Lewis Tolkien Society
“The Risks of Repudiating Reality:
Timely Lessons from Lewis’s The Abolition of Man”
by Ken Myers
In 1998, during the centenary of C. S. Lewis’s birth, I had the privilege of interviewing philosopher and ethicist Gilbert Meilaender, prompted in part by the reissuing of Gil’s book The Taste for the Other: The Social and Ethical Thought of C. S. Lewis, originally published in 1978.
During our conversation, we talked about the distinctive qualities of Lewis’s writings, particularly his works in Christian apologetics. Gil said that he thought that Lewis’s success as an apologist was tied less to the cogency of his arguments, and more to the vitality of his imagination
“His work is so fundamentally imaginative, I think he’s not so much trying to argue anybody into thinking something as he is simply trying to help us understand what it would mean to believe something, through the enormous gifts he has for illustration and metaphor and story. A great deal of what he does is simply trying to think through what the world looks like from a Christian perspective, make it understandable and make it come alive for us.”
Lewis presents a vision of reality that is personal and cosmic, rational and mysterious. His readers are invited to compare their picture of the way the world is with a Christian vision. They can decide if the Christian story about human nature and human well being and the meaning of the cosmos is a more compelling account — an account more consistent with reason and experience — than that available from the fashionable mythologies on offer in the academy or in the media.
In addition to his imaginative skills, I think that Lewis’s success as an apologist is also tied to his perceptive attention to the peculiar preoccupations and prejudices of the culture of modernity. While most of our contemporaries are likely to dismiss all premodern convictions as superstitions, Lewis believed that the modern era was fatally mired in irrational and unexamined hogwash. And it’s remarkable how often Lewis identifies those distinctively modern assumptions as the most notable obstacles to belief in the teachings of Christianity.
For example, Lewis laments in many places what he calls provincialism in time. He insisted that intimate knowledge of the past enabled one to be “in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” In an essay called “Modern Man and His Categories of Thought,” Lewis wrote about how debilitating it was that educated people were no longer rooted in “the Ancients.” In an earlier era, when all educated people were educated through the classics, “Values quite different from those of modern industrial civilization were constantly present to their minds. Even where Christian belief was rejected there was still a standard against which contemporary ideals could be judged. The effect of removing this education has been to isolate the mind in its own age; to give it, in relation to time, that disease which, in relation to space, we call Provincialism. The mere fact that St. Paul wrote so long ago is, to a modern man, presumptive evidence against his having uttered important truths.”
Because Lewis was so accomplished in defending timeless truths and in warning us about perennial temptations – because an excursion to Narnia blessedly, if temporarily, delivers us from headlines and deadlines — it is easy to forget how much of his work was shaped by the unique historical experiences and conventional beliefs of the twentieth century. Lewis saw keenly how those events and beliefs were the culmination of trajectories in thought and action that had been developing for centuries.
Oliver O’Donovan, who was Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University between 1982 and 2006, has warned us that “those who do not make an effort to read their times in a disciplined way read them all the same, but with narrow and parochial prejudice.” The commentaries by journalists, politicians, and free-lance pundits during our recent election season is proof of that claim. O’Donovan argued that reading the times well requires certain habits of thought: “to see the marks of our time as the products of our past; to notice the danger civilization poses to itself, not only the danger of barbarian reaction; to attend especially not to those features which strike our contemporaries as controversial, but to those which would have astonished an onlooker from the past but which seem to us too obvious to question.” These are exactly the intellectual virtues that C. S. Lewis presents in his work, perhaps most especially in a number of essays, lectures, and books he produced during the Second World War.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. In March of that year — in the wake of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia — Britain had declared solidarity with Poland. And so, on September 3rd, Britain — along with France, Australia, and New Zealand — declared war on Germany, an act which is often cited as the official beginning of the War.
The very next day, C. S. Lewis’s brother Warren, who was living with him in Oxford, was recalled to active duty. Less than a week later, Lewis’s friend and fellow Inkling, Charles Williams, moved back to Oxford, following the relocation of the offices of the Oxford University Press from London, since the government assumed that the German bombing of the city would begin immediately.
