A Moral Education from C.S. Lewis
Meilaender, Gilbert, USA TODAY
WHEN WE THINK about C.S. Lewis' understanding of morality, we have to distinguish three elements: what moral truths we know; how we know them; and how we become able to know them.
What do we know when we know moral truth? Most fundamentally, we know the maxims of what Lewis---in his book on education, The Abolition of Man--calls the Tao. These "primeval moral platitudes" (as Screwtape, in Lewis' Screwtape Letters, terms them) constitute the human moral inheritance. We would not be wrong to call them the basic principles of natural law: the requirements of both general and special beneficence; duties to parents/ancestors and children/posterity; and requirements of justice, truthfulness, mercy, and magnanimity. These are the starting points for all moral reasoning, deliberation, and argument; they are to morality what axioms are to mathematics. Begin from them and we may get somewhere in thinking about what we ought to do. Try to stand outside the Tao on some kind of morally neutral or empty ground and we will find it impossible to generate any moral reasoning at all.
Lewis provides an illustration of the Tao in That Hideous Strength, the third and last volume in his space fantasy series. He himself subtitled the book "A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups" and, in the short preface he wrote for the book, he says: "This is a 'tall story' about devilry, though it has behind it a serious 'point' which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man." We can follow his hint and illustrate the Tao by remembering the scene in That Hideous Strength in which the sinister Frost begins to give young Prof. Mark Studdock a systematic training in what Frost calls "objectivity." This is a training designed to kill in Studdock all natural human preferences.
Studdock is placed into a room that is ill-proportioned; for example, the point of the arch above the door is not in the center. On the wall is a portrait of a young woman with her mouth open--and full of hair. There is a picture of the Last Supper, distinguished especially by beetles under the table. There is a representation of a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and another of a man with corkscrews instead of arms. Studdock himself is asked to perform various obscenities, culminating in the command to trample a crucifix.
Gradually, however, Studdock finds that the room is having an effect on him, which Frost scarcely had predicted or desired. "There rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight." This was for Studdock all interwoven with images of his wife Jane, fried eggs, soap, sunlight, and birds singing. Studdock may not have been thinking in moral terms but, at least, as the story puts it, he was "having his first deeply moral experience. He was choosing a side: the Normal."
He never had known before what an idea meant: he always had thought that they were things inside one's head, but now, when his head was continually attacked and often completely filled with the clinging corruption of the training, this idea towered up above him---something which obviously existed quite independently of himself and had hard rock surfaces which would not give, surfaces he could cling to.
He is experiencing the Tao, which neither is his creation nor anyone else's. He does not construct these moral troths; on the contrary, they claim him. The world around us is not neutral ground; it is from the start shot through with moral value.
We can, of course, criticize one or another of these moral truths, or, at least, particular formulations of them, but we inevitably will call on some other principle of the Tao when we do so. Thus, for instance, we may think Aristotle's magnanimous man insufficiently merciful and too concerned about his own nobility, using thereby one principle of the Tao (mercy) to refine another. In pursuit of our duties to posterity we may be willing to sacrifice the weak and vulnerable on the altar of medical research, but then we will have to ask whether we have transgressed the requirement of justice--every bit as much an element of the Tao as our duty to posterity. …