C.S. Lewis: defender of objective truth

C.S. Lewis: defender of objective truth

Adam Glyn Cooper

The following is the edited text of a talk given by Rev Dr Adam Glyn Cooper at a C.S. Lewis Seminar at the Thomas More Centre on 17 September 2005. Dr Cooper is Pastor of St John's Lutheran Church, Geelong, an Honorary Fellow, Department of Classics and Archaeology, at the University of Melbourne, and author of books on early Christian history and numerous articles and reviews.

Footnote details have been omitted but are available on request.

The words "nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being, like a worm" come from the pen of one of the better-known protagonists of modern existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1943, in a book entitled Being and Nothingness, Sartre spelled out an analysis of the human condition in terms that were to gain increasingly wide acceptance.

Everything starts, and ends, with you, the individual. That's all there is. There is no God. There is no objective, given world of reality or truth. You are your own truth. Reality is whatever you make it to be. The human animal is essentially free: free to create himself as he will; free to define what is and what is not, what should be and what should not be.

The only obligation man has, according to Sartre, is to himself. The human individual must be true to himself; he must live an "authentic" existence. Authentic to what? Authentic, one can only presume, to the essential "nothingness" that lies coiled in the heart of being, like a worm.

Sartre himself could see that he was painting an absurd picture. No doubt lots of things seemed absurd in Europe in 1943. But despite the war, someone else in Europe was also painting pictures in 1943, though with quite different brush- strokes. It was C. S. Lewis.

During that year, Lewis composed three of his most important apologetic works on the nature of humanity. In February, Lewis travelled north with his brother Warnie to the University town of Durham. There Lewis delivered a series of three lectures, published that year under the title, The Abolition of Man.

A few months on, in the summer edition of the journal Religion in Life, he published a condensed version of this already brief book in an essay entitled "The Poison of Subjectivism". And at the end of the year, just before Christmas, Lewis penned the preface to the third volume in his "space trilogy".

Described by Lewis himself as a "tall story about devilry", though with "a serious point", That Hideous Strength presents the reader with an unremitting anti-gnostic offensive couched in the form of a riotous parable of two worlds, or one could almost say two cities, each the sphere for either the making and unmaking of humanity.

A grand illusion

In these three works, Lewis prophetically traces the demise of humanity at the hands of moral subjectivism. Having done away with all objective norms, all moral absolutes, having delivered itself from the clutches of the natural order, humanity is free to create itself, unbound from the limitations imposed by God, nature, and tradition. But Lewis exposes this spectre as a grand illusion.

Despite all denials to the contrary, the scientistic ideologues have their moral commitments too: they are bent on capturing the right technique, the right skill, the right method, all, allegedly, for the good of the human species. But who's to say what's good for humanity? Defining what's good is part of the new project. Following what Lewis dubs "the ethics of instinct", the new science-priests "have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what 'Humanity' shall henceforth mean."

What does Lewis mean by "traditional humanity"? In The Abolition of Man he begins by challenging the authors of a recent book on literature and education. The authors claim that any judgements or assertions of truth we may make about things are simply misleading ways of describing our own subjective feelings. So when we say, "The waterfall is sublime", we are not actually describing anything true of the waterfall itself. We are simply saying that the waterfall pleases us, that we have certain feelings or emotions generated by our experience of the waterfall.

The effect of this way of thinking, argues Lewis, is to rob all things of any objective value in and of themselves. Things that are truly sublime, like a waterfall, properly elicit feelings of reverence and humility. That's how things should be. Objects of true value are worthy of certain subjective responses on our part.

"Traditional humanity" is an integral element in this classical vision of reality. Thus it has always been the aim of education, at least as it has been defined for nearly two and a half millennia, to teach a student what is and what is not worthy of admiration and respect, or in other words, "to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought."

But here we need to make a crucial qualification. It is not the aim of education to produce these feelings of like or dislike, these feelings of reverence or repulsion. As even the briefest overview of contemporary curricula will show, subjectivist education focuses heavily on the elicitation of certain feelings, the production of the required, politically correct, response.

