“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. Artistotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought … In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good is consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. As Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’ … The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss before the Creator Himself. 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 in which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. ‘In ritual’, say the Analects, ‘it is harmony with nature that is prized.’ The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being ‘true.’” – The Abolition of Man
I had to read the Abolition of Man twice to fully appreciate it. It’s a short book clocking in at 81 pages and it had roughly two paragraphs per page, so it wasn’t tremendously difficult to do. Trying to choose what should be quoted for this article was difficult though. It seemed like every other paragraph was pregnant with insight and would look brilliant for a meme image with the text plastered over some type of “Naturalism” art. If I were you, I wouldn’t even bother finishing this article. Take the book recommendation and save yourself the time.
To summarize C.S. Lewis’s conception of the Tao: it’s the well spring of moral values. It is recognized in nearly every religion that there is something beyond the material world that must be respected. Something that we must give due appreciation to. The feeling of righteousness is reserved for those who understand it and can act in accordance to it. It is precisely the thing that if it falls, if it is reasoned out of existence, if it is “seen through,” every other moral system falls flat on its face—which is precisely the point of C.S. Lewis’s book.
C.S. Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man in response to receiving a copy of “The Green Book.” Though he never tells you what the actual book is, “The Green Book” is The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing and was written for the upper forms in English schools. Lying within The Green Book were critiques of moral language as having no value. For example: a tourist calls a waterfall “sublime” and another calls a waterfall “pretty.” The Green Book makes the claim that saying a waterfall is “sublime” is not a description of the waterfall at all but rather just an expression of the viewers feelings. This thinking, Lewis reasons, is the result of being outside of traditional morality. If virtue, according to St Augustine, is giving every object “that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it,” then precisely how is feeling awe in the face of a waterfall incorrect in any capacity? Why should this be critiqued? And why is that supposedly not a meaningful statement? The unspoken thing that C.S. Lewis teases out is that the authors of The Green Book only see value in a descriptive analysis of the waterfall. Only defining the material is what matters. So it can be reasoned that they are not operating under traditional morality (or the Tao) and they are, whether they know it or not, transmitting this value system to British students under the guise of English lessons.
The rest of the book tackles the question of what it means to operate outside of the Tao and whether or not another value system can be raised in its absence. People who rebel against traditional values often presuppose that beneath sentimental values are real values, more basic values, that are immune from debunking. These more “rational” or “biologically” based values though have little weight and are anything but rational.
The example C.S. Lewis continually refers back to is a Roman soldier that tells his son it is a “sweet and seemly thing to die for your country.” This value, firmly rooted in the Tao, is used to highlight the irrationality of a newly constructed moral system. Now let’s suppose the newly constructed morality in question is that Good means “whatever is useful for the community.” In the most extreme case, this means that the death of some men is useful to other men. But on what ground is dying for your community being asked? Honor, love, pride, and shame are excluded as motivating reasons. This new value system is more utilitarian than that. These “old fashioned” ideas that are sentimental in nature and don’t have a purely rational explanation are excluded by hypothesis.
It then might be reasonable for the person being asked to sacrifice himself, “Why should I take the risk to die for the community?” There may be a crisis of faith in this new morality. Why is altruism to the community more rational and intelligent than selfishness? If traditional values were debunked, what’s stopping the value of whatever is good for the community from being debunked? There is no firm ground to stand on, and suppose this person does sacrifice himself. Does he get to enjoy the fruit of his sacrifice? He certainly won’t according to this new rational value system. And because you can not derive an ought from an is rationally, the idea that your death will preserve the community may certainly be true, but the question is why ought you do it?
Instinct is then examined as a value system (or an explanation for certain phenomena). Instinct could be described as simply the preservation of society or the species itself. Is Instinct the most basic and core value that can be rationally used? It is certainly more basic than the good of the community. If something gets in the way of preserving the species, then it takes a backseat to this main imperative. So sacrificing yourself to the community is easier now because you’re guided by an Instinctual desire to do so. The value system is relying on the natural impulse one might feel to protect the community with no appeal to sentimental values.
