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    Lewis on Contraception

    December 20, 2006 by Brandy Vencel

    I promise I’m not really obsessing over contraception. It just happened to be that my most recent reading project was C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, and it contained some thoughts that I couldn’t resist putting into a post, since I am always compiling the Birth Control as an Idea Resources Page. So, please humor me.

    Lewis discusses contraception in the context of the bigger idea of the applied sciences and Man’s quest for power over nature. He says {emphasis mine}:

    What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the aeroplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propoganda. And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, 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.

    It is, of course, a commonplace to complain that men have hitherto used badly, and against their fellows, the powers that science has given them. But that is not the point I am trying to make. I am not speaking of particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure: I am considering what the thing called ‘Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scientific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and {in the concrete} of a government over the people. And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.

    Later, Lewis relates more thoughts on science. He is not specifically speaking of contraception, though he obviously considered the subject one of the more telling sciences {technologies, one would call it now} of his day. I thought it was interesting to spend some time considering the subject of contraception within this mental framework:

    For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique…

    This reminds me of the AIDS post that I ended up needing to take down {hopefully some readers remember it}. The idea discussed was that abstinence really is the best {and most logical} solution for AIDS and other “social” diseases. And the “wise men of old,” as Lewis refers to them, would have seen that the diseases would be abolished in a short time using “self-discipline and virtue.” But the prevailing wisdom of today screams “no!” to self-discipline, and seeks for a technique that will allow Man to circumvent the Natural consequences of his behavior.

    Lastly, Lewis makes a comment about Bacon, who he claims “condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit.” Again, Lewis is not applying this comment to contraception. But I did in my mind. And I found the contrast interesting: “a mistress for pleasure” versus “a spouse for fruit.” I considered for a moment that perhaps contraception inadvertantly turns one’s spouse into a mistress for pleasure because it necessarily denies the union’s ability to be fruitful.

    I know that early in our marriage, our plans to be childless {for a time, at least} were directly tied to our enjoyment of one another and a desire not to have that enjoyment interrupted. Though I think that this is a natural feeling to have, taking the step and actually forbidding the fruit of the marital act seems, according to Lewis’ dichotomy above, to change one’s mate from spouse to mistress, at least in some senses.

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