|Synopsis||In 1943, C.S. Lewis performed three lectures on the nature of objective reality that would go on to become one of his most philosophically important works. Now, scholar Michael Ward has released his own commentary on the text, trying to dig through and explore its depths in light of modernity's failures.|
|Release Date||June 23rd, 2021|
I haven’t taken many chances yet to review C.S. Lewis books directly. I wrote a review of Spirits in Bondage last year that I still think is correct but probably would’ve benefited from a greater knowledge of romantic poetry which I’m only just now starting to accumulate. I’m also afraid some of my Space Trilogy reviews are undercooked in hindsight. His work is so important to me that I’m legitimately afraid to dig deeper into it and publicly speak about its full breadth and meaning. For that reason, I’ve waited to write classics reviews on The Great Divorce, Till We Have Faces, and so on long enough to have a deeper understanding of them. Lewis is my favorite writer, and I want to give every book he’s written a proper review.
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of Lewis commentary to work with in the meantime. There are dozens of prominent Inkling Scholars across the world, several of whom I’ve been lucky enough to meet and have put in the time to analyze these immensely beautiful works of theology. I’m always happy to give these people more exposure as I discover their work. Most recently, I read Michael Ward’s newest book, After Humanity, which serves as an analysis and biography of Lewis’s most famous work of philosophy: The Abolition of Man.
Spiritual Content: Themes of philosophical meaning, objective morality, and how those things manifest across different religious belief systems
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Other Negative Themes: Bleak tone and themes
Positive Content: Deep explorations of Biblical ideas and themes about the nature and failures of modern life, education, and philosophy
Disclosure: This reviewer received a review copy of the book After Humanity
Michael Ward, one of the most distinguished Lewis scholars of this generation, tackles Abolition of Man with heft and scrutiny the likes of which will keep any Lewis fan quite busy. Ward is well known as the author of the critically acclaimed Planet Narnia which contrasted the medieval cosmological/symbolic associations of the planets of the solar system with the themes of the seven Chronicles of Narnia books. Now, he’s returned to the realm of C.S. Lewis with his newest book – a commentary on C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man.
Unlike most Lewis works, Abolition of Man is not primarily a work of Christian apologetics. It’s a short track on the concept of objective morality. It was composed of three lectures he gave in 1941 titled The Abolition of Man: Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools. The title was laborious but offered some interesting insight into the nature of his philosophical target of derision. Lewis’ target was a textbook he references as “The Green Book,” a mostly obscure work published in 1939 that Lewis himself found disgraceful and potentially damaging to the minds of young readers. As Ward describes it:
“Lewis opens his argument by talking about an English textbook he has recently been sent for review and which he finds serious fault with. He dubs it “The Green Book” in order to spare the blushes of its two authors, whom he names Gaius and Titius, but the book was actually entitled The Control of Language and its authors were Alec King and Martin Kelly. Not that it matters much who they were or what their book was called. It soon becomes apparent that The Green Book is a foil, a useful opponent against which Lewis can swiftly establish his anti-subjectivism case by means of contrast.”*After Humanity, Page 12
Satirizing two of his fellow Oxford educators wasn’t the primary point of his lecture series, though. Lewis wanted to use this book and lecture series to explore how failures in education would go on to undo the entire logic of objective morality by subconsciously undermining the thoughts of the youth who took Gaius and Titius’ work to heart.
“Much of Lewis’s hostility to The Green Book derives from the fact that it introduces a highly contentious view without ever admitting it to be such: It smuggled it in without an argument in a book on a slightly different subject, for children, without probably being even aware that it was controversial… The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The irrigation of deserts is not an easy task, as Alan Jacobs observes, “Trying to teach his twenty-year-old pupils that Spenser or Milton or Chaucer could give delight – well that was nearly a superhuman task. It would have been far better if someone had captured their imaginations a decade earlier, as some of his teachers had captured his.”After Humanity, Pages 55 and 64
Not only does this idea of subjectivism poison the minds of impressionable young people who are already struggling with the classics, but it also sets the stage for the horrific apocalyptic result of what he calls the “Abolition of Man.” Starting with a rather minor discussion about the philosophical implications of describing a waterfall as objectively or subjectively “sublime,” Lewis sews a thought that describes how this poisonous subjectivism would worm its way back into the destruction of humanity itself.
“His argument begins with a debate about the words “pretty” and “sublime”, proceeds to the false equivalency of “good” with “progressive” and continues with an analysis of the abstraction “man”… The Abolition of Man is a two-stage process: first the conditions abolish their own humanity by embracing subjectivism; second they abolish the humanity of everyone else by conditioning them in their own image and likeness.” (Page 161)After Humanity, Pages 90 and 161
The end result of a society embracing moral subjectivism is a society that loses the ability to properly make moral judgments, thus creating the anti-human and crushingly cruel ideologies of the 20th century like Stalinism, Maoism, and Nazism; all massively huge ideologies run by egotistical, evil men crushing their enemies in the name of “progress” and “reason.”
As of this year, it’s been eighty years since the original lectures were performed at Oxford. This leaves us with an interesting question regarding Ward’s book. As with any commentary, what does one learn by reading After Humanity? What couldn’t I have learned merely by reading the original Abolition of Man?
