What We Believe

After Humanity: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, by Michael Ward

William Edgar

After Humanity: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, by Michael Ward. Park Ridge, IL: Word on Fire, 2021, x + 241 pages, $24.95.

Lewis’s cryptic title reflects the reality of a Europe in deep trouble. It was in the midst of war. But it reflects an even deeper concern, the imminent danger of men (and women) “losing their chests.” While the specific lens of Lewis’s concerns is no doubt literary criticism, there is a far broader application: a growing distrust of both objective and traditional vision.

It is fair to say Michael Ward has devoted much of his scholarly life to the study of C. S. Lewis. Particularly memorable are The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens (Tyndale/Paternoster, 2010) and Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (Oxford, 2008). He has now delivered a labor of love, his commentary on Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.

Some would consider The Abolition to be Lewis’s most important book. Owen Barfield, Lewis’s friend and mentor, declared The Abolition to be the best piece of discursive argument Lewis had ever produced. Praise for the work was not universal, but it was abundant.

The Abolition was based on a series of lectures delivered in 1943 but only published in 1947. The lectures were presented at the invitation of the University of Durham. The purpose of the Riddell Memorial Lectures was to take a subject that explored “the relation between religion and contemporary thought.” He delivered them while he was a fully convinced Christian. However, the book hardly mentions his faith, even less any kind of theistic argument. Thus, Lewis’s lectures said very little directly about religion itself; yet, they were certainly concerned with religious commitments. The subtitle of the lectures is somewhat misleading: Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools. Though he does begin with considerations on a particular English textbook, the lectures rapidly become an extended argument against subjectivism in general.

The real title of the book under scrutiny was The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing, which Lewis diplomatically called The Green Book. Its authors were Alexander King and Martin Kelley, but he dubbed them Gaius and Titius, presumably as not to appear ad hominem. Indeed, Lewis politely suggested the two did not really know they had entered such deep waters.

On the off chance you are not familiar with The Abolition, the premise is fairly simple, though the arguments are deep. Lewis begins by citing what is I. A. Richards’s view that when we make statements about reality, we are not saying anything about the way things are, but about our feelings only. Though he obviously respects Richards, as well as fellow logical positivist A. J. Ayer, Lewis vehemently argues against their subjectivism.

To get at this problem of subjectivism, Lewis cites from the Green Book the well-known portion in Coleridge where two tourists are gazing at a great waterfall, and the one declares it “sublime” and the other “pretty.” Coleridge predictably endorses the first while rejecting the second. Gaius and Titius amazingly tell us the tourists are not saying anything about the waterfall but only about their feelings. Lewis goes to town on this and argues for the rest of the book against this kind of subjectivism.

In a move that is reminiscent of Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics, Lewis points out that in the search for absolutes the authors destroy the grounds on which they can be built. As Barfield puts it in his summary of the book: “Lewis contends that if man is nothing more than his freedom to reshape himself, if his nature is merely to be an isolated principle of will, then there can be no reason to shape himself after one pattern rather than another” (176). What would Lewis and Barfield say of today’s culture of the autonomous self?

In a move that might prove difficult for Van Tilians (such as I), Lewis spends much of the rest of the lectures defending the universal appeal of The Tao. By this he does not mean the technical term from Confucius and Mencius but the general, somewhat vague, idea of natural law. The Tao for Lewis is a way of appealing to universal morality, the kind almost everyone acknowledges when probed deeply enough.

Space prohibits an extended discussion of the meaning of the Tao for Lewis. Despite appearances, what it is not is a neutral building block to be followed by theism. That is, it is not a metaphysical construct. If anything, it is a tactic for argument, as my good friend Alfred Poirier suggests. So, for example, in Mere Christianity Lewis begins by appealing to the commonly held rules in an argument. When two people disagree, they do not typically say that logic does not matter but that the interlocutor is not keeping to its rules. The point that this is not metaphysical is difficult to make since there is a surface step-by-step progression through theism to the Trinity (100–101).

Let us pause a bit longer on this point. In the only essay I could find in which Van Til directly addresses C. S. Lewis,[1] the Westminster apologist faults him, along with Roman Catholicism, for trusting too much in the moral awareness of fallen man. If this is an ontological statement, then of course neither the Bible nor the Reformed confessions allow for any such kind of meritorious knowledge. Yet surely they recognize our ability to discern right from wrong, if only to run away from it (Rom 1:18–23). Can the apologist appeal to that knowledge? Van Til himself expounds on the sense of deity in every person. But he carefully refuses to call it a steppingstone. I think a generous reading of Lewis would come to the same conclusion about his appeal to the Tao.

 One thing to remember about Lewis is that he was first and foremost a philosopher before becoming an expert in Medieval and Renaissance literature. In the Abolition, his philosophical proficiency is fully demonstrated. One finds echoes of his arguments spread throughout both his texts on literature and his fantasies as Ward meticulously demonstrates.

Two features make this a hard book to review. First, Ward claims, and I think mostly successfully, that he does not intend to pronounce any judgments on Lewis’s views. Yet, they are there lurking in the corners. Second, as Ward himself admits, the bulk of his book is a detailed exegesis of The Abolition, virtually sentence-by-sentence. It is a microscopic treatment, full of learned quotes from other commentators. Every so often he helps us see the forest from the trees. I have read the book several times and been blessed each time, finding new elements.

The dark title The Abolition is further developed by Ward’s title After Humanity. While Richards’s views were in the atmosphere, and so were the dangers to objectivity he underscored, it is the post-war era when humanity’s future was at stake. Ward suggests the title may be more positive, deriving from the abolition of slavery in 1833.

This is an important companion to Lewis’s masterpiece. One can learn a great deal from Ward’s astonishing knowledge.


[1] Cornelius Van Til, “The Theology of C. S. Lewis,” unpublished manuscript in The Works of Cornelius Van Til, ed. Eric Sigward, for (LOGOS) Libronix Software, https://presupp101.wordpress.com/2012/08/23/the-theology-of-c-s-lewis-by-cornelius-van-til

William Edgar is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and emeritus professor of apologetics and ethics Westminster Theological Seminary, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, November 2022.

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Ordained Servant: November 2022

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