The Abolition of Man
A Conversation with Joseph A. Kohm
“Lead us, Evolution, lead us
Up the future’s endless stair;
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.
For stagnation is despair:
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us nobody knows where.”
In C.S. Lewis’ famous first novel in The Chronicles of Narnia, we find Edmund, one of the main protagonists, succumbing to the enchantment of the White Witch triggered by the enjoyment of Turkish Delight. Having one piece, he becomes obsessed with another, to the point that it becomes all consuming. What is fascinating about this encounter is how insatiable the lust for more becomes the predominant theme for the coming chapters in the mind of Edmund. And who can blame him, for that was the intention behind the design. As Lewis explained: “anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.” And so Edmund became obsessed with Turkish Delight to the point where he wanted nothing more—not only pressing the Witch for more bites, but also allowing this enchantment to corrupt his character as manifested in his exaggerated intellect on magical creatures and disloyalty to his family by calling them ordinary so as to elevate his own image before the Witch. In the words of Lewis, Edmund grew into a “nastier person every minute.”
However, there are two moments later in the book where something else in this developing narrative speaks to the power of recollection to overcome temptation. During the first scene, we find the children first hearing the name of Aslan and having a positive sensation rooted (I suspect) in some dormant qualities of their character.
Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.
But not Edmund! He felt something entirely different jump inside him—he felt “a sensation of mysterious horror.” Clearly something about his new nature under the spell of the Witch was not the same and yet not completely lost. For there was a conflict warring inside him between the goodness of Aslan and the temptation of the Witch. We can see this tension developing when, first, Mr. Beaver could see on the countenance of Edmund that his eyes confessed that he had been with the Witch and eaten her food. But more than that, in a later scene in the Witch’s house, we find Edmund trying to justify the goodness of the Witch by lying to himself that she would be merciful to his siblings and that, in either case, she was certainly better than Aslan! But then Lewis writes, “At least, that was the excuse he made in his own mind for what he was doing. It wasn’t a very good excuse, however, for deep down inside him he really knew that the White Witch was bad and cruel.” Notice the development in Edmund: partaking in sin, manifesting that sin in acts and countenance, and yet retaining a requisite level of agency to overcome.
This sense of moral direction in Edmund is a remarkable theme throughout the series. A theme C.S. Lewis explores fully in perhaps his most prescient book focused on the underlying presence of a moral order that civilizations throughout time have acknowledged as a basis for ordered liberty. In his The Abolition of Man, Lewis begins his first chapter by outlining the modern predicament of the cognoscenti who dismiss statements of value or emotion as unimportant and treating the reasoning-self as the sole source for reliable knowledge. In their obsession to “fortify the minds of young people against emotion,” Lewis writes, the modern educator fails to irrigate deserts through the connective tissue that weaves together cerebral and visceral man. Instead of properly attuning our sentiments toward those things that deserve our praise and reproof, man is left to the cold vulgarity of the calculated self—no longer able to develop the requisite capacity for the doctrine of objective values, let alone apply those values in his everyday life. That is why Lewis writes at the end of the chapter this poignant phrase: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
In his second chapter, Lewis continues his forceful takedown of the modern man’s destruction of objective values (“the Tao”) by showing that this war is a Procrustean one. By abandoning the sole source of all value judgments, the modern man is demolishing all systems of values without a basis to replace those values with something new. Having abandoned a sense of universal obligation and goodness, man is stuck in a state of vulgar relativism and left to his own devices to “invent” new systems of value separate and apart from the moral foundation discoverable by reason and sentiment. However, as Lewis notes, the real predicament is that anything short of a Nietzschean nihilism renders the modern project mere plagiarism: “all values [the modern man] uses in attacking the Tao, and even claims to be substituting for it, are themselves derived from the Tao.”
The intellectual history of the West is not a modern project. The human rights framework embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not a novel system of moral governance. It is but the application of existing moral foundations that undergird our obligations and duties to one another. Those who would reject this premise are depending on a mild form of selective history or perhaps willful ignorance—refusing to dig deeper into the foundations of our system of ethics toward anchoring truths that undergird our moral conventions. As long as man refuses to ask more questions about the origins of moral obligation, he can continue to enjoy a godless system with a smug self-satisfaction that he has constructed anew the Tower of Babel.
However, the consequence to this amnesia is dire. As Lewis writes in his final chapter, our power over Nature and Nature’s Law is really our obsession to limit the past and control the future. One of the more prophetic lines in the book in light of the development of Generative AI today is the idea that while the present puts wonderful machines into the hands of future generations, it is the present architects that pre-ordained how they are to use them. “Each generation exercise power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors.” Without a stable and ubiquitous system of moral governance, recklessness abides, and “wonderful machines” will be used toward the destruction of God’s creatures. The modern architects will begin to sound a lot like Uncle Andrew or the White Witch in The Magician’s Nephew. Listen:
UNCLE ANDREW: I am the great scholar, the magician, the adept, who is doing the experiment. Of course I need subjects to do it on. . . . No great wisdom can be reached without sacrifice.
WHITE WITCH: I was the Queen. They were all my people. What else were they there for but to do my will. . . . You must learn, child, that what would be wrong for you or for any of the common people is not wrong in a great Queen such as I. The weight of the world is on our shoulders. We must be freed from all rules. Ours is a high and lonely destiny. 
Both statements reflect the underlying logic of a world polluted with the abandonment of objective values. A world where people embrace the sin in Judges as the summum bonum: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). A world filled with transactional communities and abuses rooted in self-righteous ignorance and an undeveloped empathy that does too little or too much to care. Lewis writes that a “dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.” If man is to set himself on this voyage to conquer nature, then he will soon discover that his quest will only end in the abolition of man and man as final nature.
