I once could see but now at last I'm blind
- Surrounded, Dream Theater
The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis
‘Man’s conquest of Nature’ is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science.
Lewis tests this out using three technologies of his time: the airplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In peacetime, these are available to pretty much anyone desiring to use these. But can it be said that he is exercising his own individual power over Nature?
If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man.
All of these three things can be withheld by some men over others – to buy, sell, trade. All of these things hold the ability to make man as much the subject as the possessor…
…since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive.
Instead of seeing any of this as Man’s power over Nature, Lewis sees it as power exercised by some men over other men. Lewis does not mean by this, however, the power of science without moral virtue; he is after something else.
Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.
The final stage of this is when Man “by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on perfectly applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself.” It will be Human nature that is then the last part of Nature to surrender to Man.
The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?
Or what. We live in a world where Man has the power to make himself as he pleases – many call this “freedom.” But this, then, is also the power for some men to make other men what they please. Of course, this has been true in all generations yet in generations past the teachers were instructed by the Tao (Natural Law):
…a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart.
This is no longer true, as Man today creates his own values. These are developed and passed along by a group Lewis refers to as the “Conditioners.” They will choose whatever artificial Tao that will serve their own purposes.
Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education.
One cannot refer to them as corrupt or degenerate; to use such terms implies a doctrine of value – but such a doctrine in meaningless without the Tao.
A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.
Absent the Tao, all that is left to Man is impulse:
It is from heredity, digestion, the weather, and the association of ideas that the motives of the Conditioners will spring.
Man’s conquest of Nature continues to spread until the last thing left of nature for the Conditioners to conquer is man’s soul. And after this?
They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.
You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it.
It is the same with first principles – we desire to see through something to see the something beyond it until we eventually see first principles.
But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see though’ all things is the same as not to see.