Courage Comes from Rightly Formed Loves

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis famously warns that we are creating “men without chests.” Though this phrase is often coopted by a sort of MMA brand of “manly Christianity,” taking it out of context to advocate for a simplistic real-men-don’t-cry, pec-thumping evangelicalism, that is the last thing Lewis has in mind. In fact, that picture resembles more Lewis’s “trousered ape” than what he means by a man with a chest.

Though perhaps theologically (and otherwise) suspect, this is nonetheless a stunning visual of a man without a chest.

“Men without chests” are rather those who have never been trained to recognize which loves, affections, or sentiments are worthy and which are not. Lewis is standing on the shoulders of Augustine and Plato here.

In The Republic, Plato (or, more specifically, his protagonist, Socrates) comes to the conclusion that man’s soul is tripartite, each part corresponding to one of three body parts: the head, the chest, and the gut. To arrive at this conclusion, he takes a circuitous route. After a several rounds of trying to figure out what it means to be a just man, Socrates suggests that the soul of man is relatively difficult to examine and that perhaps they’d have better luck looking for justice in a larger entity that has the same characteristics as the soul. With little difficulty, he persuades his interlocutors that the polis, or city-state, is basically the soul writ large and that they should look for justice there.

“‘Let us suppose we are rather short-sighted men and are set to read some small letters at a distance; one of us then discovers the same letters elsewhere on a larger scale and larger surface: won’t it be a godsend to us to be able to read the larger letters first and then compare them with the smaller, to see if they are the same?’

‘Certainly,’ replied Adeimantus; ‘but what bearing has this on our inquiry about what is just?’

‘I will tell you. Justice can be a characteristic of an individual or of a community, can it not?’

‘Yes.’

‘And a community is larger than an individual?’

‘It is.’

‘We may therefore find justice on a larger scale in the larger entity, and so easier to recognize. I accordingly propose that we start out inquiry with the community, and then proceed to the individual and see if we can find in the conformation of the smaller entity anything similar to what we have found in the larger.’

Socrates speaking with Adeimantus in Plato’s Republic, 368d-e

After much discussion including (a few too) many rabbit trails, Socrates and friends arrive at the conclusion that the best governance of the polis is that in which a philosopher king rules, auxiliary guardians protect his rule, and each of the common folk faithfully execute the one thing he or she is good at in proper proportion so as to benefit the polis. These three—philosopher king, auxiliary guards, and common people—parallel the three parts of the human soul—reason, will (or spirit), and appetites (or desires), respectively.

The Cardinal Virtues: Wisdom, Courage, Temperance, Justice

When the philosopher king/reason is functioning best, Wisdom is the virtue at work. When the common people/appetites are in doing what is appropriate for them to do, and no more, that is Temperance. When the guardians/will are serving the king/reason while keeping the commoners/appetites from rebelling, they are exercising Courage. And when all three of these parts are running true, the polis/person is acting with Justice.

This is the framework behind Lewis’s men without chests. To have courage, one must be educated in regards to one’s loves; when the lower instincts are dominated by fear, the intellect can justify several reasons to run, but a rightly trained spirit (or will, or heart, or chest) will calm the animal instinct and help the reason to act not only wisely, but more to the point, courageously. Lewis puts it this way:

“Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism….In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism…about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use….The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat…of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between the cerebral man and the visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite, mere animal.”

The Abolition of Man, 24-25

Lewis says that the problem with modern education is that it does not train the affections. He sites as indicative of our culture two children’s text books that deny the intrinsic value of things themselves and denigrate the place of emotion in the life of the learner. In other words, if two children in a minivan listen to NPR and one finds the work of Beethoven powerfully uplifting and the other is left unmoved, our modern teachers would say that either response is equally valid, for Ode to Joy has no intrinsic value; it is simply aural vibrations, and neither child’s emotional response, therefore, has any real value. One response is neither better nor worse than another because all responses are merely subjective. In this way we have raised increasingly skeptical and cynical generations.

Rather than telling our young people that their emotions do not matter (“all value, after all, is mere subjectivity”) we should be training them to have emotional responses that correspond rightly to things themselves. This, of course, presupposes that things have inherent value, that there is a reality that transcends the material world. If a thing is worthy of praise, praise it; if an act is deplorable, deplore it, but do not say that praise or deplore it’s all the same for either is simply what one feels and has no tie to the thing or the act itself. To do so is to deny that any truth lies beyond the senses. It is to lack courage and conviction. It is to be men without chests.

The Humanities and The Permanent Things

Our modern education systems are increasingly enamored with STEM, and, not surprisingly, the humanities are dying. But consider, while science and technology can answer the question Can we (do this or that)? it is the humanities that answer the question Should we? Literature, Philosophy, Theology, History—these train our loves. These strengthen our chests. These deal in the transcendent, not simply the material. These point us again and again to the truly human things, the permanent things. Without these, our spirits/hearts/wills cannot act as guardians, holding our baser instincts in check. Without these, our reason cannot rule, for it will have nothing but facts. Facts are not the same as wisdom. Facts are atomistic bits of knowledge that may be coopted by the appetites. Wisdom is understanding what is really there and acting in accordance with it. Wisdom is living with the moral grain of the universe, not cutting against it. If there is nothing transcendent, nothing really there—no intrinsic value—then all that remains is for us to use the intellect to devise more and more sophisticated ways to satisfy our animal lusts, leaving our souls unsatisfied in the end.

Lewis references St. Augustine, who speaks of the ordo amoris, or the order of our loves: loving that which ought to be loved in the proportion with which it ought to be loved. This is the role of the guardian, the will. This is the product of a well-trained heart. This is the spiritual probiotic that keeps the instincts of the gut healthy, and facilitates the reason’s pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

To listen to The Abolition of Man, chapter 1: Men Without Chests see the wonderful doodle below:

One thought on “Missing the Middle

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