“What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”[1]

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

“Your highly emotional behavior is most illogical.”[2] 


It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.”[3]

Peter de Vitres, Harkonnen Mentat, Dune

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.[4]

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man


C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man is hailed as a profound critique of modern education, yet it also provides a key to decoding much of what goes on in modern sci-fi films. Written during World War II in 1943 to counter the education system’s propensity to debunk values (Lewis offered that it was due to their concerns about manipulative wartime propaganda), Lewis argues that the relativism that often ensues places our very humanity at risk. Lewis demonstrated how values such as generosity, respect, duty, justice, faith and mercy are universal (he gave them a Chinese name, the Tao, which translates as “the Way”) and can be seen across the space and time of human history, from ancient Greece, Rome, China, and India to the present day. But when these values are abandoned, it is not just civilization that we lose, but our own human dignity. Scientific and technological advancement cannot counter this, and in fact often demonstrate those shortcomings: airplanes deliver bombs, wireless communications deliver propaganda, and even contraception exerts control over future generations. When we view current sci-fi stories with Lewis’s argument in mind, we often find his claims easily verified. The collection of essays found in the 2017 compilation, Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man: Finding C.S. Lewis in Sci-Fi Film and Television, demonstrates Lewis’s continuing relevance.[5]

The collection has particular relevance for 2020, as the book cites how the easy availability of film viewing (something of a national pastime during the pandemic) from such providers as Netflix allow us to track its claims across such series and films as Star Trek, Avengers, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Blade Runner, The Matrix, The Island, and THX 1138 among others. We will first examine some claims from Star Trek, well known to most fans of sci-fi, then consider how the award-winning Frank Herbert book Dune, set for release of a new film adaptation in December 2020 (part one of two), might fare under the Lewis lens. The book is arranged into three parts, one for each chapter of The Abolition of Man: “Men Without Chests” (how to achieve moral virtue), “The Way” (the universal moral code), and “The Abolition of Man” (results of failing to heed the Tao). We review all the Star Trek articles here, two from part one, then one each as found in parts two and three; we then conclude by extrapolating how Lewis might thus have viewed Dune.

In the chapter “Vulcans without Chests: Spiritual Disorders Portrayed in Star Trek,” Lewis Patterson explores Star Trek’s famous portrayals of reason and emotion in light of Lewis’s integrated model in The Abolition of Man. To Spock and his Vulcan race’s isolation of logic and reason to the exclusion of emotion, Lewis holds up Plato’s model of the well-ordered, tripartite soul of reason, emotion, and desire. “As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element,’” Lewis cites from Plato, continuing on with, “The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat … of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments” as “indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man.”[6]  Lewis summarizes, “It may even be said that by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.” [7] Vulcans, however, model this only incompletely, only allowing for emotion and the irrational during mating rituals surrounding pon farr (as in the episode “Amok Time”). Emotions are indeed valuable, Lewis argues, as they support rather than conflict with our rationality.  The role of emotions in training is invaluable, as Lewis cites Plato in stating “the little human animal will not at first have the right responses,” instead “it must be trained to to feel pleasure, liking, disgust and hatred at those things which are really pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.”[8]  Further, emotions reveal truth in their own way: Lewis draws on the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge who illustrated how the sublimity of a waterfall can evoke the proper feelings of humility. Coleridge, however, simply illustrates here a principle from antiquity, found in Augustine and known at ordo amoris, the condition that certain features of reality stir up, in fact require, particular attendant emotions. Lewis so dignified the role of emotion that he declared that the problem of the educator was not to guard against persuasion but to awaken students “from the cold slumber of vulgarity … not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”[9] The Vulcans have thus erred. Thus, Captain Picard could declare that Vulcan Ambassador Sarek’s own logic was the source of certain diplomatic problems, and Spock is forced to admit that he continually loses to Captain Kirk in three-dimensional chess because of  his inability to anticipate Kirk’s irrational moves.

