C. S. Lewis published The Abolition of Man in 1944 in the midst of World War II. We can perhaps imagine the ominous and suggestive nature of this timing. But, as readers soon discovered, the book was not at all about the War, or Hitler’s eugenics, or the looming nuclear threat. Lewis’s real subject is the soul and its education. According to Lewis, the real enemy—more dangerous than any nation, weapon, or science—is a philosophy: nihilism. It is perhaps a bit misleading to say that nihilism is a “post-modern” philosophy, for there have been nihilists and advocates of nihilism as long as there have been men. But it is true that this philosophy has come to be more widely preached and practiced in our time than ever before. In The Abolition of Man Lewis both explains and combats this modern (post-modern) development.
One of the most dramatic transformations of culture in the history of Western civilization was accomplished by humble, poor, foreign missionary teachers. Irish monks—C. S. Lewis’ forebears—trudged their way across Scotland, England, and the European Continent. And in their wake they left a lasting legacy of faith, of learning, and, indeed, of civilization.
Over the centuries between A.D. 550 and 1300, scores of Irish monks left their homeland and spread out across Europe, preaching the Gospel to violent, lawless pagans, teaching Scripture, literature and the arts and sciences to kings and peasants alike and establishing monastic communities which served as centers for not only evangelism and discipleship, but for education and culture. Their teaching brought God’s Word and civilization back to a Europe which had been conquered and ruined by barbarians.
Contemporary architecture has been trivialized spurred on by a profit-driven construction industry on the one hand and aspiring intellectual designers on the other. At a time of increasing social inequality, threats of nuclear proliferation, widespread spiritual and moral fatigue, disintegration of the social nucleus, lifestyle- and environment-dependant illnesses of epidemic proportions, alarming frequency and intensity of natural disasters, terrorism, global warming, deforestation, air pollution, acid rain, ozone depletion, the extinction of species, limited natural resources and a dwindling food supply, architecture has either been absent or responded with inconsequential metaphors.
In a memorable passage from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, beauty is described as being an “awful thing…mysterious as well as terrible” (97). This strikingly paradoxical view of the beautiful, especially as it relates to the numinous, resonates in the writings of the Inklings. Charles Williams, for instance, points out that while caritas is often likened to “our immediate emotional indulgence,” it should be properly understood in the sense of the “otherness and terror of God.” Encountering the ultimate Other means, in effect, that “Christ exists in the soul, in joy, in terror, in a miracle of newness. Ecce, omnia facio [Behold I make all things new]” (He Came Down, 9-11). C.S. Lewis concurs that divine goodness implies “something more stern and splendid than mere kindness,” since “even the love between the sexes is, as in Dante, ‘a lord of terrible aspect’” (The Problem of Pain, 27-9). This majestic Dante-esque figure, at once frightening and attractive, appears under various guises in Descent into Hell and Till We Have Faces. In their respective novels, Williams and Lewis depict the changing faces of beauty in order to highlight the great difference between true and false visions of the good.