Michael Ward’s guide to C.S. Lewis’s modern classic reminds us that a good life is lived towards a good death.
By Micah MEADOWCROFT
After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man,” by Michael Ward (Word on Fire Academic: 2021), 253 pages.
On one hand this is a very easy review to write. After Humanity is about as self-recommending as books come. Few books have spoken directly to the heart of life in our age as C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Lewis, beloved for his children’s literature and Christian apologetics, distilled in three short chapters the crisis of modernity, which is the self-defeating nature of our subjectivist defeat of tradition and the natural, what he called the Tao—the way that lies behind and beneath meaningful human life. Michael Ward has dedicated much of his professional life to the study of Lewis’s thought, clarifying the mature intellectual project behind Lewis’s Chronicles in the genuinely groundbreaking Planet Narnia (2008), and if there is any scholar of Lewisiana superior to him for erudition, care, and long reflection, I have not heard of him.
On the other hand, however, it may seem odd that I should write about this book, and through it, The Abolition of Man, for the weekend of the Fourth of July. What do two Brits, one dead (the same day John F. Kennedy was shot), have to say about America’s Independence Day? Yet if Ward is right, and I think he is, that “Lewis thus ardently defends the Tao not so much because it told him how to live, still less because it entitled him to tell other people how to live, but because it told him how to view death,” then this is a timely book, with much to say worth thinking about on the Fourth of July.
For the heart of America’s Declaration of Independence, which holds all of that document together, is not found in its second paragraph, where we “hold these truths to be self-evident,” but rather in its final lines, where the Founding Fathers write those equally ringing words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
It is in those words and the deeds that followed, which gave them life, that the Founders truly participated in the Tao. It is in the resolution and willingness to die a good death that the virtues of the American experiment in self-government are made actual, that humankind is preserved from transformation into what Lewis called a “Trousered Ape,” the mere animal mankind becomes “without a chest” committed only to appetite and calculation. Ward writes, “The Tao confirms that it is far more important to die on the right side than to live on the wrong side. The worst that can happen to us is not death, but dishonour.” How is this so?
For Lewis, the Tao is the road of active adventure in the drama of character, a drama that features uniquely valuable and valuing individuals, each one of whom has a peculiar and important part to play. Moral action is construed not according to the categories of formal concepts or regularities, but is dynamic, even dangerous, more like a river than a roster. One becomes good not by assenting to ideas, but by actualising one’s identity as either courageous or not, either chaste or not, either honest or not. Morality is less an onerous imposition upon one’s nature and more a kindly outfitting of one’s nature or graceful unfolding of one’s nature as it opens to, embraces, and is embraced by, the goodness, truth, and beauty of reality.
Ward’s thesis, if a guide to another’s argument can be said to have a thesis, is essentially that The Abolition of Man, first delivered as lectures during the Second World War, is a defense of the Roman poet Horace’s declaration that Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori—“it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” A wounded veteran of the First World War himself, Lewis looked about him and saw a disillusioned world of “debunkers” (like the poet Wilfred Owen), convinced that life meant nothing beyond subjective experience, that all reference to higher truths and laws were illusions and lies, noble or not, which ignorant humanity had too long let hold them in sway. In doing so, these debunkers severed themselves from their own humanity, ready to assume the role of “conditioners,” ruling intellectual elites for a post-modern age.
We have plenty of our own debunkers today, eager to point out what they perceive to be a grave hypocrisy in men who believed it better to die free than live as what they considered to be slaves owning other human beings. Though there is no contradiction in that, it is a hard and painful thing to grasp, and the attacks of these would-be conditioners on the meaning of our nation’s Founding threaten to further unmoor us from the Tao in which our Founders were participating as they declared their resolve “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” or die in the effort. Against the might of the British Empire and the Imperial Navy, America’s elite faced a Ragnarok, but they did so as human beings, as men with chests, courageous.