Updated: Dec 2, 2019
Imagine going on a hike with your best friend. You come across a waterfall you say, “Wow! This is beautiful!” Your friend on the other hand, looks at the same waterfall and says “eh it’s alright I guess.” I have no doubt you have experienced some scenario like this in your life (I for one, still can’t understand how anyone could deny that The Office is the funniest show of all time. But those people are out there somewhere). In the early 20th century two English teachers used this scenario in a textbook to make a larger point: When we make an observation about something (a waterfall, ethics, morals) we really say nothing about the object. We only describe our feelings about the thing which we observe (the waterfall).
For some reason, the infamous C.S. Lewis despised this idea! He hated it so much he wrote three speeches in response to it. Those speeches were published together in a book called The Abolition of Man. Lewis’s main point was that when the truth becomes arbitrary and subjected to our feelings, man as we know him will be abolished. Sound extreme? It might not be.
Think about the idea that truth can be based on your feelings or relative to each individual. Today we hear this in conversation: “Whats true for you is not true for me” or “Truth is relative. It’s a matter of preference or opinion” or “We can’t know the truth.” Sounding familiar yet?
Truth is absolute. It cannot be based on our opinion. If truth exists, it is objective. Why? Because subjective truth cannot hold logically. None of the aforementioned statements can hold to their own standard. Think about the idea that “There is no truth!” The statement is self defeating: You are saying it’s true that there is no truth. Or let’s try another one. What about the statement “Whats true for you isn’t true for me?” If I get pulled over by a police officer today for speeding and I say “Sir, it may be true for you that I was speeding but for me, I was well under the limit” that officer will look at me as if I’ve lost my mind while writing the ticket.
So how could this possibly lead to what Lewis called the “Abolition of Man”? Why can’t we all live out our own truth in peace? Lewis attributes several reasons that subjective truth will lead to societal breakdown. Here are just a few points to take away from his book:
1. If truth is arbitrary, then we cannot define good and evil anymore. They become a matter of preference. Are there some things you would call evil? Maybe you think what Hitler did was evil. If so, then you believe in truth. If not, then what Hitler did was mere preference and therefore cannot be condemned. Hopefully the example (of Hitler) is enough to demonstrate how society falls apart when morality or truth is based on opinion. Each of us draw a line somewhere. Surely you believe in human rights and values. If so who gets to decide those values?
2. Someone will become the authority of what’s deemed right and wrong. Lewis described these people as “conditioners.” He wrote “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, is the power of some men to make other men what they please.” He added, “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.” Someone will be in charge. These “conditioners” will follow their appetite if there is no accountability to good and evil.
3. Materialism will lead to moral decline and dehumanization. Lewis writes, “the real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized conditioners.” In short, when materialism (the belief that everything real is made of material and values/morals are imaginary) becomes dominant, humanity becomes every man for himself. The evolutionary idea of a “survival of the fittest” mentality will become the means by which we live. Truth is important. It is real. And without it we will cease to be human. Never stop pursuing the truth.
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2007).