Lewis’s Rejection of Nihilism: The Tao and the Problem of Moral Knowledge

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C. S. Lewis published The Abolition of Man in 1944 in the midst of World War II. We can perhaps imagine the ominous and suggestive nature of this timing. But, as readers soon discovered, the book was not at all about the War, or Hitler’s eugenics, or the looming nuclear threat. Lewis’s real subject is the soul and its education. According to Lewis, the real enemy—more dangerous than any nation, weapon, or science—is a philosophy: nihilism. It is perhaps a bit misleading to say that nihilism is a “post-modern” philosophy, for there have been nihilists and advocates of nihilism as long as there have been men. But it is true that this philosophy has come to be more widely preached and practiced in our time than ever before. In The Abolition of Man Lewis both explains and combats this modern (post-modern) development.

As Lewis shows in the first section of the book (“Men Without Chests”), the path towards nihilism begins with moral relativism—the belief that all ascriptions of moral value are merely the (collective or individual) expression of emotions, and are therefore neither true nor false in an objective sense. This is the view that is implicitly taught in The Green Book, the elementary textbook on English that provoked Lewis to write The Abolition of Man. Under the guise of teaching linguistics and grammar, the two authors of The Green Book (Lewis gives them the pseudonyms Gaius and Titius) say that all statements containing predicates of value are actually nothing more than expressions of the speaker’s or writer’s feelings with respect to the object, person, or event that is being evaluated. To suppose that we have said—or even could say—anything about the beauty or ugliness, the justice or injustice, or the moral virtue or vice of an object, event, or person is just confusion.

But Lewis says that Gaius and Titius have misunderstood the educational predicament of our time.

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt. (27-28)

Lewis goes on to show that this belief is basic to all historical cultures and religions, and its expression found in literature from Aristotle to Shelley, from Plato to Traherne, from Confucius to Coleridge, from the Hindu Upanishads to the Judaic Law, to the Christian Scriptures, to St. Augustine’s City of God, Kant’s Foundations, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

What is common to them all . . . is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. (31)

It is the set of these true attitudes—these proper congruencies between objects, people, and events and our emotional responses to them—that Lewis calls the Tao. The traditional, pre-modern “educational predicament” consisted of “making the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Lewis emphasizes this pedagogy’s effort towards training the emotional responses: “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful” (29).

In contrast to this is the “educational predicament”—facing not only Gaius and Titius but all of us in this “post-modern” time—that all values are merely the expression of emotions or mere social constructions. Accordingly, Lewis says,

On this view, the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible. . . . Hence the educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists. Those without, if they are logical, must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational, as mere mists between us and the real objects. As a result, they must either decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind: or else to encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic “justness” or “ordinacy.” The latter course involves them in the questionable process of creating in others by “suggestion” or incantation a mirage which their own reason has dissipated.” (32-33)

Lewis continues to show the objective legitimacy of the Tao, and finally the horrifying dehumanization that inevitable follows nihilism. There is, however, a crucial prior question which, if not answered, makes all these subsequent arguments and demonstrations moot. If there is no answer to it, then some nihilists—those who still pay lip service to what is reasonable and what is not—can still claim an intellectual foothold. The question is: Who is to say what emotional or passional responses are appropriate (or inappropriate) with respect to any given object, person, or event? Who is to say that the proper emotional response to the waterfall, for example, is awe or humility or veneration, and not just mild admiration or indifference? Lewis answers: “Someone within the Tao.” But a clever nihilist will point out that this answer simply begs the question. He will ask, “And who is within the Tao?” And herein lies an apparent logical difficulty. For if being “within the Tao” is to actually have the appropriate responses to things like the waterfall, then only those who actually have those appropriate responses would know what the appropriate responses are (or ought to be). Put like this, we have both a logical problem and a practical problem. Logically, the definition is circular: only those who know what “to be within the Tao” really means are those who really know what it means to be within the Tao. Practically, it is impossible for those not within the Tao to know who is or who is not within the Tao. Even if they think they know, they cannot; not even if someone within the Tao tells them, for they would not know whom to believe (in other words, they would be completely credulous).

