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Dr. Larry Arnn Begins a Study of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man

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HH: I hope you are having a good Friday as California is on the verge of washing away, according to the forecast. Dr. Larry Arnn lived in California for a long time, the president of Hillsdale College. All things Hillsdale available at This is the Hillsdale Dialogue, the last radio hour of the week for me when I’m joined by Dr. Arnn or one of his colleagues from Hillsdale College to talk about matters both lasting and important, and sometimes transient and fleeting, but mostly lasting and important. Dr. Arnn, do you remember in those days when you lived in California when a rainstorm would approach, and the doom machine would begin?

LA: Yeah, but we used to just, you know, what I remember is we always, we loved to know about El Nino, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: So seven or eight years, every seven or eight year, it would be miserable. It would rain, and we would feel very hard done by. And then La Nina would come later, and I never knew what those things were, except that I knew that there was some big movements in the weather. Now, it’s apocalypse right now.

HH: Oh, it’s apocalypse. We’re going to have the biggest storm ever according to, I’ve got to hurry home before the biggest storm ever to hit California arrives, we are being told that. So it might be the biggest storm ever. Before we go to the Abolition of Man, and I have long promised our audience, and indeed, we are beginning it today, I have to play for you a comment that President Trump made yesterday. People seem to enjoy our weekend week in review assessments of what has happened this week, Dr. Arnn, so I’m always going to have for you at least one thing that happened this week. This is something that President Trump said yesterday in his 77 minute press conference. Can we play cut number four?

DT: Look, I want to see an honest press. When I started off today by saying that it’s so important to the public to get an honest press. The public doesn’t believe you people anymore. Now maybe I had something to do with that. I don’t know. But they don’t believe you.

HH: Dr. Arnn, this has upset the press quite a lot, because the press pushed back and said they don’t believe you, and you make misstatements all the time, and he did make a misstatement yesterday about having the largest Electoral College victory when in fact he hadn’t by a long shot. But nevertheless, they are locked in a, and I say they, because I’m kind of on the outside and on the inside of this. What do you think of that statement?

LA: Well, it’s, first of all, our weekends when we talk about what happened this week, they’re becoming like a really good sports show. (laughing)

HH: (laughing)

LA: You know, the Tom Brady brought those Patriots back, didn’t he?

HH: He sure did. Trump…

LA: It is a bit like that.

HH: Trump tore into that media this week.

LA: It’s the same thing. He, Winston Churchill writes in a really great essay called Cartoons and Cartoonists about how he was caricatured and beat up in the press, and how when it didn’t happen, he missed it, and how statesmen, it’s healthy for politics if statesmen were rated like sports figures. Well, Trump is Hulk Hogan, right? And he’s just, he’s just awesome. And he, so yesterday, I came back from Arizona, where we had a big conference, a really great conference, and the crawler was “On Defense: Trump Criticizes Media.” So I got home, and I watched some of it on YouTube, and I couldn’t catch the defense part.

HH: I didn’t see any defense at all.

LA: (laughing)

HH: Let me play you another one, then, since, okay, we’re into this. We’ll spend the first segment on this. The, this is his longer cut, cut number five on I don’t mind bad press.

Reporter: Can you say definitively that nobody on your campaign had any contacts with the Russians during the campaign? And on the leaks, is it fake news, or are these real leaks?

DT: Well, the leaks are real. You’re the one that wrote about them and reported them. I mean, the leaks are real. You know what they said. You saw it. And the leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake, because so much of the news is fake. So one thing that I felt it was very important to do, and I hope we can correct it, because there’s nobody I have more respect for, well, maybe a little bit, but than reporters, than good reporters. It’s very important.

HH: All right, so Dr. Arnn, do you see what he just did there?

LA: Yeah.

HH: I mean, it was beautiful from a political standpoint. He messaged three things – the news is fake, I love reporters, the leaks are bad. That’s what he did there. It was a judo move of press.

LA: He just wants to get back to his loving relationship with the good reporters. But they have made themselves the story by finding these leaks of fake news. That’s our problem.

