“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.” —C.S. Lewis
Have you ever come across the above quote? I had, and, even in the absence of its context — it’s taken from the fairly dense first chapter of Lewis’ The Abolition of Man — figured I understood what it meant: modern society creates men who lack a chest-swelling virility, and then complain about the lack of upright, manly men.
However, having recently taken the time to actually study the full context of the quote, I learned that Lewis was actually getting at something different; or, more accurately, that he was not describing the loss of manly virtue itself, but rather the mechanism by which it, along with all other types of virtue, is produced. In fact, by “chest” he doesn’t mean some kind of literal or metaphorical scaffolding of masculinity, but sentiment.
His lament is that modern society makes men without heart.
The Tao of Sentiment
Nearly all religions and philosophical schools, whether Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism, or Platonism, Lewis observes, posit that there is an underlying natural order to the world, and Truth is that which most clearly reflects and explains this reality. To uphold this “doctrine of objective value” is to believe 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.”
Lewis feels this perspective is best described by the Chinese concept of Tao:
“It is the reality beyond all predicates . . . It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.”
Within the objective reality of Nature, exist people, places, and things which possess an objective value, and are thus deserving of varying levels of esteem and respect:
“until 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.”
Given that the value of things is objective, then they should elicit certain responses from us. The night sky should elicit a feeling of humility; the story of a courageous warrior should elicit a feeling of veneration; little children should elicit a feeling of delight; a friend’s father’s death should elicit a feeling of empathy; a kind act should elicit a feeling of gratitude.
While the nature of emotional responses is partly visceral and automatic, a man’s sentiments also have to be intentionally educated in order to be congruent — to be more in harmony with Nature. Such training teaches a man to evaluate things as more or less Just, True, Beautiful, and Good, and to proportion his affections as merited. As Lewis notes, this training was considered central to one’s development throughout antiquity:
“St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. . . . Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.”
The man who leaves a one-star Yelp review for a national park, scoffs at the brave deeds of a soldier, decides that attending his friend’s father’s funeral would be too much hassle, or fails to say thank you for a gift, shows the lack of this kind of education of the sentiments.
If one believes in objective order and value, then the failure to feel the proper sentiment in the face of a particular stimulus cannot be justified on the basis of mere personal preference, casually categorized under the rubric of “to each their own”; rather, it must be frankly countenanced as a deficiency in one’s human make-up. As Lewis confesses, “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself — just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind.”
To follow the Tao in this sense is to see things as possessing a “quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.”
Given this perspective, emotions are themselves neither rational nor irrational, but do play a central part in following the dictates of Reason:
“because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgement; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.”
A Dangerous Dissection
The “Taoist” system as described above existed anciently and across many religions and philosophical schools for thousands of years. It began to be dismantled, however, in the postmodern age. And it is this dismantling that Lewis seeks to counter in The Abolition of Man.
In the 20th century, it began to be posited that there was not a natural order to the world, and that things did not possess an objective value which demanded a certain response; rather, people simply brought their own feelings to objects, and these feelings are what gave the objects their value. Such feelings were culturally conditioned and relative to particular societies and individuals, and were thus completely subjective. Lewis observes that certain corollaries followed from this conclusion, mainly that “judgements of value are unimportant,” “all values are subjective and trivial,” and “emotion is contrary to reason.”
Rather than education seeking to improve young people by both increasing their stock of facts and honing the sensitivity of their sentiments, students began to be tutored in facts alone. This shift was thought to benefit youth, protecting them from the emotional sway of propaganda. But Lewis argues that not only did dropping an education in and emphasis on sentiment fail to provide this protective effect (and in fact made students more susceptible to hype and disinformation), it atrophied their capacity for virtue and human excellence.
Lewis sees those who propagated the first error as having “misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment”:
“They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda — they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental — and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.“
What Lewis is saying is that young people have a propensity towards apathy or cynicism or sterile complacency anyway, and if you only magnify this cynicism by telling them that all value and emotion is subjective and that absolute truths do not exist, then you create a thirsty vacuum that is actually more vulnerable to being filled by advertising and propaganda. Being subjected to the endless debunking of ideals imparts to young people a smug “pleasure in their own knowingness” that can disguise an ignorance that leaves them susceptible to the enticements of disinformation. Really protecting one’s mind from indoctrination requires filling it with positive truths that are both well-reasoned and animated by sentiment. A man with a well-honed sentiment for an ideal, a real love for something, rises above the cheap plays of propaganda: A man who loves democracy deflects rhetoric that merely encapsulates a false simulacrum of it; a man with sentimental love for the philosophical value of simplicity tunes out the enticements of advertising; a man with a noble sentiment for intimacy and romance sees through the siren song of porn.
Emotional sentiment not only functions as a defense against negative propaganda, but acts as a catalyst for “offensive” activity. As Lewis argues, dry rationality alone can never be a sufficient spur to positive action:
“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. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not [logical] syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest Sentimentalism . . . about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.”
Lewis compares his view of the importance of sentiment to Plato’s Allegory of the Chariot, in which the philosopher likened the soul to a charioteer (representing Reason) tasked with guiding a winged vehicle pulled by two horses: a dark horse (appetites) and a white horse (honorable spiritedness or thumos). To really soar, the charioteer needed to harness the energy of both horses, and used the white horse of thumos to pull the dark horse of the appetites into sync; it’s far easier to choose the right thing when you’re driven to do so by a heroic, noble, feeling.
Lewis puts it this way:
“The head rules the belly through the chest — the seat . . . of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments . . . 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.”
Thus, when society stops emphasizing and educating the sentiments, “it produce[s] what may be called Men without Chests.” Men without real feeling. Men without spiritedness, without thumos, without heart.
To those who do not lament what has been lost, who are skeptical there is an objective order to the universe, and believe in the subjectivity of feeling, it may seem that men without chests are a sign of progress – that they are more evolved, more advanced, more logical and intellectual. But this comforting affirmation is a mirage and an “outrage,” Lewis says. For the chest-less among us do not pursue truth with greater keenness, quite the opposite, since the ardent search for knowledge “cannot be long maintained without the aid of sentiment” — without a bit of passion. In reality then, “It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks [the chest-less] out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”
The irony is that those who do lament what has been lost, who mourn the disappearance of men who through the sentiment-producing-seat of their chests manifest manly virtues like ambition and courage, as well as all the other traits of good character, have no idea as to what has killed off this species of man, and their own role in hastening his demise:
“And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. 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.”
Listen to my podcast with Dr. Michael Ward about C.S. Lewis’ idea of “men without chests.”