At the outbreak of the war, Lewis wrote to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, “If it’s got to be, it’s got to be. But the flesh is weak and selfish and I think death would be much better than to live through another war.” As it happened, not only did Lewis live through the war, but the years between 1939 and 1945 proved to be a remarkably creative period for him. It was the time in which he delivered the radio addresses later collected and published under the title Mere Christianity. Those talks were given at the invitation of the BBC, and Lewis regarded them as part of his wartime service, in aid of encouraging morale in Britain.
The war years also saw the publication of The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, Perelandra, and A Preface to Paradise Lost. That Hideous Strength and The Great Divorce were both published just months after the war ended.
One of my favorite shorter writings by Lewis is an essay produced during this period: “Learning in War-time.” If you haven’t read it, it’s included in the collection, The Weight of Glory. This essay was actually first presented as a sermon, preached on October 22, 1939, at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Oxford.
The site for this sermon’s delivery is not insignificant; St. Mary the Virgin Church is historically a central institution in the life of Oxford University. Standing on the north side of the High Street, there has been a Christian church on that site for over a thousand years. Oxford University grew up in and around this church. As early as the thirteenth century, it was used for lectures and the award of degrees, as well as for meetings of the governing body of the university.
It was here — a mere seven weeks after the outbreak of a new world war — that C. S. Lewis gave a sermon originally called “None Other Gods: Culture in War Time.” In this homily, Lewis argued that the life-and-death urgency of the war was not a sufficient reason for scholars to abandon their commitment to the pursuit of learning.
The disciplines of history and philosophy, of literary studies or chemistry or botany seemed to some a frivolous distraction from what really mattered for Europe in the autumn of 1939. Lewis voiced this objection to business as usual in the university early in the sermon: “Why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”
Those of you who have read the sermon will remember that Lewis ups the ante very early by insisting that the question of learning in war-time needs to be set against other related questions that every Christian must ask him-or her-self in peace-time. “To a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must not be that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell.” Every Christian in every university must “at all times face a question compared to which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology.”
The war, observes Lewis, “creates no absolutely new situation: it merely aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.”
Now, of course, there are some people who think that security — either eternal security or political and economic security — are really all that matters, and that the search for impractical knowledge or beauty never really should have begun. I have known devout Christians who are suspicious of any time spent attending to the arts or literary interests, time that could be spent in evangelistic pursuits or in cultivating personal devotion. Meanwhile, there is in the American character a strong pragmatic or utilitarian streak that can be just as dismissive of cultural pursuits. Early in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, we read a self-description of the book’s protagonist, Hank Morgan, which includes his claim that “I am a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry, in other words.”
Twain may have had in mind some of the great nineteenth century American industrialists. Andrew Carnegie, for example, once declared that the traditional college education of the late nineteenth century left graduates “adapted for life on another planet,” and that time spent studying Shakespeare and Homer was wasted. Richard Teller Crane, the founder of a large industrial products company, argued back in 1909 that no man who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy,” because “the only men entitled to happiness in this world are those who are useful.” Only a life barren of poetry could be a good and happy life.
Lewis doesn’t really address such philistinism directly, although he does say that “If you attempted . . . to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better. You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the line: if you don’t read good books you will read bad ones. If don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”
There is thus, Lewis insists, a preventative reason for a vocation that is culturally deliberate and discerning. “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”
I want to pause for a moment and amplify this simple and common sensical declaration. “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Behind Lewis’s defense of learning in war-time — and more generally of the ends served by careful and deliberate thinking — is the recognition that many of the challenges faced by societies and by individuals are the result of bad thinking — not just bad reasoning in general, but bad philosophy, bad thinking about the nature of things, about the metaphysical and moral order in which we think and act.
