Friday, 23 July 2021

After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man”

I consider myself 'slow' at philosophy, but I 'got' Abolition of Man immediately. It is one of my all-time favourite works of philosophy and of C.S. Lewis.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Carl E. Olson

It is fair to assume that the majority of people who know of C.S. Lewis are acquainted through his (rightly) famed and (much) beloved Narnia books, which have sold over 100 million copies and continue to move at the pace of a million copies a year.

I came to those books later in life, as an adult; my first serious reading of Lewis was of The Four Loves. I distinctly remember purchasing it as a teenager in a bookstore in Spokane, Washington, and I recall equally well how Lewis challenged me to think more deeply about the nature of friendship, romantic love, patriotism, and, of course, love of God. In Bible college, as a young Evangelical, I read Surprised by JoyThe Great Divorce, and The Abolition of Man. All three were challenging and engaging, but the latter was especially influential and thought-provoking, and has remained a favorite ever since.

In hindsight, my attraction in 1990 to The Abolition of Man is somewhat surprising, as it is perhaps Lewis’s least accessible work, as Michael Ward discusses in his exceptional After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a guide to the 1943 book. Ostensibly a book about education, it is replete with obscure references to various figures and debates of early and mid-20th-century England. In addition, it is not overtly Christian even while being the most philosophically demanding of Lewis’s many writings.

It is not, in short, an obvious “hit”, quite unlike the Narnia books. Lewis himself, as Ward notes, said in 1955 that the book “has been almost totally ignored by the public.” Yet, Ward further observes, the book underwent several printings and a second edition within a few years, and was “a solid seller right from the start,” despite being a work of “academic philosophy”.

Furthermore, The Abolition of Man has gone on to earn a reputation as a “genuine and seminal classic”, influencing a diverse company of notable scholars, critics, historians, educators—many theists but others openly atheist—including A.N. Wilson, Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Francis Fukuyama, and Wendell Berry, to name just a few.

While establishing its influence, Ward takes pains to state that his goal is not to argue for a particular stance, pro or con, regarding Lewis’s “overall argument,” but rather to examine “what Lewis said, why he said it, and how he did so.” This alone is a worthy (and substantial) task, and one that Ward does with a nimble combination of deep scholarship, bright prose, and a deep respect for Lewis that never falls into undue adulation or unquestioning blindness. Having already written a highly regarded study titled Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2010), Ward further cements his reputation as a preeminent guide to Lewis, demonstrated throughout this handsome Guide with copious connections made to many of Lewis’s other works.

So, for example, Ward remarks that the first four chapters of Mere Christianity are “in effect… a simplified version of, or beginner’s guide to Abolition.” He shows how Lewis implicitly adverts to Abolition in MiraclesStudies in Words, and, more explicitly, in That Hideous Strength. He quotes Walter Hooper’s statement that Abolition is “an all but indispensable introduction to the entire corpus of Lewisiana.” Those who take the time to read it will better grasp what Lewis was doing in his many other works—fictional, spiritual, literary—and those who read Ward’s Guide will better grasp what Lewis was doing in Abolition.

It could be said that Abolition is a sort of Mere Natural Law, a defense of the Tao over and against the rising flood of subjectivism that Lewis saw coming fast and with furious consequences. In fact, Lewis wrote of “vicious subjectivism”, something he knew a great deal about on both a personal and public level, as Ward lays out so well. The intensity of Lewis’ disdain for emotivism and subjectivism bursts through in the final sentences of Abolition’s opening chapter (“Men Without Chests”):

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 gildings be fruitful.

Following the opening chapters on the reception, occasion, context, background, and more about Abolition, there is the “Commentary and Gloss”, which makes up about two-thirds of the Guide. This is a treasure trove of information, insight, connections, and quotes from a host of sources. Further, there is a generous 32-page section of color photos and images: of Lewis, other key figures, letters and texts. When I asked Ward, in a recent CWR interview, “What was most enjoyable for you about putting this book together?”, he responded:

Probably the photo gallery. Word On Fire Academic allowed me to include over thirty pictures, many in full colour, showing various people, places and documents that help illuminate The Abolition of Man. Perhaps the best of these is the original “blurb” that Lewis wrote out, long hand, for the first edition of his book but which was never actually used and which nobody – not even the late, great Walter Hooper – seems to have known about before. It’s published here for the very first time.

In the Conclusion, Ward proffers that Abolition “may be understood as a work of prophecy,” noting that the book is unusual in it’s “bleak perspective”, which is “uncharacteristic of Lewis.” But, Ward offers, “the sombre tone signals the seriousness of the matter in hand and the need for action to avert the predicated disaster.”

And I think it is this prophetic, if bleak, quality that caught my attention over three decades ago. Furthermore, it is Lewis’s obvious love for truth—for objective Truth, the ground of moral being, or Tao—that challenged me to avoid the temptations of subjectivism and emotive individualism and to pursue what it really true, good, and beautiful. Thus, the timeless character of Lewis’s classic work and the timely character of Ward’s comprehensive Guide.

Read Carl Olson’s interview of Michael Ward here.

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