The Tao of C.S. Lewis

Why do students today have a tougher time building interior lives? Are they shallow relativists? What keeps them from deep and lasting attachments? While these questions seem to pertain strongly to our current decade, you’d be hard pressed not to find prophets of cultural decline in each decade going back to the 60s. Because of the rapid social change, we often forget that cultural relativism was not just the product of the 60s but had deeper roots. Some say the scientific study of “values” in the social sciences led the way, others blame Nietzsche, still others go back to the founding of modern liberalism.

C.S. Lewis, the Oxbridge professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature and author of the Narnia series, knew a thing or two about the loss of values. Upon return from WW1, he was a confirmed agnostic – skeptical about the goodness of the world, and skeptical of man’s redemptive possibilities. It was only after his friendship with JRR Tolkien and Owen Barfield that he regained a sense of hope for humanity. Much later, in 1947, he would take a shot at cultural relativism with his book The Abolition of Man.

The book is a critique of an English textbook for high schoolers which tries to persuade students that feelings toward nature are subjective. The question is – should students be taught how to feel about beauty and order and goodness? Or is that their own opinion and nothing less? In response, he makes an impassioned argument for The Tao, by which he means Natural Law, or received wisdom, or traditional wisdom. In the appendix, he includes a list of wisdom quotes which illustrate the commonality of natural law across civilizations.

I am not trying to prove its validity by the argument from common consent. Its validity cannot be deduced. For those who do not perceive its rationality, even universal consent could not prove it. The idea of collecting independent testimonies presupposes that ‘civilizations’ have arisen in the world independently of one another; or even that humanity has had several independent emergences on this planet. The biology and anthropology of such an assumption are extremely doubtful. It is by no means certain that there has ever (in the sense required) been more than one civilization in all history. It is at least arguable that every civilization we find has been derived from another civilization and, in the last resort, from a single centre – ‘carried’ like an infectious disease or like the Apostolic succession.

Here is Lewis’ description of traditional education – of passing on the Tao, or wisdom:

“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.

The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others. And he believed (correctly) that the tourists thought the same. The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions. But for this claim there would be nothing to agree or disagree about. To disagree with This is pretty if those words simply described the lady’s feelings, would be absurd: if she said I feel sick Coleridge would hardly have replied No: I feel quite well. When Shelley, having compared the human sensibility to an Aeolian lyre, goes on to add that it differs from a lyre in having a power of ‘internal adjustment’ whereby it can ‘accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them,’ he is assuming the same belief. ‘Can you be righteous,’ asks Treherne, ‘unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value.’

St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. (Nic Eth 1104b) When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. 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 (Laws 653). In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from the earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of the age of reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta – that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, corresponding to reality. As Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’ and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it. The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which  the universe goes on, the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. ‘In ritual,’ say the Analects, ‘it is harmony with Nature that is prized.’ The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being ‘true.’

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It 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.

Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from use whether we can make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children; because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself. – just as a man may have to recognize he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgment; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head; but it can, and should, obey it.

…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 successfully dissipated.

… It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. without the aid of trained emotions, the intellect is powerless against the animal organism.

….And all the time – such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to calmour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. you can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’ or ‘dynamism’ or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests (trained emotions) and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

cs lewis


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