In his far from uncritical, highly informed essay, Nuttall (whom Harold Bloom once called the finest living English literary critic) persuasively argues that the particular giant Lewis slew was philosophical subjectivism — what Lewis called in his brilliant A Preface to Paradise Lost (1942) “a world of incessant autobiography.” Nuttall is referring particularly to Lewis’s tightly argued The Abolition of Man (1943), his essay “The Poison of Subjectivism” (1943), and probably also his science-fiction/philosophical fable That Hideous Strength (1945), which is worthy of comparison with Brave New World and 1984. Despite making minor criticisms of Lewis’s approach in The Abolition of Man, Nuttall says “the argument as it unfolds is dazzling,” and asserts that it is “odd that a work which so thoroughly routs whole volumes of Nietzsche and Sartre is not more widely admired” in scholarly circles, “especially as the style in which it is presented is brilliantly lucid.” Himself the author of numerous highly esteemed works of literary criticism (e.g., Shakespeare the Thinker, 2007), Nuttall mordantly adds: “It is hard to avoid the inference that Lewis might have pleased the intelligentsia more if only he had taken the trouble to obfuscate his style.” (Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe all seem to have thought that a major reason for Emerson’s popularity in America was his sophistical, bamboozling obscurity.)
According to Nuttall, the “principal factor” in the frequent hostility of the intelligentsia to Lewis was his “mere opposition to the Zeitgeist
. . . . At present people do not want to be told that value is objective,” a point that had been made candidly by Huxley in self-criticism in his chapter “Beliefs” in Ends and Means
(1937). For the objectivity of value — the truth of the Natural Law or what Lewis ecumenically called “the Tao
” — restricts the absoluteness of the self, subordinates it to the good and true, and vindicates the fundamental sanity and soundness of the whole rational-moral tradition of “right reason” (a phrase William F. Buckley Jr. loved) from Socrates onward. In fact, it vindicates the very idea and possibility of “civilization.” The great sociologist Peter L. Berger tells us that “relativism has massively invaded daily life in the West,” partly because students are educated by teachers who promote, wittingly or unwittingly, relativistic ideas. Lewis’s Abolition of Man
is precisely a book for teachers (and parents and citizens) because it reiterates in a fresh, lucid, modern idiom the central arguments against relativism and subjectivism that have always formed the spine of Western civilization inasmuch as it has been
a civilization and not merely an aggregation of competitive selves, countries, classes, coteries, or companies. His own writing — in scholarly, apologetic, and fictional modes — is a standing reproach to an academy of nominalism and neophilia and a literary culture of histrionic, incessantly autobiographical posturing, from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer. It is gratifying to find Lewis praised by a truly noble American writer, Wendell Berry.
In January 1988, 25 years after Lewis’s death, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was invited to give the St. John Fisher Lecture at Cambridge University, where Lewis had spent the last years of his teaching career until he was forced by ill health to retire and return to his home outside Oxford (at his untimely death, he was one week shy of 65). The great scholarly Bavarian cardinal devoted his lecture to the significance of Lewis’s arguments in The Abolition of Man, from which he quoted extensively. Appreciatively noting Lewis’s positive, ecumenical treatment of traditional Chinese and Indian religious and ethical insights, Cardinal Ratzinger also refers to Lewis’s loyalty to the rational-moral heritage of Greek philosophy, of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, who “intended to lead” the human person “to an awareness of reason in his being and from that to insist upon the cultivation of ‘his kinship of being with reason,’” a kinship later incarnated in the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel and the subsequent orthodox Christian traditions, but which is implicitly available to all persons of good will, in all times, in all places. Cardinal Ratzinger’s great German forebear Leibniz (and then both Jacques Maritain and Aldous Huxley) called it “the perennial philosophy,” and Lewis described its essence as the belief that “the Good is something objective, and reason is the organ whereby it is apprehended.”
Like Jonathan Swift, who depicted the noble, stoical Brobdingnagian king in Book II of Gulliver’s Travels and the noble, modest Portuguese Catholic mariner in Book IV, Lewis was neither sectarian nor ethnocentric. As Nuttall notes in his fine essay, Lewis was able and willing “to engage, if necessary, in fundamental philosophy” (he was a trained philosopher), but the philosophy he gave us “was remote from fashion and yet close to the conceptual practice of the ordinary person.” Like Samuel Johnson, whom he venerated, Lewis thought that “he who thinks reasonably must think morally.” In the 50 years since his death, he has helped millions of people to do so.
— M. D. Aeschliman is professor emeritus of education at Boston University, professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland, and author of The Restitution of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism. Two of his essays on Lewis have recently been republished in The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, ed. John G. West (Discovery Institute).