“We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”
While this quote from C.S. Lewis is often cited, few completely understand what Lewis meant by it, nor understand the book from which it was taken, The Abolition of Man, which, unlike Lewis’s more popular works of fiction and Christian apologetics, is a broad philosophical treatise aimed at everyone, and perhaps the most admired and yet least accessible of Lewis’s writings.
My guest today has written a guide, called After Humanity, that is designed to make The Abolition of Man more understandable to the average reader. His name is Dr. Michael Ward and he’s a Catholic priest, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford, and Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. Michael kicks off our conversation by offering a big picture overview of what The Abolition of Man was about, which centers on Lewis’s argument against subjectivism, and for the idea that there exists objective moral values, the denial of which brings destructive consequences. We unpack the case Lewis makes for the existence of a natural order which underlies all religions and cultures, and why he called this universal, objective reality the “Tao.” We then get into what Lewis meant by the idea of making “men without chests,” the function of a man’s chest, and why chests aren’t being developed. We end our conversation with why moral debates can seem so shrill and fruitless in a world without agreement upon objective values, and if anything can be done to build the chests of modern men.
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in the Podcast
- AoM article on the meaning of “men without chests”
- AoM Podcast #272: C.S.. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Myth of Progress
- Atheist John Gray speaks on the BBC about The Abolition of Man
- After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
- AoM Article: Why Are Modern Debates on Morality So Shrill?
- AoM Article: Why Every Man Should Embrace the Jeremiad
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” While this quote from CS Lewis is often cited, few completely understand what Lewis meant by it, nor understand the book from which it was taken, The Abolition of Man, which, unlike Lewis’s more popular works of fiction and Christian apologetics, is a broad philosophical treatise aimed at everyone and perhaps the most admired and yet least successful of Lewis’s writings.
My guest today has written a guide called After Humanity that is designed to make The Abolition of Man more understandable to the average reader. His name is Dr. Michael Ward, he’s both a Catholic priest and a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford. Michael kicks off our conversation today by offering a big picture overview of what The Abolition of Man was about, which centers on Lewis’s argument against subjectivism and for the idea that there exist objective moral values, the denial of which brings destructive consequences.
We unpack the case Lewis makes for the existence of a natural order which underlies all religions and cultures and why he called this universal objective reality, the Tao. We then get into what Lewis meant by the idea of making Men Without Chests, the function of a man’s chest and why chests aren’t being developed today. We end our conversation with why moral debates can seem so shrill and fruitless in a world without agreement upon objective values, and if anything could be done to build the chest of modern men. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at AoM.is/menwithoutchests.
Michael Ward, welcome to the show.
Michael Ward: Thank you, Brett, good to be with you. Thank you.
Brett McKay: So you have written a reader’s guide to CS Lewis’s book The Abolition of Man. Now, I think most people who are listening to this podcasts are familiar with CS Lewis, or at least with his fiction, The Chronicles of Narnia, or his Christian apologetics. The Abolition of Man is neither a work of fiction nor is it Christian apologetics. We’re going to get in the details of what The Abolition of Man is, but before we do big picture, what is The Abolition of Man about? Like what was Lewis trying to do with it?
Michael Ward: The Abolition of Man is about the objectivity of value, and what will happen if we deny the objectivity of value, so it’s really both a defense and a prediction. Lewis is defending the fact that moral values and indeed aesthetic values have a kind of objectivity outside our own subjective preferences. We don’t confer value upon the world, we rather identify it in the world, we discover it, we don’t invent it. But if we take the subjectivist line and start supposing that no, there is no objective value out there. We just make it up, we project it from our own arbitrary will and choice and preference and whims, if we take that stance, we’re on a short route to self-destruction, really, and that’s why he calls his book The Abolition of Man. We’ll be denying an essential part of our own humanity if we take that approach. So that’s what he’s trying to accomplish, both defending the objectivity of value and forecasting what will happen if we deny it.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s give some background on this, what… Lewis gave some lectures that he based The Abolition of Man on, he gave them during World War II. How did World War II, and then also Lewis’s experience with World War I influence his ideas in Abolition?