In the case of dying for your community (insofar as someone who has done away with the Tao knows), death cuts off every possible satisfaction. The instinctive desire for the good of the community in self-sacrifice can never be satisfied, since its aim is achieved, if at all, when we are dead. So what are you left with? Someone will have to tell you that you ought to obey Instinct to preserve the species. But why? If Instinct is inevitable, why does anybody need to tell us what we can’t help but do? The water becomes murkier when we realize that obeying Instinct is contradictory. Instincts say different things. Your Instinct to preserve yourself might overcome your Instinct to preserve the community. And if the Instinct to preserve the community is supposed to hold supremacy, where is that rule derived, and how? You can’t appeal to a higher court than Instincts in this instance. Though, as humans do, a supreme value judgement will have to be made, “The preservation of the species is more important than an individual.” But that value can’t be made without reaching into the Tao.
“The Innovator attacks traditional values (the Tao) in defence of what he at first supposes to be (in some special sense) ‘rational’ or ‘biological’ values. But as we have seen, all the values which he uses in attacking the Tao, and even claims to be substituting for it, are themselves derived from the Tao. If he had really started from scratch, from right outside the human tradition of value, no jugglery could have advanced him an inch towards the conception that a man should die for the community or work for posterity. If the Tao falls, all his own conceptions of value fall with it. Not one of them can claim any authority other than that of the Tao. Only by such shreds of the Tao as he has inherited is he enabled even to attack it. The question therefore arises what title he has to select bits of it for acceptance and to reject others. For if the bits he rejects have no authority, neither have those he retains: if what he retains is valid, what he rejects is equally valid too.”
Only by accessing aspects of the Tao can the Tao truly be attacked. It’s, as he says, akin to branches of a tree being in rebellion to each other. C.S. Lewis notes that new values will never be created and makes an extremely prescient point about what ideologies are. I’d love to summarize this, but he says it much better than I can (I did tell you, Dear Reader, to just read the book…):
“There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.”
Ideologies being swollen aspects of the Tao is worth reflecting on. C.S. Lewis was primarily concerned with the National Socialist world view of the time (this book was written in 1943 during the fog of WWII). He saw, whether accurate or not, the duty to preserve the race as being an aspect of the Tao blown up by the Nazis. He viewed this scientific and racialist world view as brutal and cynical. He is honest though, he saw the possibility of abuse among Democrats as well as Communists if aspects of the Tao were blown out of proportion. It’s doubtful C.S. Lewis could have predicted Liberalism to reign supreme 80 years later with a (mostly) scientific worldview combined with extreme anti-racism.
To play ball with C.S. Lewis though, an old interview went around recently between James Mason (yes, the writer of Siege) and Bob Larson (a televangelist) on a live interview show called Talk Back. James Mason’s worldview could best be described as scientific racialism. For James Mason there is only the race. Little else affects his worldview. His morality is roughly, what’s good for the race is good for me.
The interview had its moments of hilarity. It’s worth watching with the conception of the Tao mind as well as seeing the calm James Mason make Bob Larson go ballistic over his illiberality. The crux of James Mason’s worldview becomes crystal clear near the end of the interview. Bob Larson presses James Mason on his racialism and if love matters and whether if anybody loving or hating him matters. Mason replies, “Actions matter. Results matter. Mere words. Mere emotions… They don’t stand for much.” Bob Larson even asked James Mason where he’ll go when he dies: “Right back to where I came from before I was born, wherever that may be. I have no idea. It may just be the soil.” In short it’s a purely materialist worldview in which only the race matter and only actions, immediately measurable things, matter. There is nothing beyond that.
