without chests”, or people lacking in discernment, loyalty, the ability to distinguish between good/bad; straight/crooked; right/wrong, etc.; not having the courage of their convictions, nor even any fixed convictions. The story line in THS alternates between the different paths of Mark and Jane Studdock, who have had thoroughly modern educations and pride themselves on being progressive. In what ways do Mark and Jane illustrate the idea of “men without chests?”

2. THS has remained in print since its first publication (1945) and has many devotees who re-read it regularly, finding something new and thought-provoking in it each time. Others, like George Orwell (author of another modern classic, 1984), have found much to like in THS, and much to dislike. Below are some excerpts from a variety of reviews. Which statements would you endorse?

“a morality tale about the dangers of unchecked ambition, a modern day Tower of Babel, a warning that totalitarianism can take many forms….rather than a seamless whole …more the quality of patchwork…maybe it’s not great literature, but – I really liked it.
[it has] shrewdness about human nature and human institutions…and a wicked sense of humor.”
“ a clever attack on moral relativism.”
“I do find the whole Arthur and Merlin thing a rather disappointing way to end it.”
“quite different from the first two books, both better and worse … more down to earth in the two main characters and presents the temptation of Mark ….believably.”
“more timely today than when the book was published….a thrilling story that I enjoy more each time”
“the action is contrived, the characters one-dimensional, and the tone didactic”
“a realistic description of what eventually happens when people make technology their lord”
“Lewis at his satirical best- an uppercut landed to the jaw of secular, anti-family, “post-Christian” society”
“too many words, Clive, too many words”

3. “Matrimony” is the first word in THS, as Jane Studdock contemplates her own marriage- expectations, disappointments, frustrations. THS ends with Jane walking toward the lodge where her husband Mark waits for her. In between there is much talk about marriage and gender roles, hierarchy, duties, promises, obedience. What is your reaction to the “old-fashioned ideas” of the Director (Ransom/ Mr. Fisher-King) and his Masters? How does Jane react? Why did Jane, an avowed feminist, choose the poetry of John Donne as the subject of her thesis? (see Donne quote beginning ‘Hope not for minde in women…”p. 16)

4. Mark and Jane do eventually end up in the same place (at least for the night) after parallel, but quite different, journeys. In what ways do each of them under-go re-education? Is there genuine transformation and/or redemption?

5. What makes Mark so vulnerable to the lure of “that hideous strength?” How does he over-ride his own misgivings and fears? In contrast, Jane is initially repulsed by her own non-returnable “gift” of vision and the invitation to join the group (or company) at St. Anne’s. (p. 61-68, 112-17) What finally draws her in?

6. What leads Mark to try to escape from Belbury? (page 259 on)What happens next? What leads him to finally, irrevocably, rebel? What form does his rebellion take? What role does the tramp play in this? (page 259 on, especially 311-14)

7. One might say that Mark and Jane, for much of the book, inhabit different worlds. Mark is drawn into the inner circle of NICE, located at Belbury. Jane is drawn into the smaller and much nicer circle located at St. Anne’s. What are the differences between the two worlds (Belbury and St. Anne’s) in the following areas: (a) methods of maintaining order and securing obedience (b) ambiance / atmosphere (c)gardens (pages 61-62; 101-02) (d)leadership (e) view of death (p. 229-30, 233; for Filostrato’s extreme views,p. 174)) (f)the rooms in which new members are initiated (p. 142; 296-299) (g) clarity vs. confusion (h) honesty vs. dishonesty (i) free, informed choice vs. coercion

8. The tramp (whose clothes Merlin took) is presumed by the leaders of NICE at Belbury to be the real Merlin, fresh from Arthurian times after a LONG sleep. Why is Wither (the DD) so puzzled by the tramp? (p. 313-14) What is the tramp’s reaction to the Banquet at Belbury? (p. 343-45) Why does the real Merlin join forces with the group at St. Anne’s?

9. Ransom, the hero of the first two books in the trilogy, plays a smaller role in THS. Why is he also called Mr. Fisher-King or the Pendragon? What is Logres?

10. If one could ever pin down the leaders of NICE to definitions, how would they define: progressive element; diehards; sound men; experiment vs. experimental; red tape; remedial treatment; elasticity.

11. Do you have a favorite quote from THS? Favorite character? Favorite scene?