Fr Michael Ward, an Ordinariate priest, is a Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, and Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of the best-selling and award-winning Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press). His new book, titled After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, was recently published by Word on Fire.
Fr. Ward corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of CWR, about After Humanity, C.S. Lewis, and the importance of The Abolition of Man, which was first published in 1947.
CWR: Why an entire volume—a 250-page Guide—to this particular book by Lewis? Does The Abolition of Man deserve it?
Fr. Michael Ward: It absolutely deserves it! Lewis described The Abolition of Man as “almost my favourite among my books.” He always chose his words carefully. It was “almost” his favourite.
So, what was his actual favourite? The only other time he’s on record as describing one of his books as “favourite” is when talking about That Hideous Strength, the third volume in his trilogy of interplanetary novels. And about That Hideous Strength he said that “it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”
If you want to understand C.S. Lewis, you have to wrestle with these two books in particular, and since The Abolition of Man is the background book, the book on which the novel depends, it is obviously the one to focus on.
CWR: How would you summarize the essence of The Abolition of Man for readers who have never read it?
Fr. Ward: It’s about whether there is such a thing as objective reality. In particular, is there such a thing as objective value – good and evil, truth and falsehood, right and wrong?
Lewis answers very convincingly that there is such a thing, and his defence of the objectivity of value accounts for much of his book. But he also paints a picture of what will happen if we deny the objectivity of value. If we try to pretend that we just make up value out of our own private opinion – in other words, if we embrace subjectivism – we will be eradicating a fundamental part of what makes us human.
What’s being abolished in “the abolition of man” is our moral nature, our capacity to recognise certain moral features of reality, features that we have discovered, not invented, and that can’t be otherwise than they are, however much we might wish it.
CWR: How would you assess The Abolition of Man in terms of its reputation?
Fr. Ward: Stratospheric! Lewis’s editor and biographer, Walter Hooper, described The Abolition of Man as “an all but indispensable introduction to the entire corpus of Lewisiana.” It’s been called – rightly, in my view – “the lynchpin for understanding all of his work.”
Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, praised the “keen accuracy” of its moral diagnosis. Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar applauded its “taut brilliance.” The leading literary critic Alan Jacobs, who’s an evangelical Anglican, has described it as “the most profound of Lewis’s cultural critiques.” And the prominent British philosopher, John Gray, who’s an atheist, has called it “prophetic” and “as relevant now” as when it first came out, “if not more so.”
CWR: Catholics, Protestants, atheists! Why does The Abolition of Man appeal to such a wide readership?
Fr. Ward: Because anyone who’s serious about ethics has to grapple with whether right and wrong are objective realities or not. If morality is merely subjective, what are we even arguing about? There’s no point in trying to arrive at a reasoned conclusion about moral questions if good and evil are nothing more than private opinions. In a subjectivist world, right and wrong are really about power. Right becomes might. Ethics turns into a shouting-match, or worse.
Lewis makes his argument on purely philosophical grounds: it’s not a defence of Christianity as such, or even of theism. And that is why atheists, as well as Christians, find the book of such importance. In our “post-truth” 21st-century world, it’s becoming increasingly relevant, even urgent, that we defend the objectivity of value and see subjectivism for the self-serving dodge that it is.
CWR: You provide a great deal of context from Lewis’s personal life as he was coming of age. What aspects of that context should we pay special attention to?
Fr. Ward: We should pay attention to Lewis’s personal grappling with subjectivism in his teens and early twenties. In his autobiography, he talks about his own tendency towards “vicious subjectivism” as a young man. He knew, from direct experience, how attractive that philosophical position was. After all, if nothing was really right or wrong, he would be entirely free to please himself in all his choices, he would never have to adjust his views or his behaviour in light of external realities.
And we should also pay attention to the fact that he fought in the First World War. He nearly died in the trenches of France in 1918. Many of his friends did die. As a result, Lewis had to wrestle with whether “death for a good cause” was worth it. In The Abolition of Man, he focuses on that issue as the crucial test of the objectivity of value. Obviously, it’s of no immediate, personal benefit to someone if they die for their country, but does that mean it can’t be the right thing to do? These questions were of huge personal significance to Lewis, they weren’t just abstract or theoretical matters. And that’s partly why The Abolition of Man has such bite. It comes from a very deep part of him.
CWR: How do you seek to guide readers through and into the book?
Fr. Ward: There’s a chapter on how The Abolition of Man has been received by readers, both at the time of its publication and in the decades since. I survey the context in which Lewis wrote the book, not only the context of his personal life, but also the wider intellectual situation, looking at major players such as A.J. Ayer and I.A. Richards.
I show how Lewis’s resolutely philosophical argument fits in with his more theological works of Christian apologetics. There’s a summary chapter for those who want to know – or be reminded of – what Abolition actually argues. Also, a chapter examining the impact Lewis’s work has had on other thinkers.
But the bulk of the book is a detailed commentary, going through Abolition thoroughly and carefully, and explaining all the references and allusions, translating the many phrases in Latin, Greek or French, and quoting the best bits from other scholars who have had interesting things to say about Lewis’s work.
CWR: What was most enjoyable for you about putting this book together?
Fr. Ward: Probably the photo gallery. Word On Fire Academic allowed me to include over thirty pictures, many in full colour, showing various people, places and documents that help illuminate The Abolition of Man. Perhaps the best of these is the original “blurb” that Lewis wrote out, long hand, for the first edition of his book but which was never actually used and which nobody – not even the late, great Walter Hooper – seems to have known about before. It’s published here for the very first time.
Another very pleasing thing about the whole project is the cover image that the publishers chose, depicting a beautiful waterfall. (Lewis has lots to say about waterfalls near the start of his book.) I’m also delighted that a new tie-in edition of The Abolition of Man, with a complementary front cover, has been released by HarperCollins. If anyone buys their copy of After Humanity through the Word On Fire website, they will receive, automatically, a free copy of this companion edition.
Finally, comedy and tragedy. There are some good jokes that I unearthed about Lewis’s interactions with people like A.J. Ayer and I.A. Richards. He knew these figures and publicly debated them; the sparks that flew from their locking of horns are often very witty. You don’t necessarily expect to laugh when delving into philosophy, but I found I did. Nor, for that matter, do you expect to be moved, but Lewis’s experiences in the Great War are actually very stirring and poignant.
There’s much more going on in Abolition, and indeed in After Humanity, than simply the addressing of an important philosophical question.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!