This “meaning crisis” conversation will eventually come to a natural law ethic, or it will never resolve.
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.
The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis
The first time I read, and wrote about, this book, I thought – while reading this introduction… “I kind of get it…but is it more like a speaker starting with something humorous to get the audience engaged?” Let’s see if that’s still the case….
Lewis begins his exposition of the fall of men – remember, we end this book with men without chests, men who aren’t men at all (the abolition of man) – with this story about words and their meaning. He begins his exposition on the loss of objective values with this story about words and their meaning. It seems Lewis is trying to say something about the importance of words and their meaning to the condition of man.
Genesis chapter one. “And God said” ten times (well, one of these was “then God said”). He said. By speaking, He created light and an expanse in the midst of the waters; He gathered the waters in one place, He brought forth vegetation; He created lights in the heavens; He created living creature in the sea and on land. Finally, He created man in His image. He spoke to His creation: be fruitful and multiply.
By speaking, He brought creation into existence. And He saw that everything He made was very good.
God did not create on a work bench, with tools useful for the purpose. He spoke. Words are the source and foundation of creation, the source and foundation for being. Words must be meaningful if creation is to be meaningful – words must be meaningful if man is to be meaningful, if man is to have meaning.
John 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
Without the Word, nothing was made. Without the Word, there is no creation. Note: it was not an apprentice that was with God and was God; it was the Word. In Greek: logos. This is a bit of a complicated word to translate (like many Greek words, we need several English words to get some understanding), but here is a try:
Logos is … derived from a Greek word variously meaning "ground", "plea", "opinion", "expectation", "word", "speech", "account", "reason", "proportion", and "discourse".
In Greek philosophy: reason, thought of as constituting the controlling principle of the universe and as being manifested by speech.
God spoke being into existence; He used reason – the controlling principle of the universe – as the source of His creation. To bring creation forth, to make it manifest, He spoke.
So, why does Lewis start with what might seem to many (including me, to some degree and at one time) a trivial point? Sublime, pretty…pretty, sublime. Lewis sees the language slipping away, and he sees where this will lead. He sees this because words are the foundation of our being.
The schoolboy who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant.
Gaius and Titius did not overtly say that judgements of value are unimportant; they may not even have intended to so chip away at the schoolboy’s mind. But their words will have this effect.
How far have we fallen since? We know the quotes from Orwell, from his novel published just a few years after Lewis delivered his talks that resulted in the subject book: ‘War Is Peace. Freedom Is Slavery. Ignorance Is Strength.’ You know what Orwell never said in 1984? A man is a woman.
I know it is a tired example, but there really isn’t a better one to demonstrate how words have been separated from any rational meaning. Bit by bit, the purpose – the reason – God spoke into His creation have been stripped through language, and a good part of this is clearly demonstrated in the language of the sexual revolution. I need not walk through this step by step – just start with “free love” (words that destroy their meaning) and end with children choosing gender reassignment (destruction of creation).
I do not mean, of course, that [the schoolboy] will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial.
The schoolboy won’t infer this, because all he is doing is ‘English prep.’ There will be no notion that this has anything to do with ethics, theology, and politics – yet all are in the crosshairs when words lose meaning. Because the foundation of creation is the spoken word.
Lewis offers other such examples, all from the schoolboy’s lessons in English. And for each example, he concludes:
Another little portion of the human heritage has been quietly taken from them before they were old enough to understand.
Gaius and Titius many not have bad intent, but Lewis does offer that it is possible that the ‘trousered ape’ and the ‘urban blockhead’ are precisely the kind of man that is wished to be produced. They might actually want to make a clean sweep of traditional values – and by destroying the meaning of the words that underlie the values, one destroys the values.
By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propogandist when he comes.
Which we certainly see today, with how quickly we can be made to jump from one crisis to another.
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.
And today we have a supreme court judge who cannot find just or ordinate or appropriate words to define a woman.
“All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down."
It all begins with words, and words that have objective meaning. Once these are lost, we lose the logos of creation. Nietzsche thought that once the world was turned upside down, the Übermensch would build back better. That didn’t work out so well last time; it will work out worse this time.
Is it a wonder that man has lost meaning in a world turned upside down?
From Friedrich Nietzsche, The Parable of the Madman (1882):
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. "Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him -- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
Nietzsche wasn’t calling for a future holy war against God. He was making an announcement, offering a news story, writing an obituary. He saw that this was coming, and he saw this at the height of what today we call Classical Liberalism. He saw where this road would lead – and that it was inevitable.
"How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us -- for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto."
It hasn’t worked out as suggested by Nietzsche in that last sentence. Unless by higher he meant lower. Keep in mind, the Great War that was the suicide of the West was still a few decades away at the time he wrote these words. What followed thereafter was communism, fascism, socialism – and these, while perhaps wearing kinder clothes, have never left us.
It has been related further that on the same day the madman forced his way into several churches and there struck up his requiem aeternam deo. Led out and called to account, he is said always to have replied nothing but: "What after all are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchers of God?"
To whom much is given, much is expected. It is the churches that carry the biggest guilt in bringing on the meaning crisis.