Janie B. Cheaney: 80 years of The Abolition of Man | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Janie B. Cheaney: 80 years of The Abolition of Man


WORLD Radio - Janie B. Cheaney: 80 years of <em>The Abolition of Man</em>

The classic by C.S. Lewis still helps readers restore their full humanity, uniting head and heart

C. S. Lewis Associated Press/Photo by Walt Stoneman

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, August 23rd. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Paul Butler.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Up next: men without chests. Commentator Janie B. Cheaney reflects on the 80th anniversary of a classic book by C. S. Lewis.

JANIE B. CHEANEY, COMMENTATOR: In February of 1943, C. S. Lewis delivered three evening lectures at King’s College in Newcastle. Later that year the series was published in book form under the title of the third lecture: The Abolition of Man. The book is very short; my version is only 91 pages plus an appendix. You could read it in an evening but don’t attempt it unless you can devote your full attention. It’s incredibly packed. Almost every sentence could be pondered in solitude or discussed in an evening literary circle. I find myself rereading it every two or three years, because his main point is as eerily relevant today as it was eighty years ago: that humanity is in danger of becoming inhuman.

The first chapter, titled “Men Without Chests,” concerns Modern educational trends. Exhibit A is a composition textbook sent to him by a publisher who may have been hoping for an endorsement. Instead, Lewis gives both authors pseudonyms and slams the book. The volume goes down in history as the notorious Green Book by “Gaius and Titius,” names which paint them as educated barbarians contributing to the gutting of national character.

Gaius and Titius apparently buy into logical positivism, which holds that a statement has meaning only if it can be objectively demonstrated. As an example, they reference Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s story about a waterfall. There were two tourists, besides Coleridge, at an overlook. One tourist said the waterfall was sublime and the other said it was beautiful–or as Lewis relates it, “pretty.” Coleridge mentally endorsed Tourist A—“sublime” was the proper value given to this natural wonder, while words like “beautiful” or “pretty” were wholly inadequate.

Gaius and Titius give the impression that such value statements are meaningless: isn’t one man’s sublime another man’s pretty? The sooner English schoolboys and girls learn to privilege objective fact over subjective value, the better off we’ll all be.

Lewis wasn’t buying it. As a classical scholar he could call on the best of Western tradition—and even Eastern tradition—to support his argument that hearts must be educated as well as heads. Emotion has as great a stake in human progress as logic and reason. If a child’s emotions are not trained along with his intellect, there will be no arbiter between his brain and his gut-level appetite. Hence, “Men Without Chests.”

Today, many scientists still embrace logical positivism. And after decades of so-called “values-free” education, gut-level passion rules our arts and politics. That middle cavity of good judgment remains empty, and Lewis’s famous quote still resonates: “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.”

Still relevant. You might want to crack open The Abolition of Man before sending the kids back to school.

I’m Janie B. Cheaney.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


Please wait while we load the latest comments...