C. S. Lewis and The Abolition of Man

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What does it mean to be human? This is not a new question. We have been wondering, searching for answers, and debating the purpose of our existence throughout the ages. As the great poet and ancient king of Israel once asked of God,

What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:4, NIV)

The questions may not be new, but the context we currently find ourselves in has brought about new complexities—and confusions—in our search for answers.

What does it mean to be human in a digital age where typing with your brain and hearing through our skin is posited as a possibility, rather than something out of a sci-fi novel?[1] How is our understanding of life’s significance shaped by technologies that allow virgins to give birth, people to alter their physical sex, or parents to test their children for genetic-related disease and disability before birth?

In The Abolition of Man—published nearly 75 years ago—C. S. Lewis speaks indirectly, though perhaps prophetically, to our current complexities—reminding us that there is truly nothing new under the sun. In the title chapter of the book, Lewis asks the question, “In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?”[2] Are we able to have the control over Nature and live the autonomous lives we desire? In our attempt to understand and fully live out what it means to be human, is it possible to conquer those aspects of Nature we believe hinder, diminish, or destroy our flourishing, thereby solidifying our humanity?

Today’s emphasis on biotechnology and medical sciences would have us believe the answer is yes. But Lewis answered no. Lewis was not opposed to technologies in general, and the same should be true for us today. Many of the medical and biotechnological advances we have made, and continue to make, are good and worthy of praise. What Lewis recognized and cautioned against was the theological, philosophical, and ethical underpinnings of humanity’s attempt to increase its power over Nature. Not all that is done in the name of good is good. Not all attempts at flourishing succeed.

For Lewis, “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.”[3] In other words, in the scientific attempt to subdue Nature for the betterment of humanity, Nature becomes a tool in the hands of some humans to subdue other humans under them. To illustrate his point, Lewis looks partially at eugenics.

In reality… if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them.[4]

While eugenics is not a popular term or concept (rightfully so) in our current culture, consider Lewis’ thought process in light of what Oxford professor and ethicist Julian Savulescu calls “Procreative Beneficence.” Savulescu argues that we should use genetic testing to choose the potential child that has the greatest probability of maximizing the best life. For instance, if testing is used on two embryos during in vitro fertilization (IVF) and it is discovered that the first will be predisposed to asthma, but the second will not, Procreative Beneficence supports implanting the second embryo and discarding the first as morally permissible.[5]

In the example posited by Savulescu, humanity’s power over asthma becomes some people’s power over others to achieve a perceived good. In this context, Lewis’ words take on a prophetic nature. “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.”[6]

But Lewis does not end his argument here. He recognized the importance of motive in the decisions we make in our pursuit of human flourishing and meaning. Of those people who rely on humanity’s ability to conquer Nature he wrote:

But I am not supposing them to be bad men. They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what “Humanity” shall henceforth mean. “Good” and “bad,” applied to them, are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforward to be derived.[7]

This becomes the crux of the matter for Lewis. A firm believer that there is a universal moral law (and thus a Law Giver) instilled in humanity, he saw great danger in rejecting this Law. Where there is no moral boundary, there is no limit to what humanity can do to other humans in the name of overcoming Nature: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”[8] In this sense, with this mindset, asking what it means to be human becomes redundant. Nature usurps humanity. “Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”[9]


[1] Josh Constine, “Facebook is Building Brain-Computer Interfaces for Typing and Skin-Hearing,” Tech Crunch, April 19, 2017, https://techcrunch.com/2017/04/19/facebook-brain-interface/ (accessed April 26, 2017).

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Harper One, 2001 [1943]), 54.

[3] Ibid., 55.

[4] Ibid., 57.

[5] Julian Savulescu, “Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children,” Bioethics 15, no. 5 (2001): 415–417.

[6] Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 59.

[7] Ibid., 63.

[8] Ibid., 65.

[9] Ibid., 64.