by Brett Vaden

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis introduces his subject by discussing the contents of a textbook on his shelf, which he calls “The Green Book.” To protect the authors’ real names, he refers to them as Gaius and Titius. Rather than accomplish their stated purpose, to teach upper school boys and girls the art of English composition, Gaius and Titius’s efforts mainly serve to implant a dangerous idea into their young readers’ minds.

Lewis writes:

In their second chapter Gaius and Titius quote the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall. You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it ‘sublime’ and the other ‘pretty’; and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust. Gaius and Titius comment as follows: ‘When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings’ Here are a good many deep questions settled in a pretty summary fashion. But the authors are not yet finished. They add: ‘This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.’C.S. Lewis on making students into "men without chests"

Here, Gaius and Titius have subtly impressed upon their readers the notion that  statements made about the value of something (e.g., ‘The waterfall is sublime’) actually only describe the feelings of the person making the statement, and so such statements are of minimal importance.

In another example, Lewis relates how Gaius and Titius quote a tawdry cruise boat ad:

The advertisement tells us that those who buy tickets for this cruise will go ‘across the Western Ocean where Drake of Devon sailed’, ‘adventuring after the treasures of the Indies’, and bringing home themselves also a ‘treasure’ of ‘golden hours’ and ‘glowing colors’. It is a bad bit of writing, of course: a venal and bathetic exploitation of those emotions of awe and pleasure which men feel in visiting places that have striking associations with history or legend.

Lewis then observes that, rather than contrasting the advertisement with passages describing the same emotions in far better prose—and so providing a valuable lesson in English composition and the fine expression of human sentiment—Gaius and Titius attack the advertisement’s appeal to emotion. According to their warning, we should suspect any romantic portrayal of a sea cruise as being just another marketing ploy for our cash. In so doing, argues Lewis, “Gaius and Titius, while teaching [the student] nothing about letters, have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane.”

By stripping emotional expressions of their value and divorcing them from a reasonable view of the world, these English teachers have taught readers to harden their hearts to an entire stratum of human experience: moral sentiment. A little later Lewis says,

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt. The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others….St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it….In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill- grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.

C.S. Lewis on making students into "men without chests"

Saint Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne

Lewis is reminding us that human beings are meant to feel the good with their hearts as well as to apprehend it with their minds. Without the ability to experience such affections, we become “men without chests.”

Truth, intellectual growth, and the science of right thinking, or logic, are good. Those who teach should fight against falsehood, intellectual stagnation, and absurdity. Nevertheless, beauty, the heart, and the inculcation of virtuous moral sentiments are also good. The task of teaching students demands we form students’ affect as well as their intellect, right feeling as well as right thinking.

Next week, David Wright will host a training webinar on teaching literature. If you want a model for making men with chests, you’ll find David up to the task.

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