By contrast, Patterson claims that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, in which the charismatic Vulcan Sybok preaches Vulcan heresy in admitting emotion and offering healing, “gets so many things right with respect to human nature.”[10]  Even Dr. McCoy (Bones) succumbs to Sybok’s offer to take away his pain, but Kirk corrects him with, “Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand … If we lose them, we lose ourselves.”[11]  Kirk not only accords emotion its dignity, but also implicitly admits the universal moral code of the Tao, by which (generally) we receive blessings as our behavior accords with it.

In “To Seek Out New Virtue: Lewis, the Tao and the Prime Directive,” Deanna Smid claims that the Prime Directive (to not interfere with less advanced civilizations) implicitly distorts the idea of progress into a merely technological rather than moral state of affairs. A civilization is typically judged as sufficiently advanced to engage outsiders (such as Star Fleet) once they have managed to develop warp drive. With that technology, they would then be able to engage other planetary cultures independently. First Contact illustrates that point as Picard’s Enterprise encourages Zefram Cochrane to persevere in his work. According to Geordi La Forge, Cochrane’s theories on warp drive “allow fleets of starships to be built, and mankind to start exploring the galaxy” thus allowing, as Deanna Troi adds, for humanity to unite “in a way that no one thought possible when they realize they’re not alone in the universe. Poverty, disease, war – they’ll all be gone in the next fifty years.”[12]  The progress of a civilization is possible solely through technology, rather than by virtue and moral adherence to the Tao. Instead, morality evolves along with a civilization’s exploration of space and contact with other cultures. Nothing like original sin appears to be a problem; warp drive mechanics and ship navigators will solve all of mankind’s problems. When Cochrane introduces warp drive, his civilization makes the jump from primitive to advanced in a matter of mere hours, if not minutes. The film Insurrection offers a counterexample to Star Fleet’s technologically utopian rendering of the Prime Directive as they already have warp capability but choose not to use it. The virtuous Ba’ku instead argue that they are happy on their idyllic planet, and that “when you create a machine to do the work of a man, you take something from the man.”[13]  Nevertheless, the Ba’ku’s civilizational virtue is simultaneously achieved with their ability to develop warp drive, whether or not they actually deploy it. They believe the Tao is still something achieved, at the pinnacle of civilizational evolution, rather than as something already there, which civilizations are found to respect, as Lewis claimed. Such technologists would be classified by Lewis as moral “Innovators”[14] who pick and choose specific virtues, thereby distorting the integrated Tao itself. Lewis thus prefaces the entire book with a quote from Confucius to such effect: “The Master said, He who sets to work of a different strand destroys the whole fabric.”[15]

Kevin Neece continues Smid’s discussion of the Tao in “Terraforming the Soul: Star Trek’s Genesis Device and the Ethical Cultivation of Creation.” Neece properly credits Star Trek as offering a balanced view of progress:

In Star Trek, humanity does not save itself simply with technology. It saves itself by means of virtue, and specifically by putting virtue to work.[16]

Neece even cites Captain Janeway as implicitly aware of Lewis’s argument, stating “If we abandon our principles, we stop being human.”[17]  The technology of terraforming, bringing dead planets back to life, illustrates this nexus of technology and virtue; the Genesis Device, a terraforming missile, figures prominently in the films Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Dr. McCoy demonstrates the right sort of humility toward virtue and technology when discussing the Genesis Device with Commander Spock in The Wrath of Khan:

Spock: It would destroy such life in favor of its new matrix.

McCoy:  Its new matrix? Do you have any idea what you’re saying?

Spock: I was not attempting to evaluate its moral implications, Doctor. As a matter of cosmic history, it has always been easier to destroy than to create… [but] I do not dispute that in the wrong hands …

McCoy: In the wrong hands? Would you mind telling me whose are the right hands, my logical friend?[18]

