It is upon the Trunk that a gentleman works.
- Analects of Confucius, 1.2
The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis
I had no idea what this meant, “the Trunk.” I did some digging. I found a more complete passage: “…It is upon the trunk that the gentleman works. When that is firmly set up, the Way grows.”
This second chapter of Lewis’s short book is entitled “The Way.” But I still don’t really get it. So I found this:
It is upon the trunk [the fundamental] that a gentleman works. When that is firmly set up, the Way grows. And surly proper behavior towards parents and elder brothers is the trunk of Goodness.
The words “the fundamental” are inserted by the author of the paper. So, I at least learn that the trunk is fundamental and that the focus is on the family, with proper behavior toward parents and elders as “goodness.”
But I still don’t get the word “trunk.” There is an image that I am missing. Then I found it:
The really wise man, his followers said, works on the "trunk" of the tree, he doesn't fuss with the endless little branches shooting off from it.
Don’t mess with the details. Get the family right, and society will be right. Sorry for the diversion, but I had to understand why Lewis placed this quote from Confucius at the beginning of this chapter.
Lewis, for convenience, uses the term the Tao. He recognizes that others can refer to it as Natural Law, Traditional Morality, the First Principles of Practical Reason, or the First Platitudes. Whatever one labels it…
… [it] is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected.
I will use the word Tao for this post, as Lewis does in his book; but you can read in its place (as I do) “Natural Law.”
It is worth considering in our ongoing discussion of libertarianism or liberty and where I am headed (at least for now) in this idea that liberty will be found (at least for those of us living in the western tradition) in the convergence of natural law, Christian ethics, and the non-aggression principle. This, of course, suggests that a free society must first be made up of men who value such things – not subjectively, but objectively.
Lewis goes after the idea that value is subjective. A hard thing to read when one considers economics; yet, most can recognize (on what basis, I wonder…) that just because each of us hold subjective values, not each value held is necessarily beneficial. When faced with choosing one or the other, I might subjectively value that sixth Oban Scotch more than buying food for my family, but…. Well, you get my point.
Lewis returns to The Green Book, written by Gaius and Titius: despite its shortcomings as demonstrated by Lewis using the example of the waterfall, the authors must have had some end or purpose in mind – else why write the book.
Sure, the authors might say that the book was “necessary.” But necessary toward what? Toward educating. But educating toward what? Eventually an answer must come that ends this line of wonder.
It all strikes me as very Aristotelian. And in line with Aristotle (and Aquinas, who developed this further), I don’t think it is acceptable to suggest that my sixth Oban holds more value than feeding my family.
Certainly since Nietzsche (or at least since he announced it), man has been free to develop his own ethics – more specifically, the Übermensch has been given this charge:
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.
They claim to cut away the parasitic emotion, religious sanction and other inherited taboos so that real and true values can emerge. Ultimately, their entire foundation is based on ‘Instinct.’ Where does this leave us? Nowhere other than in the hands of those that want to hold power.
One way they hold power is to deliver to the rest of us the ethic of being free to obey our own instinct – this is made manifest in numerous ways. Lewis offers one example: sexual morality:
…the old taboos served some real purpose in helping to preserve the species, but contraceptives have modified this and we can now abandon many of the taboos.
Sexual desire is, after all, instinctive – and a rather strong one, might I add. Through instinct and technology, we are offered an ethic that appears to give us all we want with nothing that we do not want. We see how that is playing out, and we are only in the early stages historically speaking.
Telling us to obey Instinct is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things: so do instincts.
To be free to listen to instinct still leaves us in a bind. Instincts are often at conflict with each other. Which instinct do we choose? On what basis? By instinct we might choose self-preservation, perhaps the preservation of our children and grandchildren – to the extent such as these exist. But what of society? What of future generations? Will instinct lead us here, or will instinct give us the freedom to safely ignore these? Does it matter?
No system of values will be found by what Lewis describes as the “Innovator” – consider these as today’s new atheists or yesterday’s Nietzsche. There is no sustainable basis on which he can rest that doesn’t – in the end – rest on the Tao – found in Confucius (all within the four seas are his brothers), the Stoics (nothing human is alien to me), Jesus (do as you would be done by), or Locke (humanity is to be preserved).
All the practical principles behind the Innovator’s case for posterity, or society, or the species, are there from time immemorial in the Tao. But they are nowhere else. Unless you accept these without question as being to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory, you can have no practical principles whatever.
These cannot be reached as conclusions; these are premises. Any system that rejects these, or selects only fragments, one can consider an ideology – created arbitrarily. Can we have liberty without fully embracing the natural law? It seems not. This, of course, does not mean that every violation of natural law must come with physical punishment (as Edward Feser suggests), but it does mean that men must be properly taught – and this is where today’s Christian churches must lead.
The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.
And there you have natural law – that beyond which man cannot go, and that without which no system of law can stand. But does this mean that no criticism is allowed – no evolution, no dealing with contradictions?
Not at all. Lewis points to two kinds of criticisms: one from the learned – for example a linguist criticizing his native tongue, or a poet changing the language in the spirit of the language; the other is criticism from the outsider – one not studied in that which he is criticizing.
This seems consistent with the idea that tradition takes priority over reason of the moment – and only those learned in the tradition are truly qualified to criticize the tradition. Yes, a path also fraught with risk…but such is the case of anything governed by man.
Those who understand the spirit of the Tao and who have been led by that spirit can modify it in directions which that spirit itself demands.
One who understands the whole is capable of working on the whole; those who understand a sliver work on that sliver at the expense of the whole. Is this where the non-aggression principle sits, in this sliver? If so, it is a real problem for those who look here as the sole or primary foundation for liberty.
I do not, and I do not place a heavier burden on the non-aggression principle than it can bear; I do not expect more from it than it is capable of delivering. It is well-suited for its intent – an intent which I continue to flush out; for now can say it is a guideline for justified violence.
Returning to the necessity of understanding the spirit of the Tao, Confucius offers: “With those who follow a different Way it is useless to take counsel.” From Jesus, “He that believeth not shall be damned.” Or from Aristotle, who offers that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics.
The corrupted man from the beginning stands outside of the science of the Tao.
I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason as having absolute validity; that any attempt, having become skeptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more ‘realistic’ basis, is doomed.
“Practical Reason” equals the Tao equals natural law.
Lewis recognizes that science – the “Innovator” – will not rest here: other seemingly unknowable realities have been made known by science, so this one will also one day become clear. He offers that dealing with this will be covered in another lecture. This will be the subject of the next chapter, I believe.