Michael Ward: Well, obviously, in World War II, his country, Britain, where I’m speaking to you from today, I’m here in Oxford in England, Briton during the World War… During the Second World War, was undergoing a terrible trauma. His country, London had endured the Blitz and there was food rationing and soldiers all around the world fighting and dying in defense of the Allied cause and so… It was a war that lasted six years from our point of view, 1939-1945, and he gave these lectures in February 1943. So the country had already been at war for about nearly four years, and in that context, with so much going wrong, it was focusing people’s minds and making them argue about these deep philosophical matters. Why does it matter that we defeat the Nazis, for instance?
Is Nazi morality better or worse than British morality on the disputed questions? And of course, is Lewis is arguing Nazi morality is no morality at all. It’s an absolute perversion. It’s a monstrous immorality. But in order to take that step, you have of course to argue that you are measuring both Nazi morality and Christian morality by some external standard, by a third thing, which is objective value, your objective standard, which all human beings can perceive or ought to be able to perceive. And this is why we could hold the Nazis guilty of a moral crime, that they were falling short of something that they should have been able to perceive and indeed really did know, even though they tried to suppress it.
So that’s the immediate context in the Second World War. But in the background, there’s the First World War, because in the First World War, Lewis had been an officer, a junior officer in the British Army. He’d been a second lieutenant and he’d served for six months just towards the end of the Great War, and he’d been very nearly killed, a shell had exploded in his trench and it obliterated the man next to him, and it spattered Lewis full of shrapnel, bits of which he carried around in his body for a long time afterwards, and he had a sort of out-of-body experience. The picture, the thought came to him, here is a picture of a man dying. He thought he was done for, and that is relevant to The Abolition of Man, because in The Abolition of Man, he will argue that the crucial test of the objectivity of value is our willingness to suffer for it.
Until we have to suffer for doing the right thing, like defending our country, until that happens, it’s hard to tell for sure that the value is really objective, ’cause it might just be convenient, it might just be to our advantage, but as soon as we have to suffer for it, well, then we realize that, ah, no, this has some objective reality, ’cause if it were purely subjective, I could change it, couldn’t I? I could make it more compatible with my own wishes. So having gone through a near-death experience himself, and having seen many of his comrades killed and some of his friends, Lewis knew what he was talking about when he referred to that old Latin tag from the poet Horace, “‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,’ it’s sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.”
This wasn’t just some abstract principle, some noble ideal from the past, this was something that Lewis had tested on his own pulses, as it were. So I think that helps account for some of the rhetorical power of The Abolition of Man, that it sprang from a deep part of Lewis’s own experience. And it has been a much-admired book, The Abolition of Man, it’s… But we can come onto that.
Brett McKay: Yeah, well, let’s continue on some of Lewis’s intellectual bias. Obviously, the World War I had a big influence on his thoughts about, okay, there is an objective moral reality value out there, ’cause he experienced, “I’m dying for this thing that I believe in.” Besides World War I, how else did Lewis’s life influence his thinking in Abolition of Man?
Michael Ward: Yes, in the course of my guide that I’ve written, After Humanity, I have a few background chapters on the immediate context of Lewis’s own life and indeed his background growing up where he, in various places, talks about his own struggles with subjectivism. He talks about his own vicious subjectivism in his autobiography, he talks about how his mind was split between the world of facts without one trace of value, and the world of feelings without one trace of truth or falsehood. And that fact-value distinction or opposition, that polarization between facts and values is really something that he’s trying to overcome in The Abolition of Man by saying that facts have values, and values can be factual. The opposition between the two is a false opposition, it’s a misleading dichotomy which we’ve been lured into in the last 300 or 400 years for various historical and philosophical reasons, and we need to break out of that opposition.