When James Mason’s worldview is boiled down to that, no matter how well spoken it is, its uninspiring. It also runs into the issues listed above. “Why should I sacrifice myself for the race? Why is this more logical than not sacrificing for the race? And if I do sacrifice myself for the race, what’s my reward? My death will be meaningless for me if all that I’m met with is oblivion.” Normal people will bristle when exposed to this worldview. Try to comfort your dying grandmother with this worldview. Teach a child this worldview and see if you don’t feel something lacking in it. Try to inspire a soldier going in to battle with it. Morality, reduced to some arbitrary aspect of the Tao is less inspiring than the whole Tao.
Now, to be fair, I have to point out that Bob Larson’s worldview is—though not as revolting to the normal person—but still cringeworthy to many salt of the Earth Americans. This exchange was hilarious and revealing. For context, there are three of James Mason’s “comrades” in the room over.
Bob Larson: Those guys in the other room look bad. They just look bad. You see those guys coming… You don’t want your daughter marrying one of them.
James Mason: Better one of them than a black.
Bob Larson: You couldn’t resist that could you?
James Mason: No I couldn’t.
Bob Larson: I would rather a daughter marry a black than one of them. Because those are devil disciples.
James Mason: Lord help ya, Bob.
Are normal people religious? Certainly. Do normal people want their traditions, ancestry, and their family as it existed for millennia to be radically changed into a different race? Certainly not. This is another instance of the Tao being blown out of proportion. There is certainly brotherhood to be had between man, but taken to more extreme conclusions is beyond the pale for most people. The synthesis between James Mason and Bob Larson would produce a more holistic world view.
Who is a more healthy and balanced human being who possesses moral authority and righteousness, a right winger who would never stick up for any out group, or the Dalai Lama who once said, “Keep Europe for the Europeans.” What compels him to say that? Europeans aren’t his ethnic or racial group. Yet he sees value in holding that position. I seriously doubt he expects anything in return. He’s simply expressing a brotherly sentiment towards another group of people. There’s nothing wrong with it. And it doesn’t stop him from first and foremost being a Tibetan concerned with Tibetan language, culture, and heritage.
There are balances to be had. Imbalances in the Tao create unpleasant human beings. What if the conception of “brotherhood among nations” is the only sentiment held? It was certainly a common sentiment among ancient religions. It’s fairly obvious that being completely hostile to foreign nations is not a recipe for peace but to be lopsidedly pro the other is just as dangerous, if not more so. You produce a globalist with no roots to home. Or you produce an antifa type whose primary political goal is just anti-racism. These people are a scourge on whatever nation they infect because they’ve taken an aspect of the Tao and have distorted it beyond all comprehension. Nothing is balancing out this sentiment. There’s no love of one’s own group to tip the scales into something people can recognize as good.
To move on from the ideologies being a distortion of the Tao, C.S. Lewis brings up an interesting point about magic and science. They started as twins. They both had the same goal, to subdue nature under the power of man.
“There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse…There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”
C.S. Lewis speculates in the final pages of The Abolition of Man if it was ever possible to seek knowledge and not eventually be conquered by nature:
“Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever.”
C.S. Lewis wrote of the abolition of man in the spiritual sense. Could he have predicted it could be literal? Some broken men are so slavish to their impulses that they utilize science to imitate women. Where is the Tao in such a grotesque act? It’s not there. It’s only nature.
As we see through everything, make discoveries, and rationalize more and more, we are reduced to animals. All that’s left is our own instincts. All that is left is our own will. When we split the atom, we felt triumphant enough to dissect our own morality. What was left was pure animal nature. We haven’t conquered nature in the slightest. Modern man now fully embraces nature as his guiding impulse in his desire for sex, drugs, and hedonism. Whatever his decision, it is merely nature. There is nothing beyond modern man’s existence for him to grasp at. There is nothing to guide him, and he’s left with only his appetites. When you see through everything, the world is invisible. To see through a kitchen window is beneficial. To see through the garden is the same as not seeing at all. The backstop of rationality must be the Tao if we are to remain beings higher than animals.