I have been working consistently—and joyfully, I might add—on my course on C. S. Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy. As I prepared to tackle the longest, most intricate, and, in my view, the best book of the series, That Hideous Strength, I had to be sure that those taking the course have a grounding in the philosophy Lewis was exposing in the novel. Thus, an overview of The Abolition of Man was essential before delving into the final book. As Lewis himself states in the preface to That Hideous Strength,
This is a “tall story” about devilry, though it has behind it a serious “point” which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.
Abolition didn’t start as a book, but as three lectures Lewis gave in 1943 at the University of Durham. The annual Riddell Lecture series was intended to explore the “relation between religion and contemporary thought.” Lewis did that, but in a more foundational way. A reader new to Abolition might wonder why there is so little reference directly to Christianity. After all, wasn’t Lewis a Christian apologist? Yet, as Michael Ward explains in his excellent book on Abolition,
Lewis was critiquing a philosophy espoused by the educator, literary critic, and rhetorician I. A. Richards. According to Richards, when someone claimed to see beauty in art—or even experienced a sense of wrongness about a theft—in both instances, even though they were not of the same type of experience, the belief of beauty or wrongness in some action was merely a feeling only. And that feeling was within the person and not directly related to the reality of the external. In other words, that piece of art wasn’t intrinsically beautiful by some external standard—it was simply how one felt about it. Thievery wasn’t inherently wrong; one only felt that it is wrong.
Lewis saw a profound danger in this explanation, and that is what he sought to expose through the lectures. Ward details the danger thusly:
The issue of the future of civilization was prominent as Lewis delivered the lectures: WWII was a present reality; Hitler and Nazi Germany were not yet defeated. Could this be the end of humanity as we understand it? Ward continues:
The Richards philosophy led to the abandonment of basic concepts of truth. Another Lewis scholar, Scott Key, summarizes the issue well:
Lewis puts an interesting twist in his response by referring to the Tao, a term not normally used in Western thought. But Lewis makes clear that it is synonymous with a term we do use: Natural Law. This idea “is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected.“
Anyone who tries to reject this most basic of all concepts, says Lewis, and attempts to set up something new as a foundation for rational thought, is working against oneself. “There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world.“
The theme of That Hideous Strength is that the entire basis of thought can be overturned. Man can dismiss objective value and create a future devoid of absolute truth. Yet by making that attempt, he will ultimately destroy himself.
I have a lot more to say about this connection between The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength, but will save it for a future post.