The past few years have seen our society permeated by ideological trends that many of us never thought could take hold in our country. Traditional value systems have been progressively dismantled and dismissed as oppressive or outdated. The ideal of patriotism has been undermined and characterized as dangerous nationalism, gender roles are dismissed as oppressive social constructs, the concept of the family and religious values are challenged.
More recently, these trends have also seeped into education at all grade levels, with increasingly bizarre manifestations of identity and gender politics surfacing in schools across the nation on a regular basis.
To many, it is tempting to ask ‘where did we go wrong?’
Well, a dense little philosophical treatise written 80 years ago by English author CS Lewis may hold part of the answer. The Abolition of Man was originally delivered as a lecture series by Lewis in 1943, while WWII was still raging all over mainland Europe and North Africa.
Lewis identified a fundamental moral order that used to be taught both at home and in schools, some form of which has existed in practically every society, with the same tenets recurring again and again in different periods, religions and continents.
A Christain himself, Lewis calls this natural order of values the Tao, or ‘the Way’, drawing from Chinese Daoism to emphasize its universality; it is what our country’s founders referred to as ‘the Law of Nature and Nature’s God’ and cited as the true foundation for our national existence and the basis for our independence. Roman statesman Cicero referred to it as ‘true law’ and ‘right reason in accordance with nature’, the unchanging standard by which human actions are measured.
This universal order, based almost inevitably on religious principle, is a kind of higher natural law, which needs to be refined and taught at an early age by parents and society. It comprises the fundamental virtues and dictates, things like not doing harm, being honest, being loyal or honorable or just, devotion to one’s family… The kinds of virtues that have defined both ordinary good people and great heroes, historical and mythical, from time immemorial. This order has been the underpinning of every great civilization, the principle that elevates life and characterizes humanity at its best.
For most of our nation’s history, this absolute moral law has been inculcated from childhood in some form or another. Children were taught that they should feel pride in their country, love for what is Good, respect and admiration for a selfless or heroic act, etc. These emotions were considered natural and just, fundamentally true reactions that should be encouraged from an early age. Lewis quotes the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who stated that “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Saint Augustine called it ‘ordo amoris’, the order of the passions.
However, as Lewis points out, at some point in the last century, a skeptical attitude took hold that considered all emotions were contrary to reason and purely subjective, that admiring the Sistine Chapel or a waterfall did not mean that it was beautiful, and was simply a subjective and arbitrary personal emotion.
It follows from this cold, skeptical ‘realist’ attitude that any approbation or disapprobation, any sense that something is good or bad, is subjective and arbitrary and not grounded in any real authority. Lewis observes that schools and parents were no longer inculcating the love of virtue, the passionate moral sense that had led people to sacrifice everything for their principles. He believed that this new skepticism was creating ‘men without chests’ who were governed only by cold, rational analysis and by their appetites.
What Lewis had recognized was an early, mild form of the kind of moral relativism that has become near-universal in the past decades. The ideologies of the past decade or so have taken the ‘debunking’ Lewis was concerned about to its extreme. The Truth has been replaced by ‘my truth’, beauty is completely subjective, distinctions of gender are arbitrary and culturally determined, values are not only conditioned but are often oppressive instruments of control by the Patriarchy or by racial and socio-economic groups.
But where does all this ‘debunking’ actually lead? What is the result of dismantling those universal moral systems that humans have been bound by, in some form or another, in every culture and every age of history?
As Lewis predicts, the result of casting off moral standards, values, and what he calls the Tao, is not a liberation or an ascent into a more rational way of life. It simply leaves society open to any other, necessarily inferior set of beliefs and values, and leaves the individual more susceptible than ever to manipulation and propaganda.
Students of history will know that this has played out time and again over the last century. Discrediting the love of country or family or any of the old universal values, has led to subjugation to arbitrary and destructive new values selected to suit the ends of autocrats and totalitarians- Communist and Nazi alike.
And let us not forget that the system we live in, the most free society in history, is so because it was founded on these very principles. The exceptional individuals who founded our nation believed that true freedom could only exist if it was compatible with obedience to a higher authority, a higher Law. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Man has been subjected by his Creator to the moral law, of which his feelings, or conscience as it is sometimes called, are the evidence.”
Let us remember too that CS Lewis recognized this dangerous trend in education as early as 1943. Aside from demonstrating his astonishing prescience, this reveals that this process has been going on for a long time.
Perhaps the real problem is that this breakdown of values has been creeping into our school system for some 80 years, that two or three generations have slowly had their moral sense, conviction and faith in truth eroded to the point that there is little left to pass on.