Should Boys be Swayed by Emotion? C.S. Lewis Thought So

The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat … of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. – Lewis, THE ABOLITION OF MAN

C.S. Lewis described his brief book, The Abolition of Man as “reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools.” His assessment of the state of modern education in the 1940s was simple: educators hate the moral demands of belief in the supernatural, and therefore ascribe to the view that all precepts of the old way of doing things must be thrown out. Lewis laughed at the idea that man could construct morality from scratch, for all ideas of right and wrong stem from the same age-old common laws.

But as I read Abolition of Man, I was particularly interested in this idea of how young minds should understand emotion. In Lewis’s era, intellectuals professed all reality to be subject to the rational mind. Emotion was seen as a threat to the supremacy of rationality. To Lewis’s horror, educators in the 1940s were deciding that “the best thing they [could] do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotion” (Abolition of Man, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 27).  (These days, we suffer the opposite: intellectuals promote emotion as the sole compass by which humans should conduct themselves. Emotion is king. But that is for another post.)

I love the alternative Lewis proposes, and that is to inform the emotions of young people, rather than suppress them. Apparently, Aristotle wrote that “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought” (Ibid. 29). Therefore an educator must show his student what is right to take pleasure in, what rightly causes sorrow, what a good man hates and what a prudent man fears. We all know how a child’s emotional responses can be nonsensical. Nonetheless, human beings are motivated most effectively by their feelings – by their chests. And so it is folly to ignore the chest and idolize the head. As Chesterton wrote, no man is convinced to go to war because he hopes his country will acquire more natural resources. He goes to war because of his love of home and his way of life. Sentiment.

I’ll leave you with this stellar quotation Lewis pulls from Aristotle’s 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. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands and welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her. 

Here’s to shaping our children’s sense of beauty, and teaching them how to feel.