Partially, the benefit comes with his added background and reflections on The Abolition of Man. Ward does an excellent job quoting every major philosopher and public speaker who has been influenced by Lewis’ book in decades since, and offers us perspective on how it was received. We get insight into why people like B.F. Skinner, Humphrey Carpenter, and Ayn Rand reacted extremely negatively to it, while others such as Francis Fukuyama, Pope Benedict XVI, and Alasdair MacIntrye have echoed and revered ideas found in the book.
For an 81 page novella, Lewis packs it with some of the most challenging and thought-provoking ideas in his entire bibliography. As Michael Ward himself says, “Though his slimmest publication, it is his densest work, pound for pound” (Page 190). If his summaries above show anything, it’s that he’s done an enormous amount of work to expand Lewis’ ideas and help make some of the more strange and challenging aspects of the book more accessible to modern readers.
The other real benefit of the book comes from the fact Ward does an excellent job of helping the reader grasp the full extent of Lewis’ ideas. In a way, he’s trying to teach the modern reader HOW to read Abolition of Man. The flow of Lewis’ arguments is quite subtle. Starting with his dismissal of the “Green Book,” he moves swiftly through his philosophy of education, theory of the Tao, and the painful moral consequences of a world totally subsumed by subjectivism or logical positivism. Being able to source every quote, reference, Greek/Latin phrase, and philosophical allusion makes After Humanity an excellent reference book.
Abolition of Man isn’t a text that’s easily read by the uneducated. It was an Oxford Lecture written for other Oxford students and tutors. It’s not a novel like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Mere Christianity that can be studied by a high school Bible study. Abolition of Man is, first and foremost, a philosophy text.
Speaking for myself alone, it delves into extremely difficult subject matter. It’s quoting and referencing Kant, Hume, Aquinas, and Aristotle, and isn’t generally holding your hand as it does it. It expects the reader to already have some understanding of the concepts it’s exploring and how it ought to be taught in schools as a discipline. The fact Ward does the work of laying out Lewis’ allusions and references more clearly is very helpful.
If there’s any serious critique, it’s in how the book is laid out structurally. Pages 43-186 are a line-for-line, word-for-word breakdown of the major quotes from Abolition of Man. In being such, it’s somewhat impractically laid out for a traditional commentary. Instead of annotating the full text of the book, Ward plucks individual passages from every page and offers explanations for their philosophical background or references. Functionally speaking, this isn’t a book you’re going to find useful unless you’ve already read and internalized Lewis’ original book. It’s too detail orientated and abstract to be practically useful.
Ward himself acknowledges the way he laid it out is somewhat un-ideal, stating “this microscopic approach risks anatomizing the text in an unhelpful way: we may end up seeing only the trees and not the wood… The real purpose of analysis is to synthesis: you untie in order to unite” (Page 187). He’s certainly correct to be concerned by his approach. Thankfully, he does offer up a useful conclusion to recollect and focus on the themes of the book more holistically.
This isn’t a beginner’s guide. As a tool for digging deeper into the text, though, After Humanity is a work of intense scholarship and usefulness.
I’m not sure Ward necessarily brings any new immediate or shocking insight to After Humanity that wasn’t already familiar to academic Lewis scholars. Regardless, Michael Ward’s work is admirable and useful for those who are willing to put the time into Lewis’ original text. In our modern society, we need a more epistemologically serious understanding of the concept of objective morality and educational scrutiny than ever before. Certainly, we now live in a culture of men without chests, yet we’re daily shocked to discover traitors in our midst. We need Lewis’ “Tao” now more than ever.
“And not only is moral reality universal, it is universally held to be objective, for even Gaius and Titius who say that value is a subjective act in a manner which reveals they believe otherwise… He admits by lumping together “the traditional moralities of East and west, the Christian, the Pagan, and the Jews” we will find “many contradictions and some absurdities.” But his thesis is not that all moralities coincide on every point, only that they all derive from a single source, the universally accessible Tao and all, therefore, agree in principle on the objectivity of moral value.”After Humanity, Page 15
*Reviewer’s Note: We know The Control of Language is the exact book C.S. Lewis is proselytizing against because the actual copy of it still exists. It’s currently in the possession of the Marrion Wade Center at Wheaton College, and I was actually allowed to see it with permission while writing this essay, thanks in part to my proximity to the college as I live outside of Chicago. On page 19 of the book, Lewis has underlined direct quotes that appear in The Abolition of Man and annotated them as “Confusing worse confounding.” Lewis Similarly annotated many of his books, including a copy of Lord Byron’s book Don Juan in which he merely annotated the back cover with the date of completion and the words “NEVER AGAIN.” The photograph of The Control of Language above was taken by myself.
+ Excellent Background on the Content of Abolition of Man
+ Useful Historical Background and Conclusion
+ Comprehensive Reference Information
- Awkward and Somewhat Counterintuitive Structure
- Not a Useful Beginner's Guide for Lewis Readers
The Bottom Line
After Humanity is a wonderful, challenging, and comprehensive work of scholarship that will prove useful to any C.S. Lewis fan trying to dig deeper into his work as a philosopher.