Indeed this is an old and perennial problem: Socrates is confronted with it over and over again in Plato’s dialogues. For example, in Theaetetus Socrates suggests that there is a distinction between “possessing” knowledge and “having” knowledge, just as a man might possess a coat without actually having it with him. Aristotle, too, makes the distinction between actions done in accordance with virtue and virtuous action. The former is an act that a virtuous person would do, but not necessarily done for the same reasons that a virtuous person would have for doing it. Knowing what it is like to be virtuous is not identical with being virtuous. Socrates points out this same distinction in his apology before the jury by saying that, although he knows quite well that he does not possess wisdom (i.e., knowledge of human excellence), he is wise in this sense: he does not claim to know that which he does not know.

I am fairly certain that Lewis would follow this lead had he said more in answer to this question, and so I will follow it and dare to propose that there are two, possibly even three, senses of “knowing.” First, there is the sense of knowing that something is true. This sort of knowing could be further subdivided into (a) knowing “just the facts” as Joe Friday and Gaius and Titius would think of “the facts” (e.g., that the waterfall is 250 feet tall, with an average flow of 8.4 million gallons per minute), and (b) knowing facts about value (i.e. about a reasonable and proper affection or emotional reaction towards a certain object, event or person). Secondly, there is the sense of knowing the truth of something—the sense of being true to that thing by actually having the appropriate response. What is crucial here is that we actually do use the word “know” in all of these ways; and usually it is clear from the context, expression of voice, and known characteristics of the individuals involved, which sense is intended. (Think of sentences like these: “He talks, but says nothing.” “Some men are not men at all.” “He may be King, but he’s no king.” A friend of mine once said to me, “There’s no such thing as Country Music: if it’s Country, it’s not music.”)

Given these distinctions, there are two senses in which someone might be said to be “within the Tao.” One might be said to be “within the Tao” if one knows that there are proper and improper affections or emotional responses to a variety of objects, events, and persons (1b), and if one therefore seeks to discover and learn what these proper and improper affections or emotional responses are. In the first chapter of The Abolition of Man, Lewis shows clearly what the practical consequences are of not living within the Tao, in this sense: the result is “men without chests,” persons with no spirit, no passion. Such (so-called) men neither love nor hate anything. Then, in the second chapter of The Abolition of Man, Lewis shows that being “outside the Tao” in this sense—i.e., not knowing that there are objectively proper and improper affections or emotional responses to a variety of objects, events, and persons, and therefore determining for oneself what affections or emotional responses are “proper” and “improper”—also has logical consequences: it is self-contradictory. For any attempt to reject or justify any particular set of personally or culturally determined values necessarily presupposes that there are values we all share. Simply put, if all values were merely opinions or matters of taste, we could not (and would not) value them. Such “values” aren’t values. Such “values” are worthless.

So far, so good. And the nihilists agree! “It’s all or nothing: and since we reject all,” they say, “we’ve got nothing left! We always knew moral relativism was weak and pale and suffered from consumption! The only true way is to scrap values altogether. A ‘revaluation of all values’ is what we want; and not because it would be better or worse or advantageous for any such evaluative reasons, but just because we desire it.”

As I mentioned, Lewis demonstrates that the conclusion of this view is the abolition of Man: for without any values, neither objective nor subjective, there can be no (deliberate) choice, no exercise of reason, and no morality. If the nihilists win the day they will have nothing preventing them from imposing whatever kind of conditioning they desire upon others and will rob them of their freedoms. Yet the nihilists themselves will necessarily be enslaved to their own irrational desires and the forces of nature that will sway their moods and condition their reactions. In short, whatever we had, it would not be Man: whatever kind of creature we would be, we would no longer be Men.

Lewis’ demonstration is brilliant and, as far as I can see, unassailable by argument. Nevertheless, the bleak picture he paints might still be unavoidable if the alternative—living within the Tao—turns out to be nonsense. For even if we admit the possibility of knowing facts about value, we’ve still got the circularity to deal with; and the second sense of “knowing.”

So let us return to the problem. The person who can rightly say what emotional or passional responses are appropriate (or inappropriate) with respect to any given object, person, or any natural or human event is he who is “within the Tao.” And what, now, is the sense of “within”? Recall that we have these two questions to answer: (a) “Who is to say what emotional or passional responses are appropriate or inappropriate with respect to any given natural object, person, or any natural or human event?” and (b) “Who is within the Tao?” The two possibilities when the sense of “knowing” is the same in answer to both questions have already been mentioned, but a brief reiteration of each will clarify things.

