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After Humanity: 
A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s the Abolition of Man

by michael ward
word on fire academic, 253 pages, $24.95

The subtitle of this book characterizes it as a “guide” to The Abolition of Man. Potential readers might, therefore, ask themselves: What does Michael Ward mean in calling his book a “guide”? And why should a guide be needed for a book that (with rather large print) runs to only a little more than a hundred pages and is written by an author whose prose style is noted for its clarity?

It turns out, however, that this book is an excellent guide in several different respects. ­Lewis’s small book (of three chapters and an appendix) is, with a few revisions, the text of his Riddell ­Memorial Lectures, delivered at the University of Durham in 1943 and published shortly thereafter. If there are any facts Ward does not know about the occasion for those lectures, the reception of the book by reviewers and readers, and the influence it has had on other thinkers in the years since its publication, we probably do not need to know them. The very helpful six opening chapters of this book situate The Abolition of Man within its historical setting (in the midst of the Second World War), outline the philosophical context to which Lewis was ­r­eacting, and discuss some of the ways in which Lewis’s book has been ­influential.

One of these opening chapters also provides a very useful overview of Lewis’s argument. We might suppose that this is not needed for such a short book, but The Abolition of Man is deceptively complex, and its unexpected subtitle (“Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools”) hardly prepares readers for the sort of book it is, although Ward thinks that Lewis had reasons for choosing that subtitle. At any rate, chapter three’s overview usefully unpacks some of the philosophical depth of the three stages of Lewis’s argument: his description of the subjectivist tendencies of much modern thought about beauty, goodness, and truth; his treatment of the universal, objective moral reality (the Tao) that underlies all moral reasoning; and his prediction that the loss of that objective moral reality will make for a human life marked not by a way of wisdom but by a way of power.

Interestingly, Ward is at some pains to emphasize at the outset and at other places along the way that The Abolition of Man is “purely philosophical” and not (what some readers of Lewis might expect) “an apologia for Christianity, nor even for theism.” But if we are persuaded by this claim, as I am, we might then be a little hesitant also to agree with Ward that “the first four chapters of Mere Christianity operate, in effect, as a simplified version of, or beginners’ guide to Abolition.” The problem with this suggestion is that Mere ­Christianity’s opening chapters do seem to offer an argument for an at-least amorphous theism. Whatever we may think about that, in suggesting that The Abolition of Man occupies a central place in the whole of Lewis’s literary output, Ward points to something important that even longtime readers of Lewis might not have seen. The book may, he suggests, “be described as the philosophical theme of Lewis’s output and his other works as its variations.” Lewis, who once wrote to a correspondent that The Abolition of Man was “almost my favourite among my books,” might well have liked the idea that it was the theme for which his other works were variations. When Ward provides a list of the various moral principles embedded in the seven Chronicles of Narnia, principles that in many cases coincide with maxims of what Lewis calls the Tao, the theme-variation suggestion seems quite persuasive.

Useful as all these initial materials are, the heart of After Humanity is its seventh chapter, a 142-page “Commentary and Gloss” on The Abolition of Man. In the nature of the case, this is not the sort of chapter that can simply be summarized or that develops a single idea. Nor is it even the sort of chapter that must be read from start to finish; rather, I can easily imagine myself dipping into it and ­returning often to it simply in order to see again what Ward has to say about particular passages in The Abolition of Man. But here is just one example of the sort of unusual information one can find in this long, learned chapter.

Readers of Lewis’s book will know that Lewis begins the first lecture by referring to a school textbook, which he calls The Green Book, and whose authors he refers to as Gaius and Titius. That book was intended to help students learn to read and write critically. Its authors suggest that when a man describes a waterfall as sublime, he is saying something not about the waterfall but about his feelings—saying that he has sublime feelings. And with that illustration Lewis’s argument is off and running. We now know—and Ward provides all this information in the scope of a few pages—who those authors were and what was the title (The Control of Language) of their book.

Lewis had been sent this book to review, and Ward, having examined (in the Wade Center at Wheaton College) Lewis’s review copy with its underlinings and marginalia, tells us that it looks as if Lewis “may have read only the first 147 pages of this 274-page book.” No doubt this detail is not highly significant, and no doubt Ward’s commentary would have been reasonably complete without it, but how it may warm our hearts if we have had the experience of agreeing to review a book only to discover how disinclined we were to make it to the book’s end.

In the scope of these same few pages, Ward (a) gives us an example from Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism in which—as with Gaius and Titius—Lewis does not identify by name an author whose views he intends to criticize, instead focusing on the argument rather than the person; (b) reports that another scholar whom Lewis refers to in The Abolition of Man as “­Orbilius” was amused by that reference and actually used that name himself later in life when wishing to remain ­anonymous; (c) observes how ­Lewis, noting that Gaius and Titius were Australians, comments that “Singapore knows what comes of Green Books now” (a reference, it seems, to the 1942 Fall of Singapore, which the British public evidently believed was the result of Australian troops who had abandoned their posts); (d) connects Lewis’s observation in the lectures that sentiment is more likely than syllogism to strengthen the nerve of those facing bombardment with Lewis’s recollection in Surprised by Joy of his own ­experience in battle during World War I; and (e) notes that Lewis’s review copy of The ­Control of Language had a green ­cover and its publisher was ­Longmans, Green.

