Saturday, September 26, 2020

The Abolition of the Universe

The process whereby man has come to know the universe is from one point of view extremely complicated; from another it is alarmingly simple. 

-          The Empty Universe, by C.S. Lewis (Chapter 8 from this collection)

I wanted to title this post “The Abolition of Man: Cliffs Notes Version, but that would get a little long.  This is taken from a Preface written by Lewis in 1952, to D. E. Harding’s The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth.

Lewis describes a one-way progression in our knowledge of the universe.  From the beginning, we saw a universe filled with qualities of life, will, and intelligence: “every tree is a nymph and every planet a god.  Man himself is akin to the gods.”

As knowledge advanced, this rich universe was emptied – of its gods, its smells, its sounds, its tastes.  From the objective, these moved to the subjective – these are now nothing more than our thoughts, or emotions. 

The subject becomes gorged, inflated, at the expense of the object.

In the same manner, man is emptied: no more souls, selves, or minds.  These vanish, just as Dryads vanished from the trees.  “We were mistaken,” it is announced.  Man, like the gods, is a phantasm.

And just as we have been broken of our bad habit of personifying trees, so we must now be broken of our bad habit of personifying men:  a reform already effected in the political field.

It was all a mistake, a linguistic mistake.  Linguistically, my self and my spectacles reflect the same concept: I could forget to slip one in my coat pocket just as easily as the other when leaving the house in the morning.

As Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man, it is not necessarily that we are unhappy about this.  It gives us some form of liberty in a sense.  It also offers the same to our government:

But now, of course, he has no “inside”, except the sort you can find by cutting him open. If I had to burn a man alive, I think I should find this doctrine comfortable.

We cannot, of course, keep our minds in a condition that can make any sense of such a philosophy.  Really, we would go mad.  Lewis points to Hume, who is attributed with severing the “is” from the “ought,” as the great ancestor of this philosophy.  This leads us to nihilism – but, Lewis notes, Hume has an answer even for this: backgammon. 

I had to look this up; not that I don’t trust Lewis, but it seemed silly.  Here it is; I cannot shorten it, as it would lose all meaning:

“Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? ... I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Makes one contemplate suicide…or drugs.  But I should not interrupt.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”

This is all that is left, the further that materialists have pushed to abolish the universe – and, now, man.  Materialism leaves us with a chimera; no meaning, no free will, no purpose, no reason for being.  Suicide, if not physical, certainly spiritual, mental, and emotional.  But the suicide of these is, of course, immaterial to the materialist.

Which leaves us with only one way to live, according to Lewis:

I have heard that there are states of insanity in which such a nihilistic doctrine becomes really credible… The patient has the experience of being nobody in a world of nobodies and nothings. Those who return from this condition describe it as highly disagreeable.

Which has now fully caught up with us.  We see the nobodies and nothings on the news every day, rioting on the streets, excoriating us to perfection – to a standard that is no standard at all.  Lewis comes terribly close to describing the world we live in today – seventy years after this essay was written:

Now there is of course nothing new in the attempt to arrest he process that has led us from the living universe where man meets the gods to the final void where almost-nobody discovers is mistakes about almost-nothing.

This is true as far as it goes: anything goes and everything is accepted and acceptable.  There is one flaw, however: it is absolutely not acceptable to not accept that anything goes and that everything is to be accepted and acceptable.

We cannot return to the animism of a long-ago age; we must correct the flaws in the first thinkers of such thoughts – who likely never could have imagined or desired that their thoughts would lead us to this hell on earth.

…in emptying out the dryads and the gods (which, admittedly, “would not do” just as they stood) we appear to have thrown out the whole universe, ourselves included.

If this book by Harding doesn’t turn the tide – and Lewis speculated that most likely it would not – it might at least be a marker as the beginning of a series of such endeavors.  Even if it achieves none of this (so far, not) it still offered value to Lewis.  Having read it…

… One has breathed a new air, become free of a new country.  It may be a country you cannot live in, but you now know why the natives love it.  You will henceforward see all systems a little differently because you have been inside that one.

I agree.  It is good to know at least this much.

1 comment:

  1. "It was all a mistake, a linguistic mistake. Linguistically, my self and my spectacles reflect the same concept: I could forget to slip one in my coat pocket just as easily as the other when leaving the house in the morning."

    But what if I should forget to take my coat pocket one morning? Where, then, would I put my spectacles? Or my self?

    But, then, does it really matter? Does anything really matter? If we are just cogs in a machine, blips on a keyboard, doomed to 'cease to exist' at the moment of our death, what difference does it make how we live? Or even if we live at all?

    This is as nihilistic as it gets. It is worthless. There is absolutely no meaning in such a life and, to those who subscribe to it, life itself is meant to be endured only for the pleasure of the moment, because when you're dead, you're dead. And no one really cares.

    But Jesus came to set us free from this. He gives us life, meaning, and something beyond ourselves to live for. We have a future of value. We can work under the auspices of God's approval and the promised reward.

    We are men and women, created in His Image. We should live like we believe it.