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Unpacking C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man

C.S. Lewis is arguably one of the most popular authors and Christian apologists of the 20th century. His Chronicles of Narnia fiction series has captivated generations of children, while nonfiction books like Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain have unpacked complicated theological concepts and questions in accessible terms.

But The Abolition of Man is considered to be Lewis’s most difficult to read book due to its highly philosophical nature. Scholar Michael Ward hopes to make The Abolition of Man more accessible for the average person through his new book After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Ward is a faculty of theology and religion at The University of Oxford, and has written numerous books on C.S. Lewis. Ward joins host Traci DeVette Griggs on this week’s Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to discuss his newest book, After Humanity.

C.S. Lewis described The Abolition of Man as “almost my favorite among my books.” “It’s admired across the spectrum from every kind of Christian through to atheists,” says Ward. “But it’s also—by Lewis’s standards at any rate—quite inaccessible. … Lewis here is working in full philosophical mode.”

Ward hopes to help non-philosophers understand this incredibly valuable work through his new book. He explains that in The Abolition of Man, Lewis is discussing the “objectivity of value,” that value just exists and is a truth that is not subject or changing. “So in matters of right and wrong, good and evil, there are certain absolutely fundamental truths, which we just have to see, and not to see them is to be deficiently human.”

“It’s very important that we buckle down and pay attention to Lewis’s argument,” continues Ward, “because we see the correctness of his warning all around us.” From sexual behavior to gender identity to deceit in politics to even a lack of devotion within marriages, our world today has lost much of the “objectivity of value,” says Ward, and have tried to make many truths subjective.

Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Michael Ward unpack C.S. Lewis’s highly-admired but difficult The Abolition of Man.

 


Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Unpacking C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Few people are unfamiliar with the name C.S. Lewis and his prolific writings, especially his fictional series, The Chronicles of Narnia. However, his book The Abolition of Man has a reputation among many for being inaccessible and difficult to read.

Well no more, thanks to a new book by scholar Michael Ward. Michael Ward is a member of the faculty of theology and religion at the University of Oxford, and professor of apologetic at Houston Baptist University. He joins us today to discuss his newest book, After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.

Michael Ward, can’t wait to read this one. Welcome to Family Policy Matters.

MICHAEL FARRIS: Thank you, Traci. I’m very glad to be with you.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Well, you already provided commentary on Lewis’s Narnia books, we know. So why did you decide to tackle The Abolition of Man next?

MICHAEL FARRIS: The immediate cause was I was asked to write a foreword to a new addition of The Abolition of Man. As I wrote that foreword, it grew and it grew and it grew until it had become a kind of standalone book. I’ve taught The Abolition of Man to my students over many years and I know how difficult they have found it, and I thought it was worth putting out a standalone book to help people through this important but difficult work. I’m very pleased that the publishers of my book were able to persuade the publishers of C.S. Lewis’s book to produce a tie-in addition, so when you get After Humanity, you can also get a matching copy of C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I love the fact that you have taught this to students who probably were not afraid to ask the supposedly stupid questions that most of us might be afraid to ask. But tell us why The Abolition of Man, do you think, is so widely admired and so difficult to understand for many.

MICHAEL FARRIS: Yes, it is a very widely admired work, and indeed C.S. Lewis himself described it as “almost my favorite among my books.” It’s admired across the spectrum from every kind of Christian through to atheists. There’s a modern, British, atheist philosopher called John Gray, who thinks it’s a very prescient and prophetic work. Evangelical Anglican Alan Jacobs has called it the most profound of Lewis’s cultural critiques. Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict, he has described it as having a keen accuracy in its moral diagnosis. So it is very widely admired, but it’s also, as you say—by Lewis’s standards at any rate—quite inaccessible; it’s quite difficult. He’s operating at quite a high academic standard. It originated as a series of philosophy lectures. Although it’s definitely worth unpacking all these complexities, it’s not something that necessarily comes easy to people and doesn’t come easy to me either. I’m no philosopher myself; I’m more of a literary critic and a theologian and Lewis here is working in full philosophical mode. So there are no stupid questions. I asked every question conceivable as I put this guide together, and nothing is too difficult or too easy to be worth explaining.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned that this was uniquely personal and relevant to Lewis’s own life. So why do you think that is?

MICHAEL FARRIS: It is an argument about the objectivity of value, and Lewis had come to a belief in the objectivity of value long before he became a theist or a Christian. He’d grappled with subjectivism—the idea that value is purely a projection from our own interior preferences and private whims. He’d grappled with that philosophy in his pre-Christian days, and had concluded that it isn’t true, it isn’t correct. So he’d seen through subjectivism and having seen through it, he wanted to share with other people the way around this problem, because it has become a very common philosophical position. But it’s wrong; it’s a mistake, so he’s trying to show why. That’s one reason why it comes from Lewis’s own personal experience.

Another aspect is that in the course of The Abolition of Man, he repeatedly talks about how the real test of objective value is our willingness to suffer and maybe even die in defense of the good. Lewis himself had very nearly died during the First World War. He thought that patriotic value was an objective value, and he thought that risking his own life in defense of his country in the First World War was something that he should do even though, of course, from a subjective point of view, it wasn’t gonna be very pleasant for him. Indeed it wasn’t pleasant; he was blown up in the trenches of France in the spring of 1918, and very nearly killed. He saw men die on either side of him. But just because you have to suffer, maybe even risk death, in defense of the good is no reason to conclude, therefore, that value is merely subjective. If it were merely subjective, then when you had to suffer, when the thing became inconvenient for you, you’d change your view, wouldn’t you? And the fact that you go through with your commitment to a particular thing, whatever it may be—loyalty to one’s marriage, commitment to one’s work, and indeed loyalty to one’s nation—even when those things are inconvenient, that reminds us that value is objective. We don’t just make it up.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: You mentioned philosophical anthropology, and you talk about how Lewis explores this. Could you start by telling us what is meant by philosophical anthropology?