HH: That’s our problem.

LA: And you know, I, for one, believe that he is exactly right about that. I mean, as far as I understand so far, Michael Flynn, who I think is a really great guy, was appointed National Security [Advisor], and in the waning weeks of Obama’s administration, he imposed a bunch of sanctions on Russia. And so he, Michael Flynn called some Russians to talk about that. He’s about to be one of the people in charge of the whole deal. And so it’s odd for Obama to impose dramatic sanctions in his waning weeks of power. The next administration is going to have to deal with it. So Flynn starts dealing with it. And then because there’s this narrative, see, remember that word, because we always have a narrative now. It doesn’t mean the truth, it just means stuff we’re saying all in a row. But the narrative now is that Russia elected Trump because it was afraid of the mighty power of Hillary Clinton, and because it’s got the goods on Trump. And so now, Trump administration is having these phone calls paying off. That’s what they’re hinting at, right?

HH: Right.

LA: Because there’s nothing improper, nothing, in fact, it would be dereliction of duty if they weren’t talking.

HH: Yeah, Charles Krauthammer called it a cover-up without a crime.

LA: That’s it. That’s it. And then see, unless they had evidence that Flynn had said okay, you helped us win Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, thank you very much, now I’m going to pay off. We’re going to get rid of these sanctions. But of course, there’s no evidence that that was said. And so the whole thing is this storm, but what they want to do with Trump is they want him to live in an atmosphere of storm. And that’s very effective. It’s partly, it’s the combination of a press that leans heavily to the left, and the 24 hour news cycle.

HH: It is also an, and I tell my friends in the press this, and I’m going back to do Meet the Press this weekend, and I’ll tell them in the green room. Media self-regard is at a level unprecedented in my lifetime. Even when Walter Cronkite actually did make the news weather, he actually did drive the news cycle when Walter Cronkite said Vietnam is lost, Vietnam was lost. And LBJ knew it. Back in that day when their self-regard might have been justified, it was not, it was a fraction of the self-regard with which the media holds itself today.

LA: Oh, and Trump is, you know, he, as I say, you may or may not like Trump. But do you like football, because that’s what this is like.

HH: Yeah, yes it is.

LA: And so he sees this, and what he does is he drags in a bunch of nobodies, you know, WKRP in Cincinnati, except that’s a TV show, right? And he just goes, because you know, there’s a whole lot of people who work in the press who are not like these guys who are the White House press corps, and have an edge on them. And it’s not a very big room where they meet and talk to the president in the White House, of course, and that’s a big privilege. And so he’s dragging in others, and he’s recognizing them. And then all the big wheels at CNN and NBC and CBS, and the Associated Press, all these people really matter in the world, see? They now write stories about how those nobodies didn’t ask good questions (laughing).

HH: That’s it. You’re right. You’re right. Last thing before we go to break, and we’re going to come back and talk about C.S. Lewis on the other side of this, and get into the Abolition of Man, which is amazingly relevant at this point. I am worried, I wrote a piece in the Washington Post today about the hysteria, the signal versus noise content. Gorsuch is important. I mean, it’s very important. But much of what’s going on isn’t mattering, and in fact, if we look back at administrations past, start up White Houses always have pratfalls. Five months into his presidency, Bill Clinton was on the Time Magazine cover, The Incredible Shrinking President. And that was with 91 months of his presidency, and 24 years of his significance ahead of him. It’s just not a position, we can’t make judgments on Trump, yet. It’s too early.

LA: Yeah, there you go. I read your piece, and that’s right, and sobriety, what Trump is doing is coping with the thing that all politicians fear, which is they will unite to make him look ridiculous all the time. But what he’s doing is making them look ridiculous, and meanwhile, getting on with the work. And you know, maybe it’s going well, and maybe it’s going badly, we don’t know, yet. But you’re dead right. One thing that’s really good is Gorsuch, because that guy, it just seems to me, like he’s just a genius.

HH: It is a star. It is a rising North Star for this administration. If he would bring John Bolton over to the NSC, that would be a second really good thing.