Nevertheless, McCoy’s question is overridden by the decision to launch the Genesis Device in the final scene of The Wrath of Khan, and Kirk implicitly approves, answering McCoy’s question how he feels with, “Young, I feel young.”[19] Yet, in The Wrath of Khan and its successor The Search for Spock, the message of redemption for such sins clearly emerges. Spock serves as a Christ figure, sacrificing himself to save the Enterprise yet eventually resurrects due to the Genesis Device. Kirk’s son David Marcus, who is killed by the Klingons for his role in the faulty design of the Genesis Planet, admits his failing as not just technological but moral, as he unethically used unstable protomatter in his design. Smid thus concludes that “Star Trek has always been above making blanket statements about technology … nor does Star Trek preach salvation through technology [but] has a dual narrative: Humans are amazing … but we are a speck in the universe. We must have the humility to realize that we are not ‘there’ yet.”[20] After further discussion of terraforming in other episodes, Smid insightfully and gracefully concludes with:

In an age of blindingly fast scientific advancement – frequently based on realizing ideas imagined by Star Trek – we would do well to listen to the lessons of the Star Trek universe, which tell us, along with the Apostle Paul, to carry out our endeavors ‘with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love.’[21]

The final Star Trek piece, Geoffrey Reiter’s Flawed, Weak, Organic”: Star Trek’s Borg and the Abolition of Man, assesses how technology might affect our humanity, thus relating Lewis’s final chapter to the continuing issue of scientific extension of life or transhumanism. Reiter claims that the hybrid human-android race of the Borg, introduced in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation and its episode “Q Who,” “serve as object lessons of Lewis’s thesis that progressive applied science not only can cost us our essential humanity but can also enslave subsequent generations.”[22]  The Borg are villains who abuse their technology to assimilate conquered races (though Reiter cites transhumanists like Kevin Decker who argue otherwise) and sacrifice the humanity of its victims for the utility of its empire. They perfectly illustrate Lewis’s warning: “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”[23] Dialogue between Captain Picard and the Borg makes this clear:

Borg: Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.

Picard: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.

Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-Determination is irrelevant. You will comply.

Picard: We would rather die.[24]

The Borg sees its victims only in the most physical and least human terms, creatures of biology and technology, while Picard instead recognizes the human will and freedom, which Lewis cites in The Great Divorce (in the voice of George MacDonald) as that “gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves part of eternal reality.”[25] In fact, in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis described Satan in very Borg-like terms:

He [God, or “Our Enemy” as the devil and his apprentice refer to him] really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself- creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because he has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over.[26]

The Borg “Third of Five,” also known as Hugh, further illustrates how science and technology cannot do full justice to our humanity when he becomes separated from the Borg and learns a sense of individuality from Star Trek Engineer Geordi La Forge. La Forge declares that, “Losing [my] sense of individuality is almost worse than dying”[27]  However, the self-sovereignty espoused by both Picard and La Forge are yet reined in by the Tao. This is seen in the episode “Descent” in which Hugh’s individuality infects a renegade segment of the Borg population.[28] Once isolated from the Borg collective, this group seeks a leader, whom they find in Lore, the twin android brother of the Enterprise’s Commander Data. Lore has the emotional capability which Data always coveted, but he lacks any sense of morality; he lacks Lewis’s Tao, and becomes the immoral “Man without a Chest.” Reiter claims that The Next Generation writers thereby countered any apparent excess of self-sovereignty that might be inspired by the statements of Picard and La Forge.[29]

How, then, might Lewis view Frank Herbert’s award-winning Dune, the story of war between House Atreides and House Harkonnen over the planet Arrakis, desert home to the production of the invaluable spice Melange which allows the folding of space to accomplish space travel? Written in 1965, Dune is the best selling Sci-Fi novel of all time and winner of Hugo and Nebula awards, and is set for release in theaters in December 2020 as a Denis Villeneuve production. This follows the David Lynch production in 1984. Its notable themes when first written included prominent roles for women (the Bene Gesserit sisterhood conspires to produce a messianic royal heir), ecological concerns (a harsh planet that yet contains valuable resources), a political rebellion against tyranny (House Harkonnen is not just evil but ugly and disgusting, despite The Police’s Sting being in the royal family), and finally a mind-altering juice which spoke to the drug culture of the 1960s.[30] [31]