And he had… In his teens and his 20s, he’d struggled out of that mode of thinking. And having found the escape route, he wanted to share it. Having faced up to the enemy of subjectivism, he knew the power of that position. So I think again that’s relevant to The Abolition of Man and why it has achieved such status that it’s… In a way, it’s a work of poetry, it’s… Of course, it’s not written in verse, it’s written in prose, but it’s poetic in the sense that it comes from Lewis’s own quarrel with himself. WB Yeats, the great Irish poet, said that, “When we quarrel with others, we make merely rhetoric, but when we quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry.” And therefore The Abolition of Man can be seen as a poetic work, ’cause it comes out of Lewis’s own struggle with himself on this very question. He’s not just taking potshots at some target which will advance his academic career, he’s not just beating down some fashionable opponent which will make him look good, no, this is something that he sort of existentially grappled with.
Brett McKay: Okay, let’s dig into this book a bit and kind of suss out what Lewis means by subjectivism, why he thinks that’s a problem, and then his predictions for what happens if we don’t recognize there is objective value in the world. So he begins The Abolition of Man by referencing a book that he calls The Green Book. And this was an actual prep school textbook, it was for English composition, basically, and Lewis makes the case that while this prep textbook looks innocent and useful, he actually says it’s really insidious. What was Lewis’s problem with The Green Book?
Michael Ward: Yes, The Green Book was in reality a book called The Control of Language, and it was by these authors, Alec King and Martin Ketley, though Lewis calls them Gaius and Titius, and as you say, he refers to the volume itself as The Green Book, so he’s casting a sort of veil of anonymity over both the book and the authors to save their blushes, but also because this is just a springboard into his larger argument. We shouldn’t get too bogged down in the details of The Green Book, but we do need to obviously give it as much attention as Lewis gives it. And the attention Lewis gives it is because it introduces to school children a subjectivist frame of mind, which is bad enough in itself. That would be bad if it was done sort of openly and straightforwardly, but it’s particularly insidious, because it’s not even the real subject of The Green Book. The Green Book, as you say, is supposed to be about understanding literature, it’s not propounding a particular philosophy of value.
It smuggled in this very deleterious philosophy while supposedly being about something else, that’s why it really gets Lewis’s goat. He thinks this is not just philosophically wrong, it’s a kind of crime against children too. So The Green Book discusses the story of the poet Coleridge, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and how he viewed a great waterfall here in England, and how as he was viewing it, when a fellow tourist said, “Isn’t that waterfall sublime?” and a second person said, “No, it’s merely pretty,” and Coleridge supposedly endorsed the term “sublime,” but turned away from the epithet “pretty,” with disgust. And the authors of The Green Book use this as a way of saying, yeah, well, why would Coleridge turn away in disgust? It’s not the case that the waterfall had any objective value about it, that it was objectively sublime. If you want to call it sublime, call it sublime, if you want to call it pretty, call it pretty, ’cause you confer value from your own subjective perspective. There’s nothing real out there that you have to get your feelings into accord with.
So, that’s what The Green Book argues, and that’s what Lewis takes issue with. And it, as I say, it’s a springboard into this larger case about subjectivism and how the denial of subjectivism leads to a very shrunk and shriveled and suffocating world of competing subjectivisms, because there’s no common ground between you and me if your truth and my truth are utterly incommensurable. And they can only be commensurable if there’s an objective reality that you and I both have access to.
Brett McKay: Alright, so just to clarify and recap, subjectivism says that there are facts out there. There are waterfalls, there are cultures, there are actions, but they don’t have objective value themselves. You can look at the night sky, at the stars, and think, “Well, those are just big balls of gas,” and not feel anything, or you could look and think, “That’s awe-inspiring, it’s sublime, it’s beautiful.” And with subjectivism, either reaction is fine, because it’s to each their own. But what Lewis is arguing he’s saying that, “No, things do have an objective value.” And I got a quote here where he basically says this. He says, “Things possess a quality which demands a certain response from us, whether we make it or not.” So he’s saying certain things should, they should elicit certain responses from us.
Michael Ward: Yes, that’s right. There are realities which we perceive that meet our senses, and they contain within them a certain quality which we need to recognize and respond appropriately to. In other words, the world is qualitative, it’s not just quantitative, and this is part of Lewis’s larger target here, that the… And this is why I said the thing about how, over the last 300 or 400 years, we’ve arrived steadily at this more and more subjectivist approach, because since the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, we’ve come to view facts as those things which can be measured and weighed and quantified according to the systems of inductive, scientific, empirical inquiry. All of which are good in themselves, but they’re only one way of investigating reality.
