C.S. Lewis’ dystopia in The Abolition of Man

C.S. Lewis’ chief aim in The Abolition of Man is to show how untenable life outside belief in some objective, external natural moral law, what he calls The Tao,really is. In the third and final chapter of this short book Lewis presents a sort of dystopia, a picture of what life could be life if fully disconnected from the Tao.

He starts by asking what is meant by the phrase “Man’s conquest of Nature.”

His answer is that “what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” In the case of airplanes, some men exercise either cohesive power over other men by using the planes to drop bombs on them or implicit power by simply withholding other men the luxury of flight. In the case of contraceptives, one generation exercises power over the next generation.

It is this power of one generation over another which is particularly interesting to Lewis, a point he says which is often overlooked.

“In order to understand fully what Man’s power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors.”

From here Lewis imagines a generation which is on the one side most “liberated” from the tradition of the powers of its ancestors and on the other side possessing the ability, by eugenics, scientific education, and propaganda, to exercise great power over any succeeding generations. Lewis calls this generation (and indeed only a select few members of this generation) the Conditioners.

“Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundred men over billions upon billions of men… Each new power won by man is a power over man as well… For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.”

Some might ask, “Hasn’t every generation sought to condition the next generation through education?” Lewis answers yes to this question but notes two big differences between the old system and the new. The first difference is that the Conditioners will possess a potentially “irresistible scientific technique.” The second, more dangerous difference is that the Conditioners will teach as those apart from the Tao.

“In the older system both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao – a norm to which the teachers were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen.”

The Conditioners, having “debunked” the ideas of the Tao will be at liberty to define it as they will, for their own purposes.

“Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education… It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered… They know how to produce conscience and decided what kind of conscience to produce.”

So what kind of conscience will they decide to produce? An objective moral conscience is off the table since they view it only as myth. At first the Conditioners, holding on to some idea of moral law, may wish to produce a conscience in line with the Tao, but this only results from confusion. They will dig down, but find nothing objective:

“However far they go back, or down, they can find no ground to stand on. Every motive they try to act on becomes at once a petition. It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”

They will find one motive that resists being debunked: emotional impulse. This cannot be debunked because it is not objective: “What never claimed objectivity cannot be destroyed by subjectivisim… When all that says, ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

The Conditioners, then, will be men who by their own logic (or rather, illogic) will be driven by their impulses.

“It is from heredity, digestion, the weather, and the association of ideas that the motives of the Conditioners will spring. Their extreme rationalism, by ‘seeing through’ all ‘rational’ motives, leaves them creatures of a wholly irrational behavior.”

What then, is the whole picture of Lewis’ dystopia?

“At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ – to their irrational impulses.”


Note: The full text of The Abolition of Man is available here.