Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Death of England and the Abolition of Man

It's been said that "when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." I'd like not to think that C.S. Lewis is a hammer that I need to go to for any discussion of public policy. But he was a brilliant writer and moral philosopher, and there is much of what he had to say that was relevant, sometimes in startling ways, to the world in which we live.

Over in the Corner, Jay Nordlinger and Mark Steyn are lamenting, again, the death of England. This time, the context is a fire in the town of Doncaster in which a family perished, plausibly because the police on the scene felt that their duty was to prevent neighbors from trying to help, rather than to help themselves. The inimitable Steyn went on to decry the way that
the emergency responders who are supposed to save you (or at least make an attempt) instead wind up killing you - because a rote prostration before rule enforcement trumps their basic humanity. In recent years, the British police have evolved from being merely useless (at least when it comes to traditional activities such as solving crime) into what John O'Sullivan calls "the paramilitary wing of The Guardian" - the blundering enforcers of the nanny state.

And finishes by noting that
New Hampshire's great motto, "Live free or die", is not just a bit of bloodcurdling stemwinding but a real choice that Britons, Canadians and, alas, Americans ought to ponder: You can live as free men, with all the rights and responsibilities and vicissitudes of fate that that entails. Or you can watch your society decay and die before your eyes - as England, once the crucible of freedom, dies a little with every day.

In 1942, Alec King and Martin Ketley published "The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing." This was a text book, "intended for 'boys and girls in the upper forms of schools'." One of the people to whom publishers sent a copy was C.S. Lewis. Lewis took issue with the book. "I owe them, or their publisher, good language for sending me a complimentary copy. At the same time I shall have nothing good to say of them." He used the contents of the book as the jumping-off point for a series of three lectures, the Riddell Memorial Lectures, which he delivered at the University of Durham in February of 1943. The content was later published as The Abolition of Man.

In the lectures, Lewis addresses the ways in which the textbook, which he refers to as "The Green Book," teaches not so much literary analysis as moral philosophy. He gives the authors the benefit of the doubt on their intentions ("I doubt whether Gaius and Titius have really planned, under cover of teaching English, to propagate their philosophy") but not on the impact:
I am not concerned with what they desired but with the effect their book will certainly have on the schoolboy's mind. In the same way, they have not said that judgements of value are unimportant. Their words are that we 'appear to be saying something very important' when in reality we are 'only saying something about our own feelings'. No schoolboy will be able to resist the suggestion brought to bear upon him by that word only. I do not mean, of course, that he will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial. The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is 'doing' his 'English prep' and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all. The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him.
They may be perfectly ready to admit that a good education should build some sentiments while destroying others. They may endeavour to do so. But it is impossible that they should succeed. Do what they will, it is the 'debunking' side of their work, and this side alone, which will really tell.

The lectures then move into moral philosophy, and a discussion of whether or not there are objective truths, objective values in the universe. The authors of the book, whether intentionally or not, are in the business of "debunking" traditional values. But "their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people's values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough." They are "found to hold, with complete uncritical dogmatism, the whole system of values which happened to be in vogue among moderately educated young men of the professional classes during the period between the two wars."1 He sums up their values in the notes by saying that
It will be seen that comfort and security, as known to a suburban street in peace-time, are the ultimate values: those things which can alone produce or spiritualize comfort and security are mocked. Man lives by bread alone, and the ultimate source of bread is the baker's van: peace matters more than honour and can be preserved by jeering at colonels and reading newspapers.

With that as background, I can now get back to where I started. When Steyn and Nordlinger (and others) lament the "death of England," they aren't talking in geographical terms, or even (yet) in political or National terms. They are speaking in spiritual terms. They are speaking of a society that has reached a point where the attributes which made it a great society have withered or been bred away. Is this England the one upon which the sun never set? Is this the society that produced Shakespeare or Wellington or Shackleton? Which colonized the new world and Australia and India? The answer, obviously, is "no." A society may last for a while even if unwilling to respond to all assaults upon it; it cannot survive if unwilling to respond to any assaults upon it. And if "peace" is the highest moral value, one must accommodate rather than respond.

And now, to quote C.S. Lewis, from the first line of the second of the Riddell Lectures that make up The Abolition of Man, demonstrating prescience and foresight of the highest order:
The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.

Is there any question that facts have proven Lewis correct?

And, unfortunately, I see the same things happening around me in the United States. And that train is rolling a lot faster than I'd dreamed possible two years ago...

1 - If that sounds familiar, consider all of the people who look upon traditional marriage as a bigoted or outdated institution, but have no conception or understanding of any reason that one might oppose government recognition of homosexual marriages. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun.

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