Men without Ears

In 1943, C.S. Lewis published his short, apologetic work, The Abolition of Man, in which he tackles “The Green Book,” a new text being used in the British educational system, one that elevates observational science over the arts and moral norms. Lewis’ premise is ultimately that the educational system was producing “men without chests” — people who used reason and their passions without the constraints of moral virtue.

The Abolition of Man was written 75 years ago and time has been the judge of Lewis’ fears and predictions. And while the point of this reflection is not to go on a long diatribe about the state of the American educational system, if the violence present in the schools today is any indication of the moral standards of student bodies, then it is a pretty clear indication of Lewis’ insights into the consequences of a bad educational model. And, by violence, I am not simply referring to school shootings and stabbings, though that is a heinous crime, I am also talking about the violence in the hallways — bullying, verbal abuse of other students and teachers, and a general lack of respect for authority amongst the student body.

My concern this morning is to suggest that we have entered a stage beyond Lewis’ prediction of men without chests. We have also created heads without ears. Many people complain that in our world today the art of debate has been abandoned. Well-crafted argumentation has been replaced simply by arguments, most of which seem to be built on an ad hominem approach.

Truly, this is not a new thing. Ad hominem and the use of other logical fallacies are techniques that Arthur Schopenhauer suggested, for example, in his work entitled, The Art of Controversy. Further, it was the method of the Sophists in the 5th century B.C. Of course, it is arguments like these to which great thinkers like Socrates and Plato objected. Yet, today, thoughtless gibes seem to be the approach that people commonly take — a brief survey of recent presidential debates is a good indication of that reality. And, I am not convinced that audiences of these supposed debates really desire to hear competing ideas weighed out, I think that most only desire to have what they already believe echoed back to them in clever and novel ways: arguments rather than carefully discussed reasons.

And that brings me to ears. Ears are the organ by which we hear things. And, in principle, it is that which we hear in a conversation that ought to cause our minds to reason and understand the position of the other person. If you say, “I think we ought to do X rather than Y,” that is merely an opinion. But, if you say, “I think we ought to do X rather than Y, because of A, B, and C,” then that is a different matter altogether. Then we can carefully evaluate reasons “A, B, and C” to confirm that they are legitimate and pertinent to the question at hand. In addition, when I respond, “No, we need to do Y, because of reasons J, K, and L” then we have data and principles to discuss. As Sherlock Holmes often quipped to John Watson, “I cannot make bricks without straw!”

The problem is that it takes time and energy to come up with reasons for your position and to be able to defend those reasons in a thoughtful way. It also requires that we sincerely listen to one another, rather than using the time when the other person is talking to come up with our next attack.

Interestingly, Jesus teaches in parables precisely because people “hear but do not understand” and “see but never perceive” (Matthew 13:14). Such is seen as a judgment of God upon the unbeliever that they will remain blind and deaf to matters of spiritual truth. Yet, have we created a society that elevates this spiritual blindness and deafness? Have we created a society where we no longer can even hear the ideas of others in a meaningful way. We use our mouths then to spout off our thoughts, but without reasoned dialogue and an exchange if ideas, every man does what is right in his own eyes and we are left with chaos.

And, if a culture ceases to value its chests (moral virtue) and its ears (the exchange and deliberation of other ideas than our own), that what is it that is left? Anarchy? There is no question, if you have spent much time around this blog, that I have strong opinions. And, as a Christian pastor, there are certain presuppositions that I have that are fundamental to the way I think and evaluate ideas. At the same time, I have most enjoyed those rare, deep conversations with those from whom I differ, that have been held in respectful ways, carefully evaluating reasons for positions and not seeking to attack the person for holding said opinions. Given that said conversations do still happen in rare circumstances, I wonder (and pray) that the art of debate may one day be revived in our land.

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