Such details may persuade us that Ward knows more about the book’s background than we ourselves need to know, which is no doubt true. But it also provides interesting detail and gives a certain density to the commentary. Moreover, there are several things worth noting about these few ­pages that provide background information to The Green Book. Notice that in unpacking ­Lewis’s discussion of The Green Book Ward draws connections to several of Lewis’s other works: Surprised by Joy and An Experiment in Criticism. One of the great strengths of Ward’s commentary is that, although focused on the text of The Abolition of Man, it shows how the themes of that book appear in various ways throughout Lewis’s work. Rather often, ­discussions of ­Lewis’s books treat them seriatim, simply exploring each individually. Although that can be helpful, Lewis’s thinking was remarkably coherent, and ­many of his central insights appear time and again in different kinds of writing, both popular and ­scholarly. Ward is a master at seeing these connections. The relation of The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength is of course obvious, and Lewis himself draws attention to it. But scattered throughout the commentary are countless less obvious examples of such ­connections.

To read Ward’s book from start to finish will do at least two things. It will give one a good sense of the structure of ­Lewis’s argument, of the progression of thought in The Abolition of Man’s three chapters (and it will explain why Ward, at least, thinks the third chapter is the weakest). This is very useful, especially because Lewis’s argument, though brief, can be quite subtle. Moreover, scattered throughout Ward’s commentary are fairly short quotations from a wide range of other writings on Lewis. These are selected with care to illumine different issues and problems.

A second thing the commentary offers is explication of ­phrases, references, and quotations that might be unfamiliar to those of us reading The Abolition of Man today. ­Lewis’s own reading was remarkably wide-ranging, and we may often need help to remedy our deficiencies. This too Ward provides, and After Humanity comes with a ­paperback copy of The Abolition of Man, whose pagination corresponds to Ward’s comments. So, for example, when Lewis writes of “deserts of vast futurity,” Ward lets us know that this quotation is taken “slightly ­inaccurately” from ­Andrew ­Marvell’s poem, “To His Coy ­Mistress.” When Lewis, ­assuming we know as much as he does, refers to the thread of life in the hand of Clotho, Ward provides us with the mythological ­background. And if we are interested in knowing what is “the only deliberately funny ­moment” in The Abolition of Man, Ward will also call that to our ­attention.

Early on, referring to a famous line from the Roman poet Horace (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori), Lewis writes: “When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said.” That is, he did not debunk this sentiment, as Gaius and ­Titius might. On the contrary, that father believed there was genuine value in a noble death. Ward’s discussion places this in the context of ­Wilfred Owen’s famous poem from the Great War, a poem that branded Dulce et decorum est as an “old lie.” Ward notes that, surprising as it seems, Lewis may not have known the poem. For there seems to be no mention of Owen in all of ­Lewis’s immense correspondence, no references in ­Lewis’s diaries from the period, nor, so far as Ward can discern, in any other part of ­Lewis’s “huge corpus.” Moreover, Ward suggests, even had Lewis known the poem, he might have viewed its cynicism not as a new trend growing out of the Great War but “as part of a long-standing trend in the Western mind.”

The last three sayings cited by Lewis in the maxims of the Tao (from Plato’s Phaedo, from an old Norse poem, The Hávamál, and from the Gospel of John), which come at the very end of The Abolition of Man, all point to the importance of a noble death, to a life lived in search of wisdom, not power. “Thus,” Ward notes, “The Abolition of Man ends on a note of death, good death, as do so many of his works” (and a footnote provides us with a list of such works).

This insight turns out to be central to Ward’s commentary. He notes Lewis’s deep love for Norse mythology, in which a “key element” is a “willingness to embrace powerlessness.” He believes that Lewis defended the centrality of the Tao for human life “not so much because it told him how to live, still less because it entitled him to tell other people how to live, but because it told him how to view death.” Indeed, Ward sees this as a key to explaining “the enduring reputation of Abolition. At its heart is an attempt to assign death a positive value even without recourse to a compensatory afterlife.” I suspect that Ward has here penetrated to something very near the center of Lewis’s thinking, believing, and living. Starting from The Abolition of Man, Ward has directed our attention to a theme whose tentacles spread out in countless ways throughout Lewis’s writing.

Finally, two other matters deserve brief mention. First, the publisher, Word on Fire Academic, has produced in After Humanity a very handsome volume, and we can be grateful that they have enabled this book to see the light of day. And second, a word to the wise reader: Pay attention to the significance of “waterfalls” in After Humanity.

Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.