1. The first way of trying to understand what it means to be “within the Tao” is like this: If we understand the first question to be asking, “Who knows what the appropriate emotional responses are to any given object, person, or event?”; and if we answer the second question in the same way, “The person within the Tao is the one who knows what the appropriate emotional responses are to any given object, person, or event,” then we get nowhere. The person who knows what the appropriate emotional responses are to any given object, person, or event is the person who knows what they are. This is nonsense.

2. The second way of trying to understand what it means to be “within the Tao” is like this: If we take the first question to be asking, “Who actually has the emotional response appropriate to any object, person, or event—e.g., the waterfall?”; and if we answer the question “Who is within the Tao?” using this same sense of “within” (“The person within the Tao is the person who actually has the appropriate emotional responses to something like the waterfall, responses such as awe, humility, and veneration”), then, again, the logical circularity becomes apparent: the only ones who know what “to be within the Tao” really means are those who really know what it means to be within the Tao. This, too, is nonsense.

These two possibilities—both of which are attempts to understand the expression “within the Tao” without distinguishing between the two different kinds of knowing—end up in a logical circularity and in nonsense. Clever nonsense, but nonsense nonetheless.

So it looks as if the only way to avoid the self-contradictory nature of the answers is to understand them as employing both senses of knowing: one sense in the first question, and the other sense in the second question. So now let us try to understand the problem using a combination of these two senses of knowing. There are two possibilities here:

3. Let us take the sense of knowing in answer to the first question—“Who really knows what emotional or passional responses are appropriate (or inappropriate) with respect to any given object, person, or event?”—as having the appropriate or “true” emotional response to objects, persons or events. And let us take the sense of knowing in answer to the second question—“And who is within the Tao?”—as knowing what those appropriate responses are. In this case a person is “within the Tao” when he knows what the appropriate emotional or passional responses are in (nearly) all cases, even though he may not have them. Indeed, he might have the true or correct affections only very rarely. But his being within the Tao will enable him to see this about himself. And, of course, he will also see what the appropriate emotional or passional responses he ought to have upon recognition of his dearth of true or appropriate passions: he ought to be pained by it, and feel remorseful, ashamed, and humbled. Of course, he may not actually have these responses either. But this lack of proper emotion or passion cannot be complete; it cannot go “all the way down,” as it were. If such a person’s passions are so weak or misdirected as not to feel any sorrow or remorse in light of the recognition of his own weak or misdirected passions, then we can hardly say that he is still “within the Tao.” In short, being “within the Tao” cannot be solely an intellectual condition. Such a person would be “insanely reasonable” (Chesterton calls such a one a “Maniac”). At the most fundamental level, there must be a love for the Tao, a basic affection for truth and goodness and beauty. No one lacking this can be said to live “within the Tao.”

Nevertheless, it is clear that this condition—knowing what emotions and passions one ought to have while not actually having them—is an accurate description of a great many of us. We see the ideal, and, in seeing it, we also see how far we are from it.

Now let’s look at the last possible combination.

4. Let us suppose the sense of knowing in answer to the first question—“Who really knows what emotional or passional responses are appropriate (or inappropriate) with respect to any given natural phenomena, natural or human event, or person?”—as having the appropriate or “true” emotional response to objects, persons or events. And let us take the sense of knowing in answer to the second question—“And who is within the Tao?”—as knowing what those appropriate responses are. In this case a person is “within the Tao” when he has the appropriate emotional or passional responses in (nearly) all cases, even though he may not know what they ought to be; i.e., he may not be able to say, with any specificity or clarity, what they ought to be, nor articulate any sort of rationale for why they are appropriate. Indeed, such a person might not be able to give any sort of account of true and right emotion, even though they (nearly) always have it. Such a person would be like a pure and innocent child. Their “accounting” would be their own way of life. (Think of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin in The Idiot.) Like the previous sense of knowing, this avenue also has its limiting case: if the appeal is to be human, it must include an appeal to the intellect. At some level there must be something immanently reasonable about right and true emotion, even for those whose intellect is undeveloped or limited. In order to be an ideal, the notion must be distinguishable, and it is with the intellect that distinctions are made.

Both of these latter combinations (3 and 4) avoid the self-contradictory nature of the first two, and either of them is enough to ensure that the nihilist cannot squirm out of Lewis’ critique without being inhuman. Either one closes the logical loophole through which the nihilist might try to escape.