One of the forms of bad thinking Lewis was most eager to challenge was the assumption that all value judgments were arbitrary expressions of preference. In a 1943 essay called “The Poison of Subjectivism,” Lewis wrote that:
Until modern times no thinker of the first rank ever doubted that our judgements of value were rational judgments or that what they discovered was objective. It was taken for granted that in temptation passion was opposed, not to some sentiment, but to reason. Thus Plato thought, thus Aristotle, thus Hooker, Butler, and Doctor Johnson. The modern view is very different. It does not believe that value judgments are really judgements at all. They are sentiments, or complexes, or attitudes, produced in community by the pressure of its environment and its traditions, and differing from one community to another. To say that a thing is good is merely to express our feeling about it; and our feeling about it is the feeling we have been socially conditioned to have.
Near the end of this essay, Lewis warns of the social and political consequences of this subjectivism. “A philosophy which does not accept value as eternal and objective can lead us only to ruin.” It is the ruin of what Pope Benedict called the dictatorship of relativism. It is the ruin in which “the ethos of any society is the creation of its rulers, educators and conditioners; and every creator stands above and outside his own creation.”
Lewis closes this essay by describing the consequences for a society that recovers a belief in objective values, and here, he has some remarkably resonant observations for our own political moment: “If we believed in the absolute reality of elementary moral platitudes, we should value those who solicit our votes by other standards than have recently been in fashion. While we believe that good is something to be invented, we demand of our rulers such qualities as ‘vision,’ ‘dynamism,’ ‘creativity,’ and the like. If we returned to the objective view we should demand qualities much rarer, and much more beneficial — virtue, knowledge, diligence, and skill. ‘Vision’ is for sale, or claims to be for sale, everywhere. But give me a man who will do a day’s work for a day’s pay, who will refuse bribes, who will not make up facts, and who has learned his job.”
This essay, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” was published in a periodical called Religion in Life, in the summer of 1943. Earlier that year, Lewis was invited by the University of Durham to give the Riddell Memorial Lectures. This lecture series was endowed in 1928 in memory of Sir John Buchanan Riddell, onetime High Sheriff of Northumberland, who died in 1924. The lectures were founded to explore the relation between religion and contemporary thought. We can be grateful that Lewis was selected as the lecturer in 1943, as the three talks he gave in late February were soon published as The Abolition of Man. It is his most concise and focused critique of the fundamental mistakes in modern thought and the institutions that modern thought has generated.
Lewis biographer A. N. Wilson reminds his readers that these lectures were given “at a period when, abroad, Hitler and Stalin were defying all previously understood notions of decency — indeed inventing value or non-value systems of their own — while at home Lewis was finding himself, at the Socratic Club and elsewhere, with philosophers like A. J. Ayer who absolutely denied the possibility of attaching meaning to sentences which were not either verifiable through sense perception or verifiable as a priori truths. . . . Such concepts as right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, were dismissed from their vocabulary.” And Lewis clearly believed that there was a family likeness between the philosophers and the dictators.
When the Riddell lectures were published in book form later in 1943, the title given it by Oxford University Press was the same as the title of the third lecture: The Abolition of Man. The subtitle of the book may be somewhat misleading: Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools. I wonder how many English teachers have put this book down in frustration, with the impression that it was more a book about ethics or psychology or the relationship between science and metaphysics, not about teaching English. But Lewis’s book demonstrates his conviction that in teaching English — in teaching about how we engage forms of language and meaning — teachers are inescapably involved in conveying an orientation toward the world that is ethical and metaphysical. Not just the teaching of English, but all education is, in a sense, a mode of spiritual formation.
In his book, The Risk of Education, Luigi Giussani says that “to educate means to help the human soul enter into the totality of the real.” Here, Giussani reminds us that education isn’t just about communicating facts, or the cultivation of skills, or even the conveying of truth, but about connecting students to reality. Josef Pieper, in Leisure the Basis of Culture, similarly observed that “to educate means to help the human soul enter into the totality of the real.” And in his wonderful book The Logic of the Heart, James Peters points out that “in the Augustinian tradition, the proper function of reason is not merely to make true judgments concerning a world of neutral, nonmoral facts, but to enable the rational individual to make proper contact with reality, a state of being that requires not only ‘true belief,’ but the transformation of the will and affections needed to put us in touch with — to align us fully with — reality. . . . The perfection of reason requires our being transformed into the kind of persons we are designed to be — persons who are able not only to describe but also to affirm and become united with the God of love.”