LA: Yeah.

HH: Mattis is a really good thing. Pompeo is a really good thing. Kelly is a really good thing. Tillerson looks to be a really good thing. I mean, there are lots of really good things, but boy, the media is so in love with its own voice, that they’re not listening to the really good things. I’ll be right back with Dr. Larry Arnn.

— – – — – –

HH: Dr. Arnn, I am going to turn to this 1943 book, the Abolition of Man, which began with a 1939 grammar book by C.S. Lewis, but I forgot in my first segment notes, Donald Trump did do one thing that bothered me greatly in his first month in the presidency very, very much, and I wanted to talk about since I was talking about the one great thing he did with Neil Gorsuch. He attacked Judge Robart, with whom he disagreed, as a so-called judge. Now attack the decision and by God, the 9th Circuit’s got a lot to attack in its record. It’s the most reversed circuit going. But I am uneasy in criticizing, I’m just curious what you do. When you call someone so-called, you attack the legitimacy of a co-equal branch of government, and that is actually fundamental. What did you think of that?

LA: Yeah, and that guy was a Bush appointee, right?

HH: Yeah, he’s kind of a non-political big wheel lawyer in Seattle, big firm, big long time, he’s not political. And when you appoint district judges with two Democratic senators, that’s who you get up with. You end up with good lawyers who are not particularly political.

LA: So I think I’m not as bothered by that as much as you are. I think, but I’m slightly bothered, but first of all, conflict between the branches of the government is a sign of the health of separation of powers.

HH: That is true.

LA: And so if Bush says, or if Trump says that guy’s an idiot, you know…

HH: That opinion is terrible, I’m fine with that.

LA: Yeah, yeah. And so-called, well, he, if he made some move to unseat that judge, you know, or to use the executive branch, which has lots of guns to not obey, you know, the order, if he sent SWAT cops to Seattle to take over the immigration stations and start implementing the order, no matter what the judge said, that’s a breakdown in Constitutional procedure.

HH: Correct.

LA: And you know, in Washington, we have seen things that are just about as bad as that, you know, Obama’s executive order about immigration.

HH: Correct.

LA: For example, but I don’t think that’s an instance of that. And you know, Trump is going to have to play all the notes in the symphony. And he doesn’t play the softer ones very much, yet.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing)

HH: And there are some which don’t believe, you know, you don’t bring the flutophone to the symphony. And the so-called, that language is just too close to undermining our basic arrangement, and so it is a caution. And I hope someone instructs him. When you attack a judicial opinion, you’re fine. And when you attack a judge, you’re not. That’s the key thing to me.

LA: Yeah, well, you know, this is, of course, a repeat of the Mexican judge thing about the Trump University case, right?

HH: Right, right.

LA: And everybody was outraged about that.

HH: I was, yes.

LA: And that was racist, everybody said. But I, you know, I read it, and I said you know, Trump in the headline, and of course, I get up in the morning and the headline is Trump makes a racist statement about a judge. But after, by the time I’d read the article, you know, Mexico, it turns out, is not a race. And so it may have been a really terrible thing to say. It wasn’t a racist thing to say. He was saying the guy’s loyalties are to Mexico.

HH: Yeah. And that was wrong. And I, I didn’t think it was racist. I don’t think he has a racist bone in his body. I think he’s indifferent to the language of race that has become the custom of America. We have a way of talking about race, and he just doesn’t care a lick for it. And that’s different from being a racist. But the judiciary matters a lot, and he needs to, you know, he understood that with the nomination of Gorsuch. I would like him to nominate 18 more Circuit judges and get on with it so that we could have 18 more things to praise him about.

LA: Yeah, you know, if you think back to the wars between John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson…

HH: Yup.

LA: They weren’t, you know, they were very elegant people. They deputed others to say harsh things, and they said elegant things, but Lord, they fought like cats and dogs. And you know, when you had the case of Marbury V. Madison, because the James Madison, the author of the Constitution, refused to deliver a bunch of writs of office that John Marshall in the 11th hour didn’t get done when the Adams administration was thrown out. And Marshall went over to be the secretary, to be the chief justice of the Supreme Court. That was a God awful mess kind of like this thus far.