The most prevalent link to Lewis’s argument about the rivalry of morality and technology would appear to lie in the struggle between the amoral House Harkonnen and the honorable House Atreides. Harkonnen exploitation is largely by (im)moral means (and absent the Tao) rather than by means of technology, however; Harkonnen figures thus often come off as morally compromised, scheming, and subhuman. Their humanity has already been abolished. However, there is a class of advisors, the Mentats, who are trained to process data and reason because computers, artificial intelligence, and all thinking machines have been prohibited. Good mentats behave morally (and Paul Atreides is trained as such), though twisted mentats devoid of ethics also arise, such as the Harkonnen advisor. The mentat credo even balances the roles played by technology and moral decision-making, stating that even though “it is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed,” “it is by the will alone that I set my mind in motion.”[32]

Dune also includes a coming of age story, as Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and his Bene Gesserit concubine Lady Jessica, undergoes testing by the sisterhood to realize his destiny as a messianic leader (the Kwisatz Haderach). Producer Villeneuve claims the story is a call to arms for youth  over issues such as social and environmental exploitation; Villeneuve also expands the role of Lady Jessica, and makes Dr. Liet Kynes, the leading ecologist on Arrakis, a black woman (Kynes had been a white male in both the book and the 1984 film).[33] It is difficult to make Lewis’s Abolition of Man speak to the issue of gender, though Lewis’s Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength) more directly does; a review of the trilogy can be found in An Unexpected Journal’s inaugural issue, which also happens to have had the theme of Lewis’s Abolition of Man.[34] Lewis sets the series first on the hardened and very male-themed Mars, continues it on the fertile and teeming Venusian planet of Perelandra where Eve’s temptation is re-enacted, and concludes it back on Earth where marriage of the genders is explored. Lewis affirms the value of each gender, as complementary as rhythm and melody, claiming that even language reflects the gendered nature of reality (most languages have feminine and masculine cases).

Dune’s most unique aspect, however, is the spice mined from Arrakis which allows the Spacing Guild to fold space and achieve instantaneous interstellar travel. The vital role of such a resource for travel brings to mind the political interpretation of Dune as a depiction of earth’s own desert region, the Middle East with its vast reserves of vehicle-fueling oil, and its religion of Islam. Issues of succession after the passing of its founder are played out in the four sequels Herbert wrote to Dune, strengthening the comparison of Dune to Islam. But the planet Arrakis’s various fluids (the spice Melange, the juice of Sapho, and the Water of Life used by the Bene Gesserit) expands Dune thematically, to include not just the drug culture of Herbert’s 1960s, but the nature of thought itself. Mentats, made necessary in the Dune story by the Butlerian Jihad which outlawed thinking machines, fuel their mental powers by the special juice of Sapho. Similarly, the Water of Life allows Paul to have prophetic dreams and realize his own powers. Once the cheers from the psychedelic (and even today’s CBD oil) crowd dies down, one is left to explore and explain irrational sources of thought. Lewis has already placed the emotional realm as complementary – and not antagonistic – to that of our reason. However, Lewis takes the argument deeper than that in his overall consideration of reason and imagination. In his essay Bluspels and Falansferes: A Semantic Nightmare, Lewis argues that reason is in fact dependent on the imagination to function:

For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.[35]

Lewis was thus famously influenced by the fantasy novels of George MacDonald, declaring that they “baptize[d] my imagination” into seeing deeper into reality.[36] Thus, without understanding matters through our imaginations, whether in the form of story, art, or even music, we are impoverished when we try to reason about matters. In his own sci-fi trilogy, Lewis illustrated the balance, following, once again, the triad he borrowed from Plato, that of reason, emotion and desire. In Out of the Silent Planet, the tall, angular, intellectual wizard-like race of sorn are complemented by poetic hross who have chosen a simple existence rather than an advanced technological one, as well as by the pfifltriggi who are more bestial but also builders; the head/reason, chest/emotion and belly/desire are thus directly modelled.