The only way we can make proper contact with the reality of Creation is by being oriented by love, by union with the Creator, who is love. And this uniting isn’t some irrational spiritual experience, which we then set aside when we apply ourselves to the demands of knowing. If we’re to be aligned with reality we have to be aligned with the Logos by whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together. According to St. Paul’s declaration in the first chapter of the letter to the Colossians, Christ is the aligner of all reality, so we have to be aligned with Christ — the Logos who is Love — to make proper contact with reality, to enter into the totality of the real, to acknowledge and respond properly to what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful.
In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Our minds are to be aligned by various excellences, and human nature is such that we need to learn, we need to be taught how to recognize what is just and pure and commendable. The need for teaching is acknowledged in the very next verse, when the apostle writes “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
St. Paul’s teaching presupposes that some things are intrinsically lovely, honorable, excellent, and so forth. This was not a novel concept introduced by Christianity. Near the beginning of The Abolition of Man, Lewis observes that “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could either be congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.”
When the objective character of reality was acknowledged, education was properly concerned with shaping our subjective response to it. Lewis continues by reminding us how the premodern view of education was more about training the emotions or affections than about training analytic reason: “St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics: but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful.”
Lewis demonstrates how out of synch he is with the modern separation of head and heart when he insist that: “Because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgment; in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head; but it can, and should, obey it.” So Lewis stands on its head the claim that value judgements are mere expressions of preference. Rather, our preferences should be trained to be in accord with objective value.
The first chapter of The Abolition of Man is very adversarial in tone: Lewis is castigating teachers who convey to their students the belief that human feelings about the things of Creation are necessarily irrational and in need of eradication. These teachers train their students to believe that the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings, without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, are entirely separate worlds. Such teachers excel in the project of debunking, whereby the world is rendered meaningless and open to unrestrained manipulation.
What makes us human, Lewis insists, is the fact that we are not pure mind — that would make us spirits — nor are we pure desire or appetite or instinct — that would make us animals. In between intellect and desires we have the mediating capacity for ordered loves, disciplined sentiments, trained emotions. We have the capacity to learn to love the order that animates the whole of reality, to resonate in harmony with cosmic harmony.
Lewis believes that to deny both the existence of that order and the necessity of learning to honor it destroys what makes us human. Teachers who fail to teach in light of objective value effective abolish the humanity of their students.
And so the epigraph to the first chapter of The Abolition of Man is the description of a mass murder of innocent children, taken from a traditional carol: “So he sent the word to slay and slew the little childer.” The carol is the Medieval carol “Unto Us is Born a Son,” and the “he” in question is, of course, King Herod, ordering the slaughter of the innocents. The entire verse describes Herod’s reaction to the news that the Lord of Lords eternal — the Logos who is love — has taken human form and is cradled in a manger in Bethlehem: “This did Herod sore affray, And did him bewilder, So he gave the word to slay, And slew the little childer.”
The second chapter of the book begins by asserting that the practical result of the kind of education promoted by the debunkers “must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.” In that chapter, Lewis examines the claim that it is possible to invent entirely new systems of value, and the assertion that societies can get along quite comfortably without any shared values. He closes the chapter by summarizing the view that since there are no moral givens in the universe, we can decide for ourselves what it means to be human. “Having mastered our environment, let us now master ourselves and choose our own destiny.”
And that introduces the third and final chapter, in which Lewis explores the consequences of the modern project of conquering Nature, most explicitly and decisively represented by the place of science and technology in modern culture.