And to reduce all knowledge to that quantitative, measurable, mathematical mode of knowledge is limiting, it’s foolish. There are many other ways of apprehending reality other than the quantitative. So that’s why the fact-value distinction has crept upon us, because we’ve come to think of facts as necessarily value-free. They have no quality to them. They’re merely quantitative. But that’s a false step, that’s a misstep, and we should never have gone down that path, and the sad philosophical history of the last 300 or 400 years testifies to that fact.
Brett McKay: We’re going to a quick break for words from our sponsors. And now, back to the show. Okay, so Lewis starts making this case that there is a universal, objective, moral value-based reality that exists. He calls it the Tao, T-A-O, like the Tao from the way, Confucian way or the Asian way. What evidence does Lewis give for the Tao’s existence? Because the scientific mindset would… “Look, well, you can’t see the Tao. You can’t see that this objective, value-based reality exists. You can’t measure it.” So what does Lewis propose as evidence that it does exist?
Michael Ward: Well, he says that the Tao is self-evident, but it’s a premise, it’s not a conclusion. We have to assume that value is objective before we can get anywhere, that this is the moral ecology that we find ourselves within. Just as we find ourselves within the actual physical atmosphere and environment of the world, so there is a moral ecology that could not be otherwise, and we discover it, we don’t invent it. These moral truths are built into reality, just as mathematical truths are built into reality. And indeed, those who would take a very reductive scientistic approach are themselves already acknowledging that fact, because by the very fact that the scientists assume that the world is knowable and that science can be either correct or false, the answer to a mathematical equation or to a scientific experiment can be either true or false, they are already acknowledging that there is something out there called truth.
They may have a very attenuated understanding of what that truth is, they may see it only in quantitative terms, but the fact that they see it in any objective terms at all testifies to this very truth that Lewis is arguing for, that the Tao surrounds us and supports us before we take any step in any direction. We can’t get out of it. So, it’s a very foundational kind of paradigmatic argument that Lewis is making, that we, our feet are already on the way, whether we like it or not. We can’t get out of it. It’s a little bit like the observer effect in science, in physics. The very fact of observing something changes the thing which is under observation. The very fact of trying to suggest that we live in a value-free world already implicitly acknowledges that there is such a thing as value. ‘Cause even if you’re trying to advance a subjectivist case, you’re wanting to argue that subjectivism itself objectively true. So, it’s self-defeating. It’s illogical. So what Lewis is really arguing for is basic foundational moral logic.
Brett McKay: So why doesn’t he call it… This sounds like natural law or first principles. Why does he call it the Tao instead of that?
Michael Ward: Because he’s wanting to argue for its universality, and by reaching all the way into Chinese philosophy, he’s emphasizing that fact through the very terminology that he’s deploying. If he called it natural law or some other much more Western-sounding term, like the first principles of practical reason or something like that, he would have lost a trick in the game, as it were, in the rhetorical game of emphasizing the universality of this thing that he’s trying to describe. And remember, by… Even by 1943, when he gave these lectures, Lewis had already acquired something of a reputation as a Christian apologist. He’d published The Problem of Pain, he’d begun his broadcasts over the BBC, which became the book Mere Christianity. So he already had something of a profile as a speaker, a defender of Christianity.
And his point here is not to defend Christianity per se, or even to defend theism, he’s wanting to defend the objectivity of value, which precedes and undergirds theism and Christianity, and indeed all systems of moral and logical thought whatsoever. So it’s not a peculiarly Christian argument that he’s making, it’s much more of a humane argument, it’s part of our humanity that he’s trying to describe. Because all human beings have been made with this awareness of moral value, it’s… From a Christian point of view, he would argue, of course, that that is a sign of the fact that we’ve been made in God’s image, and this thing that he’s talking about is really conscience, what St. Paul says in his Letter to the Romans is the thing that even the gentiles who are without the law have as a law written in their own hearts, now accusing them, now condemning them, now acquitting them.