HH: As was the Aaron Burr treason trial over which Marshall presided and Jefferson would not cooperate with. I mean, the conflicts are going to be there forever, but let’s go on to Lewis, America. Stay with us. We’ll be back on the Hugh Hewitt Show.

— — – — – –

HH: Today, we begin a conversation about C.S. Lewis’ 1943 book, The Abolition of Man, which is now 74 years young and continues to fascinate. It is not an easy read, Dr. Arnn, and you, as opposed to That Hideous Strength being one that just took the reader and grabbed them and dragged them along, the Abolition of Man requires some work. And did your students, when you taught it last semester, find that to be true?

LA: Well, yeah, it is, I am surprised over the years, because I read this so long ago that I can’t remember what it was like first to read it. But I am surprised when, that people have difficulty with this. And I think we should try to simplify it. And some of the students did, you know, there’s a bunch of really smart kids around here, so a lot of them just great. I think people should be encouraged this way. First of all, there are three arguments in this book, and they can be stated simply. And the second is the book is short. And that is to say you can read it in two hours.

HH: Yup.

LA: And the third one is an outline, and I even think this is why people find it difficult. It is an outline of two millennia of learning about what is the source of right in human beings and for them.

HH: It is about the natural law.

LA: Right.

HH: And I think one of the reasons it may confuse is that it is not explicitly Christian, but in fact, the Tao, which I will leave to you to explain, is an all-encompassing concept. He wishes to avoid, in fact, being explicitly Christian in this book.

LA: Yeah, that’s, and see, that is so very valuable, right, because you have to think two things. One is in Christianity, when the Bible and the tradition teaches of morality, they teach us that, and it’s a point that Lewis makes, they teach us that we can know that, that that’s, you know, the law that is written on the heart of every man, Paul writes in the book of Romans. So, and then a second point is to understand that there could be such a being as God, that that being would have to be a perfection, and that everything in the universe would be ordered toward that thing, you have to understand some hierarchies that are around you presently that you can see, because just because your mother tells you and your dad tells you, which they should tell you when you’re little that this is how things are, at some point, it’s got to come to make sense to you. It’s got to explain a universe that is visible to you. And you need this Tao, you need the moral law. You need the natural law in order to understand the hierarchy. And it is the loss of that learning that Lewis fears and thinks will lead to the abolition of man.

HH: Now I want you, if you could, to state the three major premises before we go back and explain the origin of the book, because then, I think, in fact, the origin of the book being dated in a time and a place in a specific grammar book has also got an off-putting effect on people, because he’s talking about commonplace 1943 knowledge in the middle of a war that is not commonplace in 2017. But what are the three major premises?

LA: Well, there are three chapters. The first chapter is called Men Without Chests. And what that means is this. He says that when you look out in nature, you see things as they truly are, and you see that some of them are grander, impressive, just or true, or more right, than others. And he criticizes this book for undercutting the idea that this is so. So when you look at Yosemite Valley, the right thing to do is what the first representatives of the United States Government did when they saw it, they were soldiers, and they said go tell President Lincoln.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) It was just like that. They were standing on a rim, and they look at that famous scene, right? They see Half Dome, and they just were awestruck, and they were silent, and then they sent a soldier to ride to give the news that this thing existed.

HH: Do you know that I teach law about five hours’ drive south of Yosemite, and I tell my students at least a half dozen times every semester that their day would have been better spent driving to Yosemite and coming back than listening to my lecture, and they never go.

LA: Yeah.

HH: I find it amazing that they never go.

