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The Abolition of Man–C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis’ 1943 book, The Abolition of Man, cannot be placed in the category of imaginative literature. In reality, it speaks relatively little about such literature, especially considering Lewis’ place as a professor of literature. Nonetheless, this brief volume, adapted from a three-lecture series given by Lewis at King’s College of the University of Durham, presents ideas that touch very strongly on the role and philosophy of literature in the twentieth century and beyond. In short, if the forces that Lewis describes here are accurately portrayed, the result for literature and its place in our society is profound.

The first portion of the book, “Men without Chests,” talks about a tendency in our society to dismiss all statements of value as mere statements of subjective feeling. In other words, when I make a statement regarding the nobility of a horse, I’m simply stating my opinions, not describing something inherent to the animal. To extend this thinking, a topic or theme is not by itself worthy of literary attention. Only the language and the subjective feelings lying behind that language would possess value. Such a valuation helps to explain some of the rather self-indulgent writing produced in the past half century.

In the second lecture, Lewis argues that a universal system of morality, Natural Law or, as he terms it, the Tao, lie behind virtually all major cultures in the world. All new systems of morality, he suggests, simply jettison part of this code and cling to others. Such partial-Tao systems reflect a twisted form of morality and humanity, a form out of balance and incomplete. Many characters throughout literary history have represented such an incomplete system. Oedipus comes to mind first. Despite his many admirable qualities, the pride, stubbornness, and temper that fuel the man’s destruction demonstrate a man following an imbalanced morality. This fragmentary morality is a nothing new in literature, but when the artist rather than the character is the one driven by such a morality, the results are twisted.

Finally, in the third section, Lewis moves to his greatest claims. When a small group of “conditioners” dispose of Natural Law and replace it with their stunted brand of morality, they over-emphasize their own generation at the expense of those that come before and after. Is it any wonder that the traditional canon has been deemphasized in recent years. Homer is seen as being no more worthy of our attentions than David Foster Wallace. Shakespeare carries no more weight than Neil Simon.

Following Lewis’ arguments gives us a basis for poetic judgment. Those works are best which best shed light on the Tao. A great literary work needn’t simply restate the Tao. In fact, the great narratives of Genesis provide many examples of Tao-violating characters: Eve, Cain, and virtually every other person. Even in the course of following God’s will, Abraham shows himself to be an imperfect vessel. But this is not the point. Genesis, both in accounts of conformity and violation, reflects the entire Natural Law. The greatest literary works, including those of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Johnson, and others, demonstrate this awareness of the undivided Tao.

Posted in Commentary, English Literature.

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