Now, which one is better?

Someone looking only for a basis for morality would be indifferent to the answer to this question: for morality can stand on either, and neither one is better or worse than the other. And since this is Lewis’ specific concern in The Abolition of Man, he could use either argument to respond to the nihilist’s charge of question begging and logical circularity, for either explanation shows how it is possible to simultaneously know what is good, true, and beautiful and not know what is good, true, and beautiful. In other words, either solution will enable us to see how it is possible—and what it means—to have choices, to be reasonable, to be passionate about certain things, and to make moral judgments. In other words, to be human.

But religion is not indifferent to the answer. The crucial question in evaluating these two options is, “What is the proper relationship between knowing what passions are proper and having proper passions?” Someone who adheres to option (3) would answer that the knowing must somehow be able to lead to the having. This is what we might call “moral development” or “spiritual progress.” But how, exactly, would this work? How can knowing “what proper passions are” lead to the having of them? The most common answer, from Aristotle to the Bhagavad Gita, from Mohammed to Kant, from the Stoics to Spinoza, is that this change is achieved through practice, or duty. Through one’s will, guided by an understanding of what those passions ought to be (which, on this view, is the Tao), a person can do what the Tao requires, without having a love for it. Gradually, this repeated observance of what the Tao teaches can give birth to a genuine love for it—a love that can grow into a more perfect love. Spiritual progress would be something like acquiring a taste. In the language of religious devotion, we might say of this story that it is a matter of “understanding leading to faith.”

This is a plausible story of course, for why else would it be so widely accepted? But it still leaves out the answer as to how the change takes place: to say that duty and practice can give birth to genuine love does not say how it happens. Similarly, if we say that the motivating force in such a change is a good will, we still have to ask the question of what motivates that will. What makes a person’s will a good will? I am not asking a scientific question here, and it is not something that psychology or genetics or neuroscience can answer. Rather, it is a question about human nature, and about the state of the human soul. This story about the change implies that there is, within man, an inextinguishable desire for justice, for rational living. In this sense, all of the versions of this story are “immanent”; the possibility for change lies within you.

The upshot of this is that the transformation from knowing what are proper passions to actually having proper passions implies a more fundamental condition: having a desire, a passion, for truth, beauty, and goodness.

Which brings us to option (4), and to Christianity.

Throughout the Christian Scriptures, the use of the words “faith” and “belief” show that faith is itself more like a kind of passion than a kind of knowledge. Or, put another way, if it is a kind of knowledge, it is distinct from other kinds of knowledge in that a person cannot be said to have this “knowledge” unless it is manifest in that person’s attitude, in his entire way of life. Abraham, whose “belief was accounted to him as righteousness,” does what God calls him to do: leave Chaldea, go to settle in Canaan, and sacrifice his son, Isaac, who is the child of promise. Hebrews 11, the great chapter on faith, is illustrated with example after example of people doing what they have been told to do; trusting manifested in their attitudes and deeds, even when they did not understand. Amazingly, Jesus himself exhibits such faith—in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on the Cross—by submitting, in love, to the will of the Father, even when he does not fully understand himself. James, too, indicates the essential nature of faith as a way of life: “Faith, apart from works, is dead.”

“Spiritual growth” or “moral development” on this view would mean that the having of proper passions would somehow lead to a clearer understanding of what they are. How? Well, by study, by meditation, and by conversation with those who already know or who have gone on before us. There are many who have—Socrates, Plato, Augustine, St. Francis, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, and Lewis—all of whom are fruit of the Vine: Christ, the First fruit.

Much more could be said in support of this understanding of what counts as faith (or belief) in God, but it is sufficient here to see that this version of the relationship between knowing what passions are proper and having proper passions says that the having is prior to the knowing; the knowing comes as a consequence of the having. In Augustine’s words, it is “faith seeking understanding.”

Obviously, the best case, the definitive case, of being “within the Tao” is the person who both knows what the true and right passions are and has them. The question for us, then, is whether or not this ideal is, or must be, a reality. Is it an ideal that is manifest in any person? (“Clearly not in me,” we all truthfully admit.) Must it be? If this is to be an ideal of Man and for Man, then doesn’t it have to be an ideal manifest by Man? And which Son of Man has ever been just such a manifestation?

Only Christianity tells this story.

David Rozema is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.

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