Zeitgeist is a German word that means “spirit of the age.” The zeitgeist of Periclean Athens was self-knowledge (supremely embodied in the thought of Socrates), while that of the Middle Ages and Victorianism was hierarchy (Dante) and progress (Tennyson), respectively. As for the darker zeitgeist of modernism, marked by relativism and subjectivism, though Lewis did not embody it, he understood it better than many of its most ardent supporters.
In a sense, all of Lewis’s books offer a critique of modernism, but the one that does so with the deepest insight and the greatest prophetic power is The Abolition of Man. In this brief book, which bears the rather intimidating subtitle of “Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of School.” Lewis predicts (with woeful accuracy) what the outcome will be for a society that trains its youth in accordance with the principles of aesthetic subjectivism and moral and ethical relativism.
At the core of the modern zeitgeist, Lewis locates a refusal to abide by any fixed, transcendent standards of the Good, the True, or the Beautiful. Everything now is subjective. The old verities are up for grabs. No longer do our beliefs point back to a divine law code or an essential, in-built sense of good and evil; they exist only and solely in the eye of the beholder.
Lewis begins his analysis of this deeply-entrenched relativistic zeitgeist by highlighting an elementary textbook that teaches children that the so-called sublimity of a waterfall does not rest in the waterfall itself but in the perceptions of the one looking at it. Though this distinction may seem unimportant, Lewis shows how such a subjective view of the power of a waterfall leads in time to a subjective view of all judgments of value.
What happened in the 20th century is that we went from relativizing all matters of beauty and sublimity (not only in nature but in the arts as well) to relativizing all matters of right and wrong. Thus, whereas modern schools revel in scientific facts and sociological statistics, they ridicule “old fashioned” notions of courage, patriotism, and honor. And yet, ironically, at the very moment we have thrown out traditional values, and the super-natural standards on which they rest, we cry out desperately for the very duty and self-sacrifice that such values make possible.
“In a sort of ghastly simplicity,” warns Lewis, “we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
For thousands of years, parents and teachers have ensured the maintenance of civilized life by training their children and students not only to understand and obey the God-given, conscience-approving standards of right and wrong, but to nurture proper feelings vis-à-vis those standards. Thus, we teach young people to feel an inner sense of pride and self-respect when they perform a virtuous action and an inner sense of shame and disgust when they chose instead the way of vice.
The sign that our society is disintegrating is not to be found in the wildness of teenagers (that has always been with us), but in the fact that when those teens commit immoral actions, they feel neither guilt nor remorse. Such chest-less young people are the vanguard of a new Dark Age.