C. S. Lewis vs. Modern Education (Part 2)

We’ve seen, in Part 1, that Lewis’s critique of modern education begins by highlighting the marginalization of value statements, the separation of fact and value, and the creation of men without chests. However, Lewis is not merely lamenting the loss of virtues like courage, fidelity, and sacrifice. For he knows that nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of these virtues, men will turn elsewhere to find meaning and purpose.

The Appeal to Instinct

Lewis rejects the notion that those who are debunking “traditional values” are themselves value-less. “A great many of those who "debunk" traditional or (as they would say) "sentimental" values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process” (43). Indeed, Lewis contends that these “skeptics” would be well-served to be a little more skeptical about their own system of values. For, having rejected the Tao (Lewis’s word for Natural Law, Traditional Morality, First Principles, essentially a combination of the “givenness” of reality and traditions handed down from generation to generation), these innovators simply end up elevating “Instinct” to an ultimate value.

The Rebellion of Branches Against the Tree

The difficulty with obeying “Instinct” is three-fold:

  1. Instinct is just a word for phenomena that we can’t explain (“to say that migratory birds find their way by instinct is only to say that we do not know how migratory birds find their way” (46). In this sense, appeals to Instinct plant our feet firmly in mid-air.
  2. “Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey "people." People say different things; so do instincts. Our instincts are at war” (49).
  3. If we dive further into this appeal to Instinct, we discover that these innovators are borrowing from the Tao (Traditional Morality) in order to attack Traditional Morality. As Lewis says, this “is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves” (56).

The Rejection of Value and the Attempt to Conquer Nature

Faced with such a self-contradiction, the innovators are forced to take one more step. Rather than attempting to separate fact and value and subsequently elevate Instinct as an ultimate value, they can simply reject the concept of “value” altogether. In the place of ultimate values, they substitute what has become a near-obsession in the modern world: Man’s Conquest of Nature through science and technology. Space limits my ability to unpack Lewis’s analysis of this phenomenon, so I will simply state his conclusions:

First, “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men” (69). The reason is simply that the attempt to conquer Nature must culminate in the conquest of human nature. In other words, ultimately these innovators (which Lewis dubs “Conditioners”) have as their aim the refashioning of Mankind. But in order to remake Mankind, they must relinquish their stake in it, stepping outside the obligations that are derived from something above Man (namely, God) and the ties that bind men together in order to guide and condition the remaining men into whatever image they please.

Second, having stepped outside of the Tao that stands over and above all men, these Conditioners cease to be men at all (at least in the traditional sense of the word). “Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man” (74). Indeed —

At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ — to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammeled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.


In summary, Lewis sees the progression as:

  1. The Marginalization of Value Statements leads to
  2. the Separation of Fact from Value which leads to
  3. the Creation of Men Without Chests, which leads to
  4. the elevation of “Instinct” as an ultimate value, which, because of its own self-contradictions leads to
  5. Man’s Attempt to Conquer Nature through science and technology, which leads to
  6. the Tyranny of the Conditioners over Mankind, which in the end is
  7. the Abolition of Man.

Such is the trajectory of modern education, and it is a trajectory that Lewis is committed to reversing. His means: an older, and better, view of Man and education.