LA: And see, Lewis’ point is, then, that that observation, which is a common sense and investable observation in people, that that leads you to view the world as being in correspondence with you, and you with it, and making demands on you. And so that is the birth of human understanding. And so that is the first argument, and he, well, it has one more step in the argument. It actually isn’t very complicated. One more step is that he, chest, what does he mean with not having a chest? What’s the chest? And what he says is that it’s the sort of accumulation or totality or both of these perceptions of high things and low around you that make up something that the classics called spirit, which is an example of it is righteous indignation, which is different from anger. You can just be angry, or you can be offended in the great wrongness of a thing, and angry in that way. And that’s your spirit talking to you. It rises up against or for some things, and it’s something different and larger and more consistent and abiding than just emotion.

HH: And you know what immediately occurred to me, it’s the story you’ve told before, but we do, we’re on in the morning now, and they have not hear you tell the story of Churchill and the first meeting with the war cabinet when they considered emissaries from Mussolini to treat on peace. Tell that story.

LA: Well, yeah, so it went on over five days, and Churchill, it was a brand new government, Churchill became prime minister on the same day that Hitler began his attack westward to take Belgium and then France. And so the world is collapsing, and the British Army is escaping, and everything is disaster. And so between May the 10th and May the 23rd when these meetings start in 1940, it becomes apparent the British are going to be thrown off the continent, and France is going to collapse. Churchill has formed a new government, and he to the new government are Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain, former prime minister, and current continuing foreign secretary, Edward Halifax, and they get a call, or Halifax does, from Mussolini, who’s not in the war, yet. He’s what Churchill referred to as a neutral jackal.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) And he says he wants to host a peace conference. And you know, things are going real bad, and they implied that they’ll be generous about this, and they might have been. There are historians who think it was a mistake not to respond to this. And the way things are situated, if Chamberlain and Halifax were to resign from the war cabinet, it’s not unlikely that Churchill’s government would have fallen, and the effect of that is it means he didn’t have the power as newly-minted prime minister to tell them no. He had to try to persuade them. And Halifax was for this thing, and so this goes on for five days. And on the 28th of May, 1940, Churchill gets the whole cabinet together, and he gives a speech that is recorded in notes from two people who heard it. And the speech, he ends, he does this for about an hour. He reviews the war situation, and he describes it as very grim, not hopeless. And then he says at the end, he says I’ve been thinking in these last few days whether it is part of my duty to open negotiations with that man. And I believe that if I were for a moment to consider parlay or surrender, every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place. If this island’s story is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground. And he finished with that, and they leaped up, and they rushed to the front, and they cheered. And this is a cabinet meeting.

HH: You see, and that is men with chests.

LA: That’s it. That, in other words, that first of all, think of the images that are presented by that, because Lewis wants us to think in images. He starts with a waterfall, you know, things like that. And so the image of people standing against overwhelming power making the last sacrifice as a testimony for the ages, that freedom is right, you see? He built up that image. And it, the image cleared up the confusion, you see, because what’s the right thing? There’ll be a lot of death. We’re very worried here. And Halifax himself, you know, they go back and they reconvene this smaller war cabinet, and Halifax says I think if we started negotiating now, we would be on a slippery slope, which was exactly Churchill’s point, although he didn’t use those words. And so that’s right. In other words, the wrongness of Hitler and the rightness of resisting him gave rise to something more than just a desire, a schooled, elevated, inculcated desire that’s like spirit. And Churchill says if you take that away, all your choices can have no direction.

HH: And it’s important. I think it’s not new, either. Thucydides wrote two thousand years earlier, whatever it was, 2,500 years earlier, the secret to happiness is freedom, and the secret to freedom is courage. That’s not a new thing.

LA: That’s right, and this argument that we’ve said so far, it’s not that complicated. You can put it in ordinary language. If you teach your kid that it’s a really good idea to go out in the garden and find every pretty thing and rip it to bits just to show that he’s powerful, then you will turn that kid into what Lewis called a trousered ape, except apes wouldn’t even act that way. And so that kid, what will that kid do? He will start thinking that everything, you know, little boys who pull wings off flies, and they, you know, many of them do it, and you have to get them to stop.

HH: Or you will end up in modern terms with Joffrey, for those of us who watch Game of Thrones. That’s what happens when you fail to inculcate this, and this is a book about education. More when we return about the Abolition of Man, the 1943 C.S. Lewis classic with Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College.

