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The Best Defense Is a Good Offense: C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man

A new critical commentary on Lewis’s classic 1943 work provides a treasure trove of interpretation and supplementary material. Lewis’s warnings about the consequences of jettisoning natural law—what he referred to as the Tao—remain as trenchant today as they were when delivered during the Second World War.

after humanity

Almost twenty years ago Richard John Neuhaus wrote in the pages of First Things that some people can stop reading C.S. Lewis, and some others cannot, and the latter are eventually considered to be Lewis scholars. Yet as anyone who has delved into the thought of a great thinker knows, there are scholars who have published on the subject and there are scholars who almost inhabit the thought of the thinker. These scholars publish works that help us not only understand the life and ideas of a C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton or Thomas More, but also shape the contours of subsequent scholarship, interpreting their accomplishments afresh for a new generation one step further removed from the original context.

Michael Ward is such a scholar and ideally situated to help shepherd the transition of Lewis studies from the care of those who may have known Lewis personally to those not yet born when Lewis passed away on November 22, 1963. Educated in English at Oxford, theology at Cambridge, and divinity at St. Andrews, Ward lived in Lewis’s home The Kilns as Warden in the late 1990s, is advisor to the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, author of the remarkable Planet Narnia, co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, and has now authored After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a new critical commentary on one of Lewis’s most important works. Originally delivered as a set of three lectures at the University of Durham in 1943 before being published the next year, Abolition was not initially well-received and remains underappreciated by the general public, even as several noteworthy and diverse thinkers—Leon Kass, Joseph Ratzinger, Francis Fukuyama, Wendell Berry, John Finnis—consider the work a classic for its treatment of human nature and natural law.

It is not hard to understand why Abolition is underappreciated by the general public, despite Walter Hooper describing it as “an all-but indispensable introduction to the entire corpus of Lewisiana.” It does not provide the whimsical narrative magic one finds in the Narnia Chronicles, nor the fantastical metaphysical sci-fi adventurism of Lewis’s Space Trilogy. It lacks the everyman accessibility of the radio addresses Lewis gave during the Second World War that later became Mere Christianity, and couldn’t be more different in tone and genre from the psychologically and diabolically brilliant Screwtape in the letters of his name or Lewis’s iconoclastic reimagining of Hell and Heaven in The Great Divorce. Those who enjoy Lewis’s straightforward rational apologetics like Miracles and The Problem of Pain are more likely to appreciate Abolition, though there are significant differences here as well as Abolition does not defend Christianity nor attempt to establish this or that proposition by positive argument.

Abolition is rather a serious work of philosophy that nevertheless does not fit the mold of how most philosophical works are done. It begins with what first seems a rather odd treatment of English textbooks for children and concludes with a near-apocalyptic warning about the future of humanity. Moreover, Lewis freely admits he will not be attempting to prove the validity of his position, because his position cannot be proven at all. Rather, Lewis attempts to defend the validity of objective morality, which he refers to as the Tao, by interrogating the alternatives. And while this interrogation proceeds step-by-step in a careful manner, this is not a timid or mild-mannered book. The stakes are too high for that—humanity’s abolition is a weighty topic—and Lewis’s argument and conclusions are prophetic and his tone at times acerbic.

One of the challenges of writing about Lewis’s work is that he is such a clear and pithy writer. One is tempted to quote extensively or just refer the reader to Lewis’s various works, as few can match Lewis’s clarity or gift for the perfect analogy to illustrate a tricky concept. Nevertheless the seasoned Lewis reader and the newcomer alike can benefit from commentary about Lewis’s writings even as he or she will do best to read Lewis himself (advice Lewis himself gave about reading Plato and other greats).

Fortunately the reader armed with Lewis’s original work and Ward’s new book need not choose. Ward offers a good deal of invaluable secondary material laying out the biographical circumstances of the book and explaining references that may have become obscure in the seventy-eight years since its publication. Indeed, Ward has done newcomers and experts alike a great service with six chapters detailing the occasion for the lectures that became the book, describing its reception, offering an overview of the main themes, and commenting on its legacy (forty-two pages). As invaluable as those chapters are, chapter seven provides a remarkably insightful line-by-line commentary on the entire book (142 pages), assisting readers with Lewis’s argument and his sometimes more obscure references. This edition also includes discussion questions, a concluding meditation on Lewis’s work, and several beautiful photographs that complement the work. This would be an ideal edition for one’s private collection, a book study group, or a college classroom.