But he’s not wanting to rest his argument on those Christian principles or that Christian vocabulary. He’s wanting to make a purely philosophical case, which all people of good will, all people of… Who are prepared to accept the objectivity of value can get on board with. And that’s one of the reasons why The Abolition of Man has acquired such a wide audience, so many readers from so many different backgrounds have said this is a really valuable contribution to thought. There’s a prominent British philosopher at the moment called John Gray, who’s an atheist, and he devoted a whole BBC radio broadcast that he did recently to The Abolition of Man, describing it as a very prescient and prophetic work which was as relevant now as when Lewis first delivered the lectures and perhaps even more so. And John Gray is an atheist, but he’s an atheist who believes in the objectivity of value.
Brett McKay: And what evidence does Lewis give for the existence of the Tao?
Michael Ward: Well, one piece of evidence is the universal moral code that you can point to, and that he does point to in the appendix of the book. So in the appendix he has eight moral laws: The Duty of General Beneficence; the Duty of Special Beneficence; the Duty to Ancestors and Elders; the Duty to Children and Posterity, and four other duties or laws. And under each of these eight headings, he cites any number of examples from traditions and cultures and religions round the world and down through history. He quotes Babylonian sources, Hindu sources, Jewish, Christian, Native American, Aboriginal, Australian, Norse. Any number of different cultures and approaches to the world have come to remarkably similar conclusions about what is right and wrong.
Obviously, there are points of difference, but Lewis’s aim in this appendix is to point to the remarkable unanimity that there is on major central points of human behavior. And he’s not arguing that this proves the Tao, even universal common consent would not prove it, because it’s self-evident. It has to be taken, as I say, as a premise, not as a conclusion, it’s the starting point. But the very fact that you can point to this huge overlap between different very different cultures is remarkable sort of circumstantial evidence of the validity of his argument.
Brett McKay: And how does Lewis think we learn about the Tao? Is it something you have to read about, you have to get lectured about? What does the matriculation of the Tao look like?
Michael Ward: Well, you can learn about it by reading, you can learn about it by being lectured on it at school or university. You can learn it… And indeed most of us do learn it primarily from our parents and our siblings as we grow up in our families, because the domestic arrangements are the prime teachers of value. It’s a case of old birds teaching young birds how to fly, that’s an image that Lewis uses. We shouldn’t think of it as being conditioned into one particular mode of thought. The difference between… That Lewis is talking about is the difference between propaganda and propagation, that a propagandist just conditions people into a set of views that he himself, the propagandist, doesn’t necessarily share.
But in true propagation of the Tao, in true moral formation, the parent, the teacher, the pastor, whoever it is, finds this moral law to be binding upon them too. They’re sharing something that they know to be valuable, they’re not trying to merely condition other people to take a view that will be of convenience to them. So this is… You see this, don’t you, in very little ways in families, when the parents tell the children, “Don’t swear. Don’t use cuss words,” and then Mommy or Daddy says something rude, [chuckle] and the children say, “You shouldn’t say that, you told me not to say it.” And of course, that’s a prime example of the very thing we’re talking about here, that the parents need to live up to their own principles. And sometimes parents say, “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.” [chuckle] But true propagation of moral value is when we live up to the very principles we’re trying to communicate.
Brett McKay: So the most famous line in The Abolition of Man is this… I’ve seen people quote this lots of times, I think it’s kinda taken out of context, though, so they’re not… They kinda take it out… They kinda rip it from The Abolition of Man and lose the big picture thing of what Lewis is trying to do. It’s this, it’s, “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” The men without chests part, I think, is what gets most of the attention. What does Lewis mean by chests? And what does it mean to not have a chest?
Michael Ward: Yeah. The first chapter of The Abolition of Man is entitled Men Without Chests. And that springs from a three-fold model of the human person that Lewis develops. So he sees the human person, philosophically speaking, as a three-fold unity: The head, the chest, and the belly. And in the head, we have rational thoughts. In the belly, we have senses and passions and feelings, appetites. From the neck upwards, we are, as it were, like the angels, angels rational spirits, from the belly downwards we’re like the animals, we have senses and passions. But in the chest, we have the definitively human faculty. And in the chest, passions and emotions are not squelched or denied, but they are regularized, they’re stabilized.
