The Narnian as Jeremiah
by Ken Myers
“The Abolition of Man [by C. S. Lewis] may be understood as a work of prophecy. All great prophets, whether they be ancient religious figures like Isaiah and Jeremiah or more recent political figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, work on two fronts at once. They prophesy both to critique their contemporary situation and to indicate likely future states of affairs as and when the logic of the present situation unfolds. The old Sunday School definition can hardly be improved on: prophets tell forth and foretell.
“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 hearers and has only attracted further attention as the decades have passed.
“His prophecy is largely a jeremiad, largely a negative case. He identifies the subjectivism in his culture and forecasts its probable trajectory. It is chiefly a philosophical forecast, intellectual in intent. He is describing the logical end point of the current situation more than prescribing a remedy to it. There are, to be sure, notes of warning, not to say alarm. There are also some gestures of optimism when he briefly suggests possible mitigating actions that might be taken and considers alternative, more positive, outcomes. But the fact that he ends the final chapter on a hollow note, by depicting moral blindness (‘to “see through” all things is the same as not to see’), indicates that his main purpose is less to change our destination than to predict our destiny. He is simply charting the likely course of unchecked subjectivism, saying in effect, ‘This philosophical error leads to sub-humanity and if a sub-human fate is what we want, that’s the fate we’ll get; we shouldn’t be surprised by where we end up.’ There is something of the same tone in the repeated world-weary words of Hingest, the good scientist, in That Hideous Strength: ‘It all depends on what a man likes.’ We do not have to adopt subjectivism, but if we decide we like it, and make no course correction, it will usher us inexorably to a bad end. The choice is ours.
“Such a bleak perspective is uncharacteristic of Lewis; typically he rounds off his works on bright notes. Perhaps the fact that he is writing philosophy rather than theology helps account in part for the downbeat peroration; the theological virtue of hope need not be brought into the picture. Be that as it may, the sombre tone signals the seriousness of the matter in hand and the need for action to avert the predicted disaster, even if the practical particulars of such action remain mostly unspecified. In good Socratic fashion, Lewis leaves it to his readers to derive from his grave conclusion the desired response, without making it too explicit.”
— from Michael Ward, After Humanity: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Michael Ward talked about this book on Volume 154 of the Journal.