On Orthopathy: Part 3, The Tao, the Logos, and Wisdom

My interest in C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man concerns the role of right affections--orthopathy--in the first of the three lectures that make up the book. I'll return to that focus in the next post, but in this post I wanted to pause to say something about Lewis' second lecture.

To review, Lewis' argument in the first lecture is that for right affections to be "right," noting also that right affections are at the very heart of virtue, these affections have to correspond to objective value. Without this correspondence feelings become "subjective" and untethered from objective goods. In such a situation our feelings of cowardice or courage give us no moral guidance. Flee or stand your ground, it doesn't matter because those feelings aren't pushing or pulling you toward a good. 

For Lewis, this situation--feelings decoupled from value--creates an educational catastrophe. As Lewis laments in lecture one, how are we to educate and form character if we cannot instill in our children or charges right affection? Character is wholly about right affections! As mentioned in the last post, courage sits at the heart of every virtue. And beyond courage, there are affections like compassion and anger. Character formation directs those emotions toward their proper ends. Compassion directed toward the hurting, for example, and anger toward injustice. Education shapes our character by directing our emotions toward right values. 

I'll return to that point in the next post. For this post, we'll pause to consider the question: Is there a such thing as objective value? Isn't this whole conversation assuming something that many people doubt?

In lecture two of The Abolition of Man Lewis gives his argument for the existence of objective value. And what's interesting is that Lewis, the famous Christian apologist, chooses to call the source of objective value the Tao. 

The Tao is a key idea in Eastern religions like Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. The Tao is "the Way" or "the Path." The Tao describes what I'd call the "moral grain of the universe" with which we wisely harmonize ourselves. Right living is to live in sync with the Tao, the ordering principle and flow of the cosmos. In this, the Tao is both ontological and ethical. 

One can see Lewis' attraction to the Tao in light of his purposes in The Abolition of Man. The Tao is the source of objective value. Ontologically speaking, the universe presents us with a Way or Path. Wise and right living, then, becomes living in a harmonious relationship with the Tao. 

I think this is a genius move on Lewis' part, and his choice here has only improved with the passage of time. Few modern people are warm to the idea of God imposing rules from above upon humankind. But the idea of the Tao has a lot of cultural cache these days. As I describe in Hunting Magic Eels, we're much more open to immanent enchantments in the modern world than transcendent enchantments. God handing down the Law on Mount Sinai is a transcendent ground of value. The Tao, by contrast, is an immanent ground of value.

But this doesn't mean Christianity is a stranger to the Tao. In both the Old and New Testaments creation is imbued with a moral grain. Creation isn't inert matter. Creation crackles with value. 

In the Old Testament, the Tao is called Wisdom. As I shared recently, in Proverbs we see Wisdom personified, sharing her role in imbuing creation, from the start, with value and a path toward right living:

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
before his deeds of old;
I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.” (Proverbs 8: 22-23)

“Now then, my children, listen to me;
blessed are those who keep my ways.
Listen to my instruction and be wise;
do not disregard it.
For those who find me find life
and receive favor from the Lord.
But those who fail to find me harm themselves.” (Proverbs 8: 32-33, 35-36a)
In the New Testament, Wisdom becomes associated with the Logos (or Word). Like both Wisdom and the Tao, the Logos imbues creation with value from the start:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (John 1:1-3)

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created…All things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1.15-17)
All that to say, Christianity can smoothly come alongside Lewis' use of the Tao. Which is obviously why he picked the concept to build around. And in light of Hunting Magic Eels, the Tao, Wisdom and the Logos are very helpful and resourceful ways to talk about "objective value" in an increasingly post-Christian context. 

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