We don’t want to either pretend we are more spiritual than we are. We are, after all, embodied creatures, but neither should we suggest that we are more sensual than we are, because we are also rational creatures. And we need to combine the head and the belly in the chest and make ourselves truly rational animals, which is what… That’s the classic definition of a human being. And that combination, that unification of the two sides of our nature, happens, symbolically speaking, in the chest, which is this seat, as Lewis calls it, of just sentiments, stable and civilized feelings, regularized emotions. So we can feel, and we ought to feel. We ought to feel deeply, but we shouldn’t feel irrationally, that’s the point.
Brett McKay: Okay, so to recap here, basically a man without a chest is a man whose sentiments aren’t educated. He either feels things too much when he shouldn’t, or he doesn’t feel anything at all when he should. And what Lewis is saying is we need to train our emotions, to combine reason with sentiment, that gives us that chest. And when we have that chest, then it’s like a calling to the waterfall, we can think about and recognize the right response to something, and then make it more attuned and congruent with nature. And by nature, I’m talking capital N, Nature.
Michael Ward: Absolutely, yes. So you can discern value within objects that meet your senses, they’re not just dumbly there, they’re not just imprinting themselves upon your senses as if you’re nothing more than a clay tablet. One of the images that Lewis uses in making this point is the image of the Aeolian harp, that stringed instrument that you can put up hanging from the branches of a tree, or you fix it in your window, and so as the wind blows through the strings, they sound, that’s an Aeolian harp. And the romantic poet, Shelley, likens a human being to an Aeolian harp, with this important difference that we’re not just physical instruments, we are rational instruments, if you like.
We can think. We can… We don’t just receive impressions from the outside world, but we have the power of internal adjustment, we can think about them, and we can make ourselves more or less in accordance with what we see. So Lewis isn’t wanting to say… Clicking his fingers in some sort of reductive way and saying, “Well, of course that waterfall is sublime, you idiot!” whereas this waterfall over here is merely pretty. It’s not something that you just can click your fingers and sort out, there’s a whole process of development of taste and perception. Think of how over many years a great wine expert trains their palate so as to be able to discern the grape and the process of fermentation and all the other things that a great sommelier will know about wine.
But you and I, I daresay… Or I certainly say this for myself, [chuckle] I drink a wine, and I’ve got very little that I can say about it except, “Oh, I like it,” or, “I dislike it.” But if I bothered to train myself, to make myself more intelligent on this matter, I could begin to discern all sorts of subtle shades. Likewise with waterfalls, there may be some that are merely pretty, there may be some that are between pretty and sublime, and… But there are undoubtedly waterfalls that are absolutely sublime. And if you don’t see that, you’re not really seeing the thing that is there. But it takes time, this… Although it’s a self-evident framework of value that Lewis is pointing out, to be self-evident is not the same as to be obvious. And that’s why we need moral formation, moral training, moral education. We need to become what we are.
Brett McKay: Now, it sounds like the development of this chest, this part where we combine feeling with reason, it’s a very Aristotelian project. You learn through just experiencing over and over again the right emotions to have for the right things for the right reason at the right time.
Michael Ward: Yes. You’re quite right to say it’s Aristotelian. Lewis himself quotes Aristotle, just turning to the bit in the book where he quotes Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that, “The aim of education is to make the people like and dislike what he ought to like and dislike.” In other words, there are certain things that are likeable and certain things which are dislikeable, and if you get in them round the wrong way, you are less than educated, you’re less than human, you need to develop your chest. And this incidentally is, just a little side light, this is something that we see in the Narnia books.
