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So, how to make C.S. Lewis even greater? Enter Father Michael Ward’s invaluable “After Humanity.”

After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s “The Abolition of Man” by Michael Ward (241 pages, Word on Fire Academic, 2021)

As 2021 drew to a close, I had the opportunity over at Catholic World Report to praise Father Michael Ward’s latest book, After Humanity:

Who doesn’t love Father Michael Ward? His After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man might very well be the finest book yet written on Lewis. Ward, of course, already made a permanent mark in publishing with his Planet Narnia more than a decade ago. But, this new one, After Humanity, is even better, making one of Lewis’s most important books even more important.

Several months into 2022, and I still believe Fr. Ward’s book is one of the finest ever written on Lewis. I’m now on my third reading of it.

To be sure, its subject matter is excellent. As Lewis himself thought—and his close friend Owen Barfield adamantly agreed—The Abolition of Man was one of his better books. Indeed, Barfield thought it his best non-fiction work, and he might very well have been right. Delivered first as a series of lectures at the University of Durham and then published in book form during World War II, The Abolition of Man details Lewis’s thought on the objectivity of virtues and values. Taking into account various mythological and cultural accounts—from Occident to the Orient—Lewis believed that the mores, norms, and habits of a people are rooted in their particular understanding of a universal natural law or Tao.

This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or (as they now call them) ‘ideologies’, all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. If my duty to my parents is a superstition, then so is my duty to posterity. If justice is a superstition, then so is my duty to my country or my race. If the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a real value, then so is conjugal fidelity. The rebellion of new ideologies against the Tao is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves. The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.

I tried to summarize Lewis’s arguments here and here:

So, how to make Lewis even greater? Enter Father Michael Ward’s invaluable After Humanity. In it, Fr. Ward does several things, all brilliantly. First, he offers the larger cultural and philosophical context of Lewis’s lectures, while also noting that, among other things, Lewis was a formidable philosopher and had been throughout his professional career. Fr. Ward gives fair due and biographical background to Lewis’s various opponents and those he influenced, such as Alasdair MacIntyre. Second, Fr. Ward also expertly builds up the context of The Abolition of Man within Lewis’s own writings, asking poignantly if the book fits into Lewis’s larger Christian project. Here, Fr. Ward is especially good at distinguishing Christianity from paganism in Lewis’s thought, and finding the continuity of one to the other. Third, Fr. Ward carefully analyzes the arguments of The Abolition of Man, going through the work systematically, usually page by page, but sometimes, line by line. This done, Fr. Ward even presents discussion points and questions for individuals and groups intending to explore further Lewis’s arguments.

Not only does Fr. Ward write in a fetching style (he always has; he’s a powerful lecturer as well, and the reader can “hear” his distinctive voice throughout After Humanity), but his research is painstaking. He effectively uses both footnotes and endnotes throughout the book, and his bibliography seems as complete as possible.

In the end, Fr. Ward rightly notes how prophetic Lewis was.

If Abolition were merely a description of war-time Britain, it would not have become the classic that it has. And if Lewis had merely been prognosticating when he spoke to his original 1943 audience, he would not have gained much of a hearing at the time, for how would they know whether his predictions would come true? What marks out his message as genuinely prophetic is that it resonated with its first hears and has only attracted further attention as the decades have passed.

If I have any complaint, it would simply be that the book—despite its heft—is too short. I would especially have appreciated an in-depth discussion of how The Abolition of Man plays out in Lewis’s Space Trilogy and perhaps in Lewis’s other fiction as well. However, this is not the book Fr. Ward wrote, and what he wrote is glorious in an of itself. At every level—its writing style, its research, its tone, and its depth—After Humanity is a model of fine scholarship. I eagerly await Fr. Ward’s next book. Until then, I will treasure this one.

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