As to the environment, Lewis the Medievalist keeps pace with such themes in Dune. In The Discarded Image, Lewis shows how Medievals synthesized “theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe,” and that model was one full of life, not cold and sterile, just as Lewis describes in his Space Trilogy.[37] In fact, Lewis so disliked the cold, sterile insinuations of the term “Space” that Lewis scholars tend to strongly dislike the moniker of “Space Trilogy” for Lewis’s interplanetary fiction, citing this passage from the trilogy’s opening book:

A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of ‘Space’: at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds… the very name ‘Space’ seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it dead; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment.[38]

Star Trek premiered in the mid-1960s, just a few years after Lewis’s death in 1963, but concerned itself with many of the same issues on which Lewis had written twenty years prior in The Abolition of Man. Herbert’s Dune from 1965 is also not quite so far removed from many of the themes Lewis developed in The Abolition of Man and elsewhere. Lewis undoubtedly would have enjoyed Star Trek, though he may have quibbled with some tribbles along the way; similarly, Lewis undoubtedly would have enjoyed Dune as a tale of morality, courage (“not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at its testing point … Pilate was merciful till it became risky”), prophecies, reason, imagination, gender and the environment.[39]

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Collier, 1986), 69.

[2] The possible sources for this are nearly limitless.

[3] David Lynch, Dune (Universal Studios, 1984).

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 35.

[5] Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man: Finding C.S. Lewis in Sci-Fi Film and Television, ed. Mark J. Boone, Kevin C. Neece (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publishers, 2017).

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 34.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 26.

[9] Ibid., 24.

[10] Boone, Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man, 53.

[11] Ibid., 54. Citing William Shatner, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (Paramount Pictures, 1989).

[12] Ibid., 60. Citing Jonathan Frakes, Star Trek: First Contact (Paramount Pictures, 1996).

[13] Ibid., 64. Citing Jonaathan Frakes, Star Trek: Insurrection (Paramount Pictures, 1999).

[14] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 42.

[15] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, front matter citing Confucius, Analects, 11.16.

[16] Boone, Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man, 192.

[17] Ibid., 192. Citing David Livingston, Star Trek: Enterprise “Equinox, Part 1” (CBS Television, 1999).

[18] Ibid., 194. Citing Nicholas Meyer, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Director’s Cut DVD (Paramount Pictures, 2002).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 198.

[21] Ibid., 204, quoting Ephesians 4:2.

[22] Ibid., 308.

[23] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Ibid., 80.

[24]  Boone, Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man, 311. Citing Cliff Bole, Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” (Paramount Pictures, 1990).

[25] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 2000),141.

[26] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Letter 8 (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 38.

[27] Boone, Science Fiction and the Abolition of Man, 313, citing Robert Lederman, Star Trek: The Next Generation “I, Borg” (Paramount Pictures, 1992).

[28] Alexander Singer, “Descent, Part I,II” Star Trek: The Next Generation (Paramount Pictures, 1993).

[29]  Ibid., 314.

[30] Incidentally, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Patrick Stewart plays the role of Gurney Halleck, a talented minstrel known as Gurney the valorous in Lynch’s 1984 production of Dune, while a clean-shaven Jason Momoa, of Aquaman fame, reprises the role of Paul Atreides friend, Duncan Idaho, in the 2020 release.

[31] Matt Miller and Adrienne Westenfeld, “Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Makes Some Important Changes to Frank Herbert’s Book” Esquire (Hearst Digital Media, April 14, 2020). Online esquire.com/entertainment/a26329764/dune-movie-cast-plot-release-date-details-news/

[32] David Lynch, Dune (Universal Studios, 1984).

[33] Matt Miller and Adrienne Westenfeld, “Denis Villeneuve’s Dune Makes Some Important Changes to Frank Herbert’s Book” Esquire.

[34] Seth Myers, “The Abolition of Man as Sci-Fi: Lewis’s Space Trilogy” An Unexpected Journal 1, no. 1 (Spring 2018) https://anunexpectedjournal.com/archive/vi-issue-1-spring-2018/.

[35] C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Falansferes: A Semantic Nightmare” in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 265. Online http://pseudepigraph.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/CSL-Bluspels-and-Flalansferes.pdf.

[36] C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), XXXVIII.

[37] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 11.

[38] C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner, 2003), 34.

[39] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters Letter 29 (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 162.

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