MICHAEL FARRIS: Yeah. Anthropology just means your understanding of humanity. “Anthropos” in Greek means “man.” So a philosophy of humanity is really what Lewis is presenting. He’s trying to explain how from a philosophical point of view, from an ethical philosophical point of view, we are human beings and not either animals on the one hand or angels on the other. So he’s trying to define what it is that makes us specifically and uniquely human, and it is that we are rational. Angels have a rational spirit; animals have sensible appetites. But human beings have both, and it’s integrating those two aspects of our nature that he’s really concerned with in this book.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So what did he say about the role of education in this discussion?

MICHAEL FARRIS: Education is a very important aspect of the whole presentation, because although he’s arguing that value is objective and that it’s a premise…it’s as basic as two plus two equals four, which we just discover to be the case. We don’t make them up. So in matters of right and wrong, good and evil, there are certain absolutely fundamental truths, which we just have to see, and not to see them is to be deficiently human. But just as people have to be taught mathematics when they’re little, so we have to be taught morality. It may be evident once you see it, but until you see it, you are either mathematically enumerate or morally immature. That’s why so much of the importance of parenthood is indeed in training up little boys and girls to know right from wrong, good from evil. They’ll see it once you show it to them, but you have to show it to them. Otherwise they just remain little beasts. You don’t need to be a very cynical person to understand that children left their own devices won’t put on the moral muscle that will enable them to become balanced and humane individuals.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So one of the criticisms of culture today, especially in light of social media and marketing and fast food restaurants, is that people do not have the appetite or the attention span to dig deep into philosophy such as you’re suggesting. Why is this important for us to buckle down and do?

MICHAEL FARRIS: Well, it’s very important that we buckle down and pay attention to Lewis’s argument because we see the correctness of his warning all around us. He warned that unless we do integrate our rational faculty and our sensible appetite—unless we combine those two aspects and become truly human—then we will be on a short road to disaster. That’s why he calls his book The Abolition of Man. He’s, on the one hand, defending objective value; on the other hand, he’s pointing out how, if we give up on the objectivity of value, we’ll be on a short road to a kind of self-destruction. We’ll be bringing about our own abolition; we’ll either be evaporating upwards into a kind of false spirituality, or we’ll be descending downwards into mere animality. Either way, we won’t be human. I think if you look around in our modern culture, you see a lot of incompletely human people who are either denying that they’re embodied, or they’re saying, “Anything I feel must be right, simply because I feel it.” In both those ways, you see the truth, the accuracy of Lewis’s warnings about this vitally important moral question.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: I mean, you did mention the keywords rational and sensible, and I think as you just said, you can look around and go, there are so many things that are being said in the public square right now that are not rational, don’t even make sense. Can you talk specifically about a few of the issues that we might be facing that a study like this would help us to grapple with?

MICHAEL FARRIS: Well, I mean there are many, many prominent political and social issues to do with sexual behavior, gender identity, truthfulness in politics, and those sorts of things. So we can see it on a large scale in the culture at large, but I think really it’s most important to bring it home to ourselves as individuals and ask ourselves where it is that we try to wriggle out of the objectivity of value. Because it’s easy to point the finger at other people, isn’t it? But we need to take the log out of our own eye before we start dealing with other people’s problems. So, I already mentioned it’s an objectively valuable thing to be loyal to your marriage vows. If you are married, undoubtedly, there will be periods in your marriage when you go through difficulty, when you go through very choppy waters. But part of the objectivity of value is veracity, and if you’ve made a promise, you need to stick to it. That’s just a very simple example of how Lewis’s argument is deeply relevant to each and every one of us. It’s not just a big political or social matter.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: That is a great point because it’s so easy, isn’t it, to as you said point the finger at other people and define ways that people have been offensive. To bring it home to ourselves first I think is a great point. Thank you for making that. So let’s say our listeners order the book, they get your book along with C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man. How do they tackle this? Tell us what we should do when we get those books.

MICHAEL FARRIS: Well, it depends how well you know C.S. Lewis. If, for instance, you are already familiar with Mere Christianity, you will recall how in that book, the first four chapters of Mere Christianity talk about right and wrong as a clue to the meaning of the universe. There in Mere Christianity, Lewis is making very much the same argument as he makes in The Abolition of Man, except at a much more accessible, popular level. So if you’re already familiar with that argument, you might just plunge straight into The Abolition of Man. Or you might prefer to start reading my introductory chapters in After Humanity as a way of limbing up for The Abolition of Man. People should, if they want to get the book, go through the publisher’s website. So the book is published by Word on Fire Academic, and if you order it through their website, then you automatically get this free tie-in edition of The Abolition of Man with a matching cover. So don’t go through Amazon or some other book seller; go to Word on Fire Academic.

TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: As you said, if you want the book by Michael Ward—and that is entitled After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man—you need to go to the Word on Fire Academic website and order it from there, and you will get his book along with The Abolition of Man at the same time. So Michael Ward, thank you much for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.

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