Lewis is certainly concerned about feelings. To live rightly, one must not only believe correctly, but feel correctly too. "By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes." Feelings of pride and shame, pleasure and disgust, indignation and compassion are to be cultivated to work hand in hand with reason against the raw passions of our animal nature.

But according to the traditional view of humanity, these human feelings must be rightly ordered in relation to objective realities. There are things that are worthy of reverence, such as God and justice and truth and beauty and courage. And there are things that are worthy of repulsion, such as tyranny and injustice and falsehood and disorder and cowardice.

Without these objective realities, good or bad, there is nothing towards which to orient our subjective feelings and desires and actions, nothing against which to measure their respective level of correspondence. To abolish these objective realities, is to abolish the foundation for determining what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is true and false - whether at the level of emotion, thought, or action.

Unified order

Lewis gives a name to this unified order of values: the Tao. In a lengthy appendix to The Abolition of Man, Lewis documents a long list of ancient testimonies - from Norway to Egypt, from Italy to China - that amount to a formidable consensus on the ubiquitous and normative character of the Tao.

Common to the Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental traditions alike, the Tao, he says, "is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kinds of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply a record of a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognise a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not ...

"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."

It is noteworthy that The Abolition of Man attacks moral subjectivism as it was being propagated in the 1940s with the new logical- positivist philosophy of language. This philosophy, associated especially with Ludwig Wittgenstein in Austria, set itself the goal of making language fit the rules of mathematical science. Any proposition that could not be verified by empirical observation was considered meaningless. But this attempt to make language more objective had the reverse effect. Severed from their roots in reality, words were granted a function as little more than pawns in a game of rhetoric.

Others beside Lewis have seen the problems this program presents for humanity. The German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper argued that the dethronement of language presents an immediate threat to the fabric of society. With the decay of communication comes "the danger that reality and truth may become unrecognisable to us all."

Almost without knowing it, logical positivism reduced language to an instrument of power. But this "divorce between words and things" (Michel de Certeau), as Lewis saw, could lead only into a "complete void." "Words", he knew, "are to be listened to because they are doorways to reality." To efface meaning from language is to efface the real world on which language depends, and which it is meant to mediate.

It is the deconstruction of this world of objective value, or what medieval philosophers call the order of nature, that today is unfolding before our very eyes. The irony is, as Lewis predicted, that what appears to be man's conquest of nature is turning out, "in the moment of its consummation, to be nature's conquest of Man." The quest for scientistic elitism is consummated in technological slavery. The quest for gnostic immaterialism is consummated in sensual debauchery.

At one point in That Hideous Strength, the scientist Augustus Frost, just before committing suicide, contemplates the collapse of his technocratic empire. But the knowledge does not move him, "because he had long ceased to believe in knowledge itself ... He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him."

Frost belongs to that league of educationists - "Conditioners", Lewis calls them - who believe it is their task "to create con- sciences", not fully realising that "those who create conscience cannot be subject to conscience themselves."

Objective moral law

In a question that takes us back to Sartre's groundless idea of human freedom, Lewis asks, "If 'good' means only the local ideology, how can those who invent the local ideology be guided by any idea of good themselves? The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy".

Lewis holds before us a new way forward for humanity. I say "new", but in actual fact it is old. This way begins, as Heraclitus once put it, by "listening-in to the being of things", or as we might say, by "tuning in" to the universally valid, objective order of reality. This means that the fundamental vocation of humanity is not to create reality, but to receive it: to see it as it is, and to submit to it.

The educational process that flows from this involves the teacher initiating the student into the mystery of that order, a mystery that includes him, and warrants wonder. It takes shape in the form of handing on a tradition, a definite body of tried, true, tested, and therefore trustworthy knowledge and habits for which, as the teacher knows and shows by example, it is worthy to give one's life.

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