THE NINTH WAVE
In his recent book on “mere natural law,” Hadley Arkes speaks to the profundity of The Abolition of Man by advocating for the pursuit of underlying moral obligations. Building on the common-sense philosophy of Thomas Reid and James Wilson, he argues for the restoration of our understanding that there are certain moral principles accessible to all functional persons that need to be understood prior to building a system or theory. So called “necessary truths,” Arkes writes, discoverable in the Natural Law, which are axiomatic and readily grasped by ordinary folk. We must abandon the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes and his brute force rhetoric. We must abandon the vulgar intellectualization of Gaius and Titius and their myopic rejection of the value of sentiment. We must even treat with skepticism the guardianship of law school curriculums that refuse to delve into the moral foundations of law. Instead, returning to Arkes, he writes that we must go to the sources of nature and “trace one’s judgment back to those anchoring truths or axioms on which a judgment ultimately rests.” To understand what things are good or bad, Lewis and Arkes both posit that there is a proper response to things deemed praiseworthy and not. Looking back to Aristotle on education, Lewis writes that “the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” And Arkes, picking up the same with Aquinas, writes that “in every act we take to seek change or oppose change, we must have at least some rough understanding of what things are good or bad, better or worse.” Alas, before we construct our theories and ideologies, we must first construct our instincts for the cultivation of proper sentiment and then allow those sentiments to be guided by the rational self. Prudence is neither impulse nor intellect—both work in a symbiotic relationship toward the application of circumstances to values. At its very core is the Augustinian project of ordo amoris.
In his discussion on the work of Lewis, David McIlroy offers a fuller treatment of all this in discussing the inextricable link between objective values, the natural law, and the consequences of abandoning a shared conception of the good. He writes that “Lewis’s position is that the natural law forms an objective framework within which human law-making, law-following, and law-breaking must take place.” Connecting the dots, we move from an awareness of the good, to the compliance with the good, to the inculcation of the good to be enjoyed by all in common. Once you reach the end, the circle is complete because any application and response to the good in the common course of human participation in society requires an accountability to those anchoring truths as the proverbial tutor for refined application. In a reversal of what happened to Edmund, we move from partaking in the good, manifesting the good in our acts and countenance, and yet remaining always tempted by the temptation for self-interest. “For Lewis,” writes McIlroy,
“natural law is the unified, objective, moral order within which the recognition of human dignity, the discovery of what freedom truly means, and the acknowledgment of the duties and rights we have in relation to one another are harmonized.”
Only when we pursue the moral order established by God in his creation of human dignity will we find ourselves in harmony with our fellow man. And because we will never attain that harmony in the present life, we are left to live in a place of perpetual tension. Between two worlds defined by two separate systems of accounting.
Because of all this, it remains an imperative for students of law to begin asking basic questions about the underlying logic of their legal education in order to better serve their clients and the interest of law as a medium to reconcile man to man, and man to his Maker. But more than that, as noted recently by Carl Trueman in his discussion of The Abolition of Man and man’s desecration of himself, we must reclaim our sense of the sacred. He writes, “[o]nly a reclamation, and a proclamation, of the living God in the vital worship of the Church will consecrate man and bring him back from the brink of a nihilistic, dehumanized abyss.” The legal profession like all other professions seek to turn its gaze within the immanent frame and so those within these respective professions must seek to lift our eyes and discover anew the mysteries of the universe.
In my comments above, I offer but a small introduction to the work of C.S. Lewis in the Abolition of Man. To dig further, I spoke with Joe Kohm of the C.S. Lewis Institute to discuss their brand new study guide—broken down by each chapter with illustrations, introductory videos, and study questions that make for a formative small group discussion. I hope the book and the guide helps you think constructively about the field of law and how legal ethics plays a role in your Christian identity.
Joseph A. Kohm is the C.S. Lewis Institute vice president for development and the city director for Virginia Beach. Joe is an attorney and formerly worked as a certified Major League Baseball player agent. He earned his master’s in Management Science from the State University of New York at Oswego and both his J.D. and M.Div. from Regent University. Joe is the author of The Unknown Garden of Another’s Heart: The Surprising Friendship between C.S. Lewis and Arthur Greeves (Wipf and Stock, 2022.)
BONUS: I also spoke to Joel Woodruff, president of C.S. Lewis Institute, in the Cross & Gavel Christmas Special on the Chronicles of Narnia. Check that out HERE.
 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 33 (1970).
 Id. at 35.
 Id. at 41.
 Id. at 64-65.
 Id. at 81.
 Id. at 86.
 See, e.g., C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” 75-76, 130-31 (1970) (evidenced in the internal struggle of Eustace and Lucy); C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair 149-62 (1970) (evidenced in the internal struggle of Puddleglum).
 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man 13-14, 25 (Harper Collins 2001).
 Id. at 26.
 Id. at 43.
 Id. at 41. As Lewis writes in his essay, The Poison of Subjectivism, “[u]nless the measuring rod is independent of things measured, we can do no measuring.”
 Id. at 56.
 For a colorful illustration of this, check out the series, A Murder at the End of the World.
 C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew 23 (1970)
 Id. at 61.
 Lewis, supra note 8, at 73.
 Hadley Arkes, Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution 19 (2023).
 Id. at 40.
 Lewis, supra note 8, at 16.
 Arkes, supra note 17, at 65.
IMAGE ARTIST: Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)
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