In his supplementary materials Ward does well to balance between explanation and evaluation. He wisely attempts to avoid opining on whether Lewis’s arguments are ultimately successful and instead is content to provide the reader with the tools to discern what Lewis said, why he said it, and how his arguments work (or don’t). While it is obvious Ward admires Lewis, and not entirely clear he’s successful in not weighing in on the merits of Lewis’s argument, the secondary material in the book includes commentary from several strong critics of Lewis. Ward also brings his own insights to bear on Lewis’s work, drawing out insights and implications that readers may otherwise gloss over or miss entirely. Some of these are well-known but bear repeating, such as Lewis’s pointed avoidance of relying on divine revelation or Christian doctrine. Others are more speculative but nevertheless intriguing, such as Ward’s suggestion of a sort of intellectual if not consciously intentional lineage between Lewis’s Abolition, G.E.M. Anscombe’s “Modern Moral Philosophy,” and Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. And Ward can also be critical both of Lewis’s style as well as the substance of his arguments, finding the third lecture of the book significantly weaker than the first two. Readers need not be concerned about a hagiographic treatment of either Lewis or Abolition.

Nevertheless there is also a good deal of praise for Abolition in the selections Ward chooses, and this for good reason. It is worth reflecting on why this odd little book struck such a chord with so many significant thinkers and retains such power nearly three quarters of a century after its publication. Lewis admirers could supply several reasons to read or re-read Abolition, but here are three reasons independent of Lewis’s stature that the book deserves the praise heaped on it and the new commentary that Ward has provided for us.

First, the book addresses one of the most important questions that has been considered throughout Western and, Lewis insists, human history. Is there a moral reality woven into the fabric of the universe such that we can discover what is true about right and wrong and act accordingly? Or is morality something malleable, a tool for the powerful or for unguided evolution or for flow of History, something that we need not discover but now that we have come of age can create and shape for ourselves? From Antigone’s challenge to Creon to the serpent’s asking “Did God really say?”, from Plato’s battle with the sophists to Pilate’s question about truth, and Rousseau’s reimagined nature-less state of nature to the truths we hold to be self-evident to Nietzsche’s creative super men and today’s transhumanists, this is arguably the question that lies beneath all of our disputes and controversies.

Abolition addresses this perennial and paramount question, and in doing so takes the side of Antigone and Plato and the Bible and Confucius, and opposes Thrasymachus, Rousseau, Nietzsche, B.F. Skinner, and our modern skeptics. Whereas many of Lewis’s works describe and defend the Author of the moral law in both his special and general revelation, Abolition concerns itself only with the reality of the law itself, and the stark alternatives to a belief in objective morality. “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date,” Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, and thus if Lewis is correct about the status of the moral law we should expect his book to be forever “timely.”

The importance of the topic is not sufficient for the book’s standing, however, as there have been many good books written to defend moral reality that have fallen into obscurity. A second reason that Lewis’s work stands out is that it defends reason brilliantly in an age in which reason has fallen into disrepute. In his Screwtape Letters, published not long before Abolition, Screwtape notes that modern people no longer believe in reason. At one point human beings “knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning.” Fortunately, from the perspective of Hell, people no longer believe this. Lewis had anticipated the advent of postmodernism, perspectivalism, and even fake news back in the 1940s.

Lewis’s task in Abolition is therefore delicate. If people have largely rejected the legitimacy of logical reasoning, how does one make the case for the proposition that the foundational building blocks of morality cannot be established by argument, but are nevertheless real? It is quixotic to try to prove the validity of the moral law to a people averse to logical thinking, not only because of the hostile audience but because it is impossible to “prove” first principles. He does not assume that the burden is on the natural law thinker or moral realist, as there is no common argumentative framework that can accommodate the starting premises of the radical moral skeptic and the moral realist. If Lewis’s book succeeds, it does so at least in part by portraying the stark chasm between the humanity that is in accord with objective morality and a post-humanity that sees morality as one more “reality” to be manipulated by the ethically untethered techniques of modern science and political power. It is not a work of natural law theory per se, explaining the nooks and crannies of how any particular system works. It is rather a powerful defense, an offensive defense if you will, of the reality of the natural law by means of laying out the horrors involved in the alternative.

Finally, Lewis’s book continues to strike a chord because technology has advanced enough to render questions about reengineering human nature practical and no longer merely hypothetical. While the debate about the status of morality and human nature stretches back to Antigone and beyond, the means to accomplish the abolition of man and woman seem closer to reality than they have ever been. Whereas the scientific experiments Lewis describes in Abolition and its fictional counter-part That Hideous Strength had a definite science-fiction feel to them in the 1940s, the attempts to transfer human consciousness, significantly delay or even eradicate death, and bio-engineer coming generations no longer feel far off in the future. They are very much live issues.

Lewis’s point in his concluding chapter is that those who have put human nature on the dissecting table to be manipulated will no longer be guided by the morality that is, or was thought to be, inextricably connected to it. Lewis knew that some, perhaps many, will welcome this brave new world. Others of us will resist this development for the sake of all men and women with all the appropriate tools and rightful powers and prayers at our disposal. Lewis’s accomplishment with Abolition is to provide one such tool among many, and we will do well to revisit it often as the debate about who and what we are continues.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this essay was updated to focus on Michael Ward’s new critical commentary.

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