So the great king of Narnia, Peter, King Peter, the High King over all the other kings and queens, when he’s a boy, when he arrives in the story, but by the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he’s grown into a tall and deep-chested man. Whereas in the last Narnia book, The Last Battle, we’ve got this evil character that, the ape, Shift, and Shift says that he has a weak chest. “Apes always have weak chests,” he says. Because he’s not truly human, he’s merely an ape. And Lewis in the course of The Abolition of Man talks about how we can make ourselves into trousered apes, if we choose, we can make ourselves less than human, if we don’t develop our chest.
Brett McKay: And how do we not develop our chest, is it just… Does it happen on purpose? Do we decide, “I’m just going to ignore that?” or… What do you think Lewis would say, like why are we developing men without chests?
Michael Ward: Well, it’s happening in all sorts of ways, and one of the ways which he’s identifying in that opening chapter is through school textbooks, which are subtly indoctrinating children with a subjectivist approach to the universe, when they are supposedly teaching them about English composition. So we breathe it in from all different sorts of sources to a certain extent, going back to that little example I gave about bad parenting, when parents don’t live up to their own principles, that is a kind of subjectivism, that a parent is unwittingly and no doubt regretfully imparting to their children. And then we as individuals, if we see how useful a dodge it can be to say that value is subjective, then we can say, oh, if someone’s trying to get us to see a bit of moral logic, which might result in us having to change our behavior, we might fall back into a subjectivist viewpoint for our own convenience, and you would say, “Well, that’s your truth, this is my truth. So who are you to tell me what to do?”
And that’s a way of short-circuiting any kind of moral persuasion, because from our own cowardly selfish point of view, we don’t want to change, and that, I think, underlies a lot of subjectivism, it’s just a way of defending our selfishness.
Brett McKay: And then as Lewis says in that second line of Men Without Chests is that “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” We go down the subjectivist route, we kind of, “Oh, there’s really is no such thing as like… Honor is just a word,” right. And then when someone does something terrible or dishonorable, like, “Oh, my gosh, can you believe this guy?” It’s like, “Well, what did you expect?”
Michael Ward:Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely. You could take it into the sexual sphere, couldn’t you? And at the moment, we’ve got this big movement, the Me Too movement, which in many respects is very good and right and proper, that men should not abuse women. I mean, that’s an absolute foundational statement of moral behavior, but it’s interesting how… In so many films, you may have seen men screwing around and James Bond for instance sleeping with a different girl every night. And so on the one hand, we want to indulge the libido through the James Bond proxies, but on the other hand, we get deeply and rightly annoyed with Harvey Weinstein, when he starts doing the same sort of thing in real life, and we can’t have it both ways. If we laugh at sexual self-control, we can’t really pretend to be shocked when we find predators in our midst.
Brett McKay: So your book is called After Humanity, which is a nod to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s great book, After Virtue. And I’d recommend, our listeners who haven’t read that book, go read it, you’ll like, it’s one of those… It will shift… It shifts the way you view the world after you read After Virtue. It’s a hard book to read, but I think it’s a worthwhile one. What insights does MacIntyre give us about what happens when we debate, I guess, morality outside of the Tao?
Michael Ward: Yes, After Virtue is a very, very important work. As you say, it’s not terribly easy, but it’s worth grappling with, just as The Abolition Of Man is not terribly easy, but worth grappling with. And indeed the reason I called my guide to The Abolition of Man After Humanity is a little nod to After Virtue. In After Virtue, MacIntyre is arguing that in our present culture, differences of view have become incommensurable, like I was saying earlier, that there’s no third thing between you and me that we can measure our viewpoints against, because there’s no objective value is there, in a subjectivist modernist viewpoint? There’s no common yardstick against which diverse perspectives can be reckoned.
And for as long as these differences are considered unimportant, it doesn’t really matter, and we can celebrate diversity as a thing that’s good in and of itself. And diversity is a good thing to a certain extent, but it won’t solve serious disputes, because when you and I diverge, when you and I have diverse opinions about, say, the Me Too movement or rape and sexual predation, who’s going to tell us that I’m right and you’re wrong, or the other way around? Diversity is unable to arbitrate serious disputes, and then the pendulum swings all the way to the opposite pole. And here now I’m finally going to quote Alasdair MacIntyre. That’s why MacIntyre says, “It’s easy to understand why protest becomes a distinctive moral feature of the modern age, and why indignation is a predominant modern emotion. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protesters can never win an argument.”
