Lewis’s point in his concluding chapter is that those who have put human nature on the dissecting table to be manipulated will no longer be guided by the morality that is, or was thought to be, inextricably connected to it. Lewis knew that some, perhaps many, will welcome this brave new world. Others of us will resist this development for the sake of all men and women with all the appropriate tools and rightful powers and prayers at our disposal. Lewis’s accomplishment with Abolition is to provide one such tool among many, and we will do well to revisit it often as the debate about who and what we are continues.
A new critical edition of Lewis’s 1943 classic adds a treasure trove of supplementary material. Lewis’s warnings about the consequences of jettisoning natural law remain as trenchant today as they were when delivered during the Second World War.
Almost twenty years ago Richard John Neuhaus wrote in the pages of First Things that some people can stop reading C.S. Lewis, and some others cannot, and the latter are eventually considered to be Lewis scholars. Yet as anyone who has delved into the thought of a great thinker knows, there are scholars who have published on the subject and there are scholars who almost inhabit the thought of the thinker. These scholars publish works that help us not only understand the life and ideas of a C.S. Lewis, a G.K. Chesterton, or a Thomas More, but also shape the contours of subsequent scholarship, interpreting their accomplishments afresh for a new generation one step further removed from the original context.
Michael Ward is such a scholar, ideally situated to help shepherd Lewis studies from the care of those who may have known Lewis personally to others not yet born when Lewis passed away on November 22, 1963. Educated in English at Oxford, in theology at Cambridge, and in divinity at St. Andrews, Ward lived in Lewis’s home The Kilns as Warden in the late 1990s, is advisor to the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society, author of the remarkable Planet Narnia, co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, and has now provided a new critical edition of one of Lewis’s most important works, The Abolition of Man. Originally delivered as a set of three lectures at the University of Durham in 1943 before being published the next year, Abolition was not initially well received and remains underappreciated by the general public, even as several noteworthy and diverse thinkers—Leon Kass, Joseph Ratzinger, Francis Fukuyama, Wendell Berry, John Finnis—consider the work a classic for its treatment of human nature and natural law.
It is not hard to understand why Abolition is underappreciated by the general public, despite Walter Hooper’s describing it as “an all-but indispensable introduction to the entire corpus of Lewisiana.” It does not provide the whimsical narrative magic one finds in the Narnia Chronicles, or the fantastical metaphysical sci-fi adventurism of Lewis’s Space Trilogy. It lacks the everyman accessibility of the radio addresses Lewis gave during the Second World War that later became Mere Christianity, and couldn’t differ more in tone and genre from the psychologically and diabolically brilliant Screwtape in the letters bearing his name, or from Lewis’s iconoclastic reimagining of Hell and Heaven in The Great Divorce. Those who enjoy Lewis’s straightforward rational apologetics like Miracles and The Problem of Pain are more likely to appreciate Abolition, though there are significant differences here as well; Abolition does not defend Christianity or attempt to establish this or that proposition by positive argument.
Abolition is rather a serious work of philosophy that nevertheless does not fit the mold of how most philosophical work is done. It begins with what first seems a rather odd treatment of English textbooks for children and concludes with a near-apocalyptic warning about the future of humanity.