If you’re like me, you’ve participated in dozens if not hundreds of bull-sessions, electronic or otherwise, on the topic of “What constitutes good literature?” The presence of the book in the “Literary Fiction” section is no clear guide; the “Literary Fiction” section is mostly filled with pretentious tripe. The popularity of the book is no clear guide; people will read the most appalling trash in large quantities. And the book I revere might well revulse you. It can be tempting to cut the Gordian knot of aesthetics by claiming that aesthetic values are merely subjective. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” you might cry.
And yet, that’s not a particularly satisfying answer. It’s clear to me—in fact, it’s clear to everyone—that some books are better than others. I might not be able to say precisely why in every case, and yet the fact remains. Some books are better than others.
Part of the problem, of course, is that there is no single measure of literary value—there are dozens of axes on which a work can be said to succeed or fail. Literary value is complicated—as complicated as people are complicated—and to say that literary value is merely subjective isn’t a solution, it’s an abdication.
A similar muddle exists in the realm of moral value. The modern relativist says, “Act A is forbidden in culture B, but compulsory in culture C; therefore the immorality of act A is culturally-defined rather than absolute.” Reduced to simplest form, this statement generally turns out to mean “It’s not wrong when the So-and-so’s do it, and therefore it’s not wrong if I do it, no matter what Mrs. Grundy says.”
And indeed, faced with the varied customs and ethos of the cultures of the world, it’s easy to cut the Gordian knot of moral value by taking up a relativist position—especially if we’re looking for reasons why it isn’t sinful to sin.
And that brings me to Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man, which is outstanding and which I highly recommend. Lewis begins with a discussion of a schoolbook whose authors appear to espouse the notion that aesthetic and moral values are subjective. He points out that such people don’t usually hold that all value is subjective—just the ones they want to belittle. Their own values, of course, are objectively good, as they will hasten to prove from first principles.
Except that they can’t. You can’t prove that a value is objectively good except in terms of another value. Consider the following dialog:
A: We must feed the poor!
A: Because if we don’t do something, many of the poor will starve.
B: Oh. That’s bad, is it?
A: Of course it’s bad. If they starve, they will die.
B: Oh. But won’t that leave more food for the rest of the poor?
A: You don’t get it. If we don’t do something, people will die. Some of them will be children!
B: And it’s bad for children to starve?
A: Well, naturally!
Speaker A has a number of options here. He might conclude that B is yanking his chain and tell B to go to hell; he might (if he’s unwise) try to argue the point further—for no matter what value A invokes, B can simply say, “Oh, that’s good, is it? Why?”
A’s best answer is simply that it’s wrong to allow children to die of starvation if we can prevent it. Allowing them to starve is objectively, self-evidently, axiomatically wrong.
According to Lewis (and I have no reason to doubt him), the word “reason” has been redefined in the last hundred or hundred-and-fifty years. For the ancients and medievals alike, “reason” included not only logical thinking but also what we call common sense—and that, in turn, included the recognition that the value of bravery, charity, and other virtues are self-evident. Some things simply don’t need to be proved.
This, of course, gets us back to our moral muddle. If moral values are self-evident, then why don’t all cultures agree on them?
The astonishing fact is that for the most part they do, as Lewis amply illustrates in the Appendix to his book. Every culture in the world shares in what Lewis calls, for lack of a better word, the Tao. Taken as a whole, the agreement is remarkable. And taken as as a whole it becomes clear that the exceptions, so far from proving that value is relative, are simply culture-specific kinks, the besetting sins of each nation.
Moreover, although the Tao is the common heritage of all mankind it still needs to be taught; even Aristotle recognized that if virtue is not taught to a child, the child will never recognize virtue as an adult.
Thus, it’s more true to say that there’s no accounting for taste than that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For what is bad taste but attributing value to objects which don’t deserve it? And what is virtue but attributing value to actions which do deserve it (and acting accordingly)?
Note: what Lewis here calls the Tao is simply what Catholic theologians call the “natural law”, which Lewis certainly knew. Part of Lewis’ knack for communication was to dress up old ideas in new words.