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Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis: A Book Review

An acquaintance a number of years ago told me that C. S. Lewis's "The Abolition of Man" was "the toughest little book" he had ever read. Having now read it myself, I would have to say the same. Subtitled "Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools", it was originally three lectures on the subject of education that Lewis gave in the early 1940's. And yet the essays go far deeper matter than that of education, to the question of epistemology. One way to categorize it would be as a defense of Classical Thought, as over against Modernist Thought. Another way to look at it would be as defending Objective Truth, as over against Subjectivism. Or, it can be described as a defense of Natural Law, or Natural Philosophy, as opposed to Relativism.

As I already implied, I found the book to be some tough slogging. I took my time and tried to understand each passage before I moved on, but there are a few brief places that will require re-reading, now that I've finished the book, if I'm ever going to understand them. Anyone who only knows Lewis from "The Chronicles of Narnia", "The Screwtape Letters", or even "Mere Christianity", will likely find themselves baffled, unless they have some background in philosophy. In short, Lewis is arguing that the purveyors modern thought, whether knowingly or unknowingly, undermine what is true, good, and beautiful, as well as the love of such things. Lewis argues that these things exist in the absolute, and that they were found among the Classical cultures. Without them, all cultures, all civilizations, fall into ruin.

Lewis is brilliant in his argumentation, as usual, even though at times I don't agree with him. And that takes me to the place of critique. If I have one major criticism of the book, it's that Lewis makes no attempt to defend the uniqueness of Christianity, as over against the other religions of the world. Now it's certain that Lewis believed the only way of salvation was through Jesus Christ, as he made apparent in some of his other writings, such as "Mere Christianity". And yet he seemed to allow for the possibility of those who never heard the Gospel to be saved, if they were faithful to their own religion. One thinks of Emeth the young Calormene in "The Last Battle" as an example. (The fact that he is named "Emeth", the Hebrew word for "truth", was no accident on Lewis's part.) Lewis is here simply following a more Catholic notion of Natural Theology, so it isn't as if his approach has no precedent here. And yet such an approach seems to me to clearly contradict certain passages of Scripture, such as Romans 1-3, as well as the clear treatment of the "gods" of the nations in the Old Testament.

In addition, Lewis cites a number of examples of "the Tao" (his word for Natural Law, an unfortunate choice, I think) in the writings of philosophers and theologians from various cultures and religions throughout the Classical world. While there are abundant similarities, there are plenty of contrasts that, though the book isn't designed to address them, still seem to me too great to simply brush past. Stoics are cited right next to the Gospel of John, as if Holy Scripture's teaching on self-denial is the same as Stoicism's. And statements from ancient Greek and Roman sources, teaching the notion of the supremacy of the State, are put side by side with statements about the primacy of the family, as if no contradiction between the two exist, let alone any contradiction with God's Word.

And all this leaves out the question of the existence of Natural Law itself. I must say that it is an issue I still need to work through. What exactly is meant by "Natural Law" anyway? Lewis attempts to define it, but the length of the book (that is, the length of the lecture time) didn't really allow Lewis to expound on that question, in my opinion, to the degree it needs to be. In addition, there is often confusion over what exactly is meant by "Objective Truth", a question brought up occasionally in our Postmodern (so-called) context. Does "Objective" mean that I have the ability as a human to get outside of a situation and judge it without any motive whatsoever? Lewis would seem to answer "No." In one of the better portions of the book, Lewis teaches that the affections, or the desires, are not neutral. Therefore they must be trained. Part of a good "education" (to use the word differently than we typically mean it - that is, to use it the right way) is to train the appetites and the emotions. We are to love and desire that which is good, and that is something that can be taught. In fact, it must be taught, or else all other attempts to "teach" are in vain.

So to sum up, and in spite of the negatives, this is a brilliant book, and a worthy read. Proceed with caution, and prepare to have your mind rattled.

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