Review: The Abolition of Man

The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In The Abolition of Man Lewis argues for the “Tao”—his ad hoc technical term for natural law.

Several people recommended this to me as the best case for natural law. I’m not ready to say that, because it wouldn’t be fair to the other prominent books on the topic I have yet to read. But this book is worthwhile if only because it is quintessential Lewis (as most Lewis books seem to be). He writes with amazing prose and incisive clarity on modern efforts to undo or replace traditional values—modern efforts to abolish man. His basic argument is that the standards by which modern thinkers evaluate the Tao are themselves unavoidably derived from the Tao. His brief book doesn’t amount to an apologia for Christian faith, but it certainly heads that direction.

Just two quotes:

Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough. And this phenomenon is very usual. A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process. They claim to be cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion, religious sanction, and inherited taboos, in order that ‘real’ or ‘basic’ values may emerge.

You cannot go on `seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through’ all things is the same as not to see.

I couldn’t help thinking of Stanley Fish’s powerful essay “Boutique Multiculturalism.” A “strong multiculturalist” in Fish’s piece is someone so tolerant that he attempts to honor and appreciate other cultures no matter what. But that no-matter-what gets tested. When the Ayatollah Khomeini issues a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie (author of the sacrilegious Satanic Verses), what is the Western, liberal, free-speech-loving, strong multiculturalist to do? Fish:

At this point [he] faces a dilemma, either he stretches his toleration so that it extends to the intolerance residing at the heart of a culture he would honor, in which case tolerance is no longer his guiding principle, or he condemns the core intolerance of that culture…, in which case he is no longer according it respect at the point where its distinctiveness is most obviously at stake. Typically, the strong multiculturalist will grab the second handle of this dilemma (usually in the name of some supracultural universal now seen to have been hiding up his sleeve from the beginning). (Critical Inquiry, Winter 1997, p. 383)

Fish says he’s read Lewis and modeled his writing after the Oxford (and Cambridge) don’s. Perhaps he picked up some of this kind of thinking from The Abolition of Man.

Note: For what may turn out to be a limited time—I simply don’t know—you can get this book for 99 cents on Kindle.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Abolition of Man”

  1. Recently listened to Abolition as audio book. Not the ideal way to absorb it, but the alternative was staring out the car window thinking random thoughts… or listening to sports talk.
    Even spoken word, great stuff to mull over. My impression is that “natural law” is used quite differently by different people–but in the way Lewis means it here, I’m a fan. To paraphrase somebody I can’t remember: even those who reject natural law are forced to live as though it were true (at least some of the time!).

  2. Oh yeah… forgot to mention. Lewis owes me a speeding fine. Got so engrossed at one point, I completely forgot to notice how fast I was going. The county police did *not* fail to notice.

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