What distinguishes modern culture from pre-modern cultures is the assertion that Nature has no nature. Reality has no intrinsic meaning, and human willing has no intrinsic limits on its exercise. There is no ‘value’ higher than choice, there is no transcendent Good that might order desire towards a higher end. In such a universe, the conquest of Nature is a logically attractive project.
In that third chapter, Lewis describes the consequences of the triumph of the will that shadows the modern West: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.” Our society celebrates and venerates the sovereignty of spontaneous, untutored, and unordered willing. This is now our reigning notion of freedom, on which we erect systems of rights and institutions to extend those rights. To offer an alternative account of freedom — one based on the recognition of a transcendent Good that properly orders desires towards a higher end — is to invite sanctions from the State and severe forms of stigmatization from our nice neighborhood nihilists.
“When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.” And the more the energies of sheer wanting are stoked — by political movements, advertising, pornography, or old-fashioned covetousness — the more intense the debunking of any rational claims about the Good. No wonder Lewis warned that the denial of objective value puts us on a road to ruin.
Another passage from this final chapter that succinctly summarizes Lewis’s critique of modernity comes in a section in which Lewis describes the historical relationship between modern science and technology on the one hand and, on the other, the practices of fifteenth and sixteenth century intellectuals pursuing alchemy, astrology, numerology, and other occult arts, all best lumped together under the heading “Magic.” The quest for power to control nature was the engine that drove Renaissance mages, just as it propelled the rise of experimental science in the seventeenth century and later.
And so Lewis claims that “There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. 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. . . .”
- S. Lewis’s ultimate concern in The Abolition of Man is to show that if men and women are not educated in a manner that presupposes an order in the nature of things — a nature to human nature and to reason and to Creation — then their humanity is in some sense compromised. Those who reject the claims of objective value — who insist on inventing their own value systems — are, in Lewis’s words, “men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean. . . . It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts.” The final phase of the modern project of conquering Nature is the abolition of Man: what it means to be human is an artifact, not a natural thing, not something conferred by the nature of things, but an arbitrarily manufactured invention. The human is something made, not begotten. Lewis ominously concludes by claiming that we are living in “the world of post-humanity which, some knowingly and some unknowingly, nearly all men in all nations are at present labouring to produce.”
Sadly, there is not time to describe how Lewis or others might counsel us to combat the abolition of man. Lewis believed that it would require the reformation of science: the recovery within the discipline of science of something like natural philosophy. I would add to that a reorientation of the imagination through education, both formal and informal. I believe we need above all to attend to aesthetic experiences that render evident to us the fact of the givenness — of the beautiful and intelligible order — of Creation.
Philosopher D. C. Schindler has argued that modern thought promoted a crusade of “iconoclasm of the intellect.” Iconoclasts of all eras are those who destroy images that arrogantly claim to represent the divine to us in physical form. The modern iconoclasm of the intellect denies that the experiences of the senses have the ability to convey to us the existence of anything beyond the physical world. In Platonic and pre-modern Christian thought, Schindler argues, the things of this world were assumed to be “intelligible content, in a spatial and temporal mode.” While modernity assumes that the physical world is meaningless matter — and the life of the senses thus has no intrinsic connection with Truth or Goodness — the Platonic and subsequent Christian assumption was that the physical world was “nothing but meaning made tangible” (or, in the case of music, meaning made audible). Whether received immediately by the senses or captured in the metaphors of poetry, the perception of reality through the body by what would later be called the imagination was the source of meaning. Schindler insists that a recovery of active Christian imaginations is essential to the recovery of a Christian understanding of truth.
And so — and here I’m sure C. S. Lewis would agree — the reorientation of our souls toward reality requires more than good philosophy and theology. It requires well-ordered aesthetic experiences: of harmonious music and thoughtfully prepared meals, of humane architecture and resonant poetry, of well-crafted stories and sculpture, drama and dance that heighten our perception of the mysterious intelligibility of Creation, and the still greater mysteries of our Creator. And thereby society can reverse its suicidal project of abolishing the human. Thereby the flourishing and fulfillment of our humanity can once again be our common good and common ground.