— – – — –

HH: We’ve talked about one of the three premises. We’ll talk about the next two next week. But can we set this up a little bit, Dr. Arnn? I’ve taken it, you know, completely backwards. In 1939, a grammar book was published, and they sent it to Dr. Lewis at Cambridge, I believe, at the time. And he reacted quite poorly to the book.

LA: Yeah, yeah, and it’s, we know the name of the book. I won’t, I’ve forgotten it right now, but I have it written down inside my text of the book. But he, first of all, it’s so like him. He makes up a pseudonym for the book and its authors. And the pseudonym is Gaius and Titius are the authors, which is a classical expression for just a couple of guys.

HH: Just a couple of guys (laughing)

LA: And he later brings up a third book by Orbelius, who was a famous, mean, Latin classics master who used to whip the students. And so to be an Orbelius was to be a cruel teacher. So he gets this book, and he starts reading it, and another reason the book is simple, although its arguments are few and profound, and can be repeated in a short space, and we’ll repeat them all next time, including the one we just did, I guess, is that he starts with one sentence in the book, and he derives the problem of modernity. It’s very sweeping. And it’s in a short book. And so I think that the book is a tour de force, and also the book is valuable, because it is, he says in the preface to That Hideous Strength, a totalitarian novel, and the third in a science fiction trilogy, that That Hideous Strength is just putting to fiction the arguments that are in the Abolition of Man. And that’s a really great thing, see, because now we’ve got a novel, and we’ve got a key to it that is written as a treatise, and it’s brief. And so it’s a really great learning opportunity. Read them both together, and important arguments are illustrated in two different ways.

HH: And those, and in doing so, he is demonstrating, by the way, something that a lot of people might take note of. He is destroying his opponent in a civil, dispassionate way.

LA: Won’t even give their name.

HH: Not necessary.

LA: Right.

HH: Not necessary in an age of Twitter. He kind of foresaw this, what was going to happen, but that when the guardrails are down, and you give up meaning and you give up the Tao, the guardrails come down, and you end up with a lot of screaming and shouting, but not C.S. Lewis. That may be why the book is maybe not as accessible to younger people than it was once.

LA: It, it’s, if that’s true, that’s because the work that is described in the book has been done to them.

HH: Yes, exactly. And in fact, I was in two meetings this week. One was a faculty meeting, one was a committee meeting. And the word rubric was used in both of them. And I thought, I even said in one faculty meeting, this is either the response of a general counsel to a GAO request for an audit, in which case it’s very good, or it is a very long chapter from That Hideous Strength.

LA: (laughing)

HH: And I don’t think anybody understood what I was talking about. But in fact, the work of that book has won, Dr. Arnn.

LA: Yeah.

HH: I don’t know if it’s won, it seems to be triumphing.

LA: Well, look at, in the, I think it’s been superseded now, but in the AP guide to secondary English literature, published by the college board that prevailed for 15 years and at least until into the 2000’s, it says that this paragraph in the forward teaching high school teachers how to teach AP literature courses, so it’s exactly apposite to this criticism by Lewis, he says, it says objectivity and factuality are now out the door. We no longer privilege the text over the reader. That means here, Sarah and Johnny, is Shakespeare. It’s more important what you think of them than what Shakespeare had to say.

HH: (laughing)

LA: That’s literally it. And then it closes, this paragraph, we teach them to find their own reality, and think of the meaning of the term reality, right, like you can have your own. Your own reality in the text, no doubt hoping, a dangling participle, that they will find values to guide them through a mad, mad world. So in other words, now this artful, elegant, concise criticism by Lewis becomes in a crude way the self-proclamation of the teachers of English literature.

HH: Yeah, oh, my gosh. It’s what, it triumphs. But that could be temporary.

LA: Yeah.

HH: It could be a temporary triumph. That’s why we do the Hillsdale Dialogue. Dr. Larry Arnn, as always, we will continue with The Abolition of Man next week. Thank you, America.

End of interview.


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