“The indignant self-righteousness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protesters can never lose an argument either, hence protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protesters’ premises. Protesters rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say the protest can’t be effective, it’s to say that it can’t be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.” That’s all MacIntyre, and it’s like a finally detailed portrait of the modern age, isn’t it? Just trying to shout down your opponents, trying to out-protest the protesters on the other side of the fence, but not through any rational argument, not through moral persuasion, leading to a freely chosen change of viewpoint, it’s just strong-arming people into sharing your view, whether they like it or not, because there’s no common yardstick, there’s no objective reality to value. That’s the moral age in a nutshell, isn’t it?
Brett McKay: Yeah, explains Twitter, I think.
Michael Ward: [chuckle] Yeah.
Brett McKay: So the point is that MacIntyre is making there is without that objective moral reality that we can argue within, basically, the only way you can effect change is whoever is the loudest or the most forceful will win the argument.
Michael Ward:Yeah, and so might becomes right. This is a point that Lewis makes repeatedly in the course of The Abolition of Man and in his other works that if there’s no objective value, the only question is one of power, who has their hands on the levers of power, political power, or the power of the media, or literal physical power, that’s where right will reside, but not in a neutral realm, to which both the powerful and the weak have access.
Brett McKay: This is… Nietzsche predicted that too, when he said, “God is dead.” Well, here’s what happens when God is dead. You’re going to have… It’s basically wield the power. That’s all there is.
Michael Ward: Yes, absolutely.
Brett McKay: It gives this idea, it shows us what will happen if we turn our backs on that, there’s an idea that there’s an objective moral reality, it just sort of turns into emotivism is what MacIntyre calls it, it’s just people feeling things and shouting at each other and no one… Never coming to a conclusion. Did Lewis give any prescriptions on how to avoid that, or was this more of a just like, here’s what’s happening, watch out what’s happening, if you’re not careful, this is what’s going to happen.
Michael Ward: Well, he’s prescribing all sorts of ways of avoiding subjectivism, principally by just arguing, showing its falsity, that it’s self-defeating, and also by forecasting the very unattractive destination to which it leads. As for how we train our chests, well, that’s not something that is easily done by an individual on their own, it requires a whole community, parents training their children up in the way they should go, teachers doing the same, people in positions of public authority not abusing that authority, likewise shapers of public opinion in the media being careful to speak the truth and to speak nothing but the truth, artists in the way they tell their stories in novels and films, everybody has a part to play. So those are some of the prescriptions which are sort of implicit in The Abolition of Man, but really, his argument is principally intellectual and negative. It’s intellectual in that he’s arguing philosophically for the objectivity of value, and it’s negative in the way that he’s predicting a bad end if we adopt a subjectivist perspective.
Brett McKay: It’s a Jeremiad. It’s a prophetic thing.
Michael Ward: Yes.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, Michael, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about After Humanity and your work more generally?
Michael Ward: After Humanity is published by Word on Fire Academic, a new imprint. And if you go to wordonfire.org/humanity, you can find lots more about the book. And if you want to find about me more generally, I’ve got a website, michaelward.net, and I’m also on Facebook, people can befriend me on Facebook. I don’t do Twitter myself, but I do quite a bit on Facebook. So yeah, those are the ways to find out, and I ought to add, by the way, that if you order your copy of After Humanity through Word on Fire’s website, you get a free copy of The Abolition of Man by CS Lewis, with a matching cover. The publishers of The Abolition of Man have brought out a kind of complementary addition, which is very nice to have.
Brett McKay: Michael Ward, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Michael Ward: Thanks, Brett, I enjoyed it.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Michael Ward, he’s the author of the book After Humanity: A guide to CS Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. It’s available on Amazon. You can also go to wordonfire.org/humanity to pick a copy up there. If you buy it from Word on Fire, you’ll get a free copy of The Abolition of Man with your order. Also check out our shownotes on aom.is/menwithoutchests, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to Stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code Manliness at check-out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast.
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