The Abolition of Man / After Humanity: A Review

The Abolition of Man‘by C. S. Lewis (HarperCollins 2001 Edition) and ‘After Humanity – A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man‘ by Michael Ward (Word on Fire Academic, 2021).

A Review:

I don’t know how I managed to miss Lewis’s book up until this point. I found it engaging, not all inaccessible or difficult, but a little frustrating. I understand (I think) why Lewis didn’t want to tie his concerns to Christianity or even to theism. I also understand (I think) why Lewis reacts so strongly to the smuggling of a relatavist assumption into a school text book though the separation of fact and value, of course, finds its root deep in the Enlightenment far earlier than the authors Lewis has in his sights.

I never studied Hellenistic philosophy and remain fairly ignorant of anything beyond Plato and Aristotle, there may well be a pre-socratic who argued in this way, but in the modern era it was David Hume who dismissed what he termed the naturalistic fallacy, the notion that you could derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, value from mere existence.

Subsequent Western philosophy could (over simply) be viewed as a defence against Hume. Lewis here is asserting the commonality of a tradition across cultures and belief systems (and, to a degree, one could conclude that he is making a point to be challenged by MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? But Lewis leaves this observationsimply as an observation – cultures across the ages have assumed an objectivity (or givenness) of value. Kant argues for a universal imperative derived from practical reason and the same assumption underlies contemporary appeals to universal rights – it is this assumption that MacIntyre questions.

Catholic theology reasserts natural law though Thomas Aquinas (trumpeted as the great natural law theologian) devotes but a single question (ST II-I 94) in his Treatise on Law explicitly to the theme of natural law and one must question what precisely Thomas intended by the term ‘natural’ and whether subsequent (and contemorary) Catholic moral theology is using the term in the same way. The term φυσις never occurs in the LXX simply because there is no O.T. Hebrew word that means what we mean by ‘nature’ or ‘natural’.

In the end, perhaps Catholic moral theology is making the same assumption as Kant etc. that there is a universal imperative, rooted in the createdness of the world, that can be rationally recognised. Romanticism (e.g. Wordsworth, Keats) responds to Enlightenment materialism by affectively asserting the livingness of nature, the natural world speaks its truth, beauty, goodness to us. Locke (the other source of rights language) assumes the objectivity of value, the object communicates itself to our perception.

Berkley (greatly misunderstood in my view) refutes Locke by declaring the object to be just an object and perception to be a being given. What is usually missed in Berkley is that he isn’t rooting existence in our perception but in God’s perception. Jonathon Edwards (probably independently of Berkley) clarifies the issue by arguing that God gives us to participate in his perception and, thereby, in his valuing of that which is percieved – hence our sin is the manner in which we immediately distort this given perception and value.

The terms objective and subjective perhaps are unhelpful here: all knowledge implies an object known and a knowing subject, pure objectivity and pure subjectivity are delusory. Similarly the claim to self-evidence, beyond the tautologous or basically descriptive (e.g. a triangle has three sides) is similarly delusory: something is evident to someone. Better (and clearer) perhaps to speak of givenness (or better ‘being-givenness’) and reception/response. As a Trinitarian I want to affirm with Edwards that, by his Spirit, God gives to us to percieve that which is other than us in and through his perception albeit that we distort that perception. This is a ‘being-givenness’ root to the universality to which Lewis is appealing and which Catholic moral theology, Locke, Kant, Romanticism, etc. try to root objectivity (i.e., in a givenness rather than in a being-givenness).

Colin Gunton’s Princeton Lectures, published as A Brief Theology of Revelation includes a discussion of these issues as does my Living the Christian Story. It is also worth reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue and his Whose Justice? Which Rationality? If you’ve not encountered them before, Ward’s commentary on Lewis’s book is really helpful for anyone unfamiliar with the context and the tradition but I would be really interested in Ward producing a book that discusses the questions he raises at the conclusion of After Humanity.

This Review Written by Rev’d Dr. John Colwell

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