Christ in the Waste Land

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Thirty-six years ago a small slim book crossed my desk at the offices of National Review in Manhattan. Its title was The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism; its author, Michael D. Aeschliman. I slipped it into my briefcase and began reading it over a martini on the flight back to Wyoming. At home, I finished the book and wrote an enthusiastic review for the magazine. Now it is back in print in a third edition, this time from Discovery Institute Press in Seattle, with a new foreword by James Le Fanu, the British medical doctor and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, and other new material. It is good to make its acquaintance again. Aeschliman describes his aim as being “to recover, refurbish, and defend… [the concept of] the irreducible sacredness and ultimate value of the human person: person, not just thing; subject, not just object; end, not just means; essence, not just existence; soul, not just body; value, not just fact.”

It is a concept that has been subverted, attacked, and mocked since the 18th century, and in the 21st century categorically dismissed by a majority of the scientific “community” and by progressives generally. “Modern science directly implies that the world is organized strictly in accordance with mechanistic principles,” William Provine, a contemporary philosopher, asserts. “There are no purposive principles whatsoever in nature. There are no gods and no designing forces that are rationally detectable… modern science implies too there are no inherent moral or ethical laws… free will, the freedom to make uncoerced unpredictable choices among alternative choices of action, simply does not exist… there is no ultimate meaning for humans.” Provine’s conclusion, based supposedly on scientific principles, is bad science and not really philosophy at all, as the ancient philosophers practiced the discipline. Science is alive and active and productive in the material world only. Beyond the world of facts, things, and sensations, it is as helpless—and as useless—as Leviathan beached on the Bonneville salt flats. By comparison with science’s ignorance of metaphysical matters, Scripture and theology are adept at perceiving the metaphysical implications of biology.

Science has never disproved claims regarding “the sacredness and ultimate value of the human person” as its subject and it cannot do so now, as Aeschliman so passionately and convincingly demonstrates. Despite its title, The Restoration of Man, while centered upon Lewis, considers his work in the wider context of the centuries-long intellectual counter-revolution. So widely does Aeschliman range across this anti-secularist tradition that he has appended a 30-page “Glossary of Biographical Identifications” running from Acton and Addison to Yeats and G.M. Young. Indeed, this book is a dense—yet also accessible and compelling—compilation of references and quotations amounting to a rich literary pastiche. The final two paragraphs in the “Afterword” suggest the author’s modus operandi. I quote them at some length, though in part:

In the ongoing cultural struggle… that is modern mental-intellectual life, Lewis, along with such writers as G.K. Chesterton and T.S. Eliot, sought to recover, renew, refurbish, and extend the age-old tradition of “Logocentrism” deriving from Plato and the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. This tradition has universal scope and significance. As Eliot said, “Man is man because he can recognize supernatural realities”—such as truth, validity, obligation, and mentality and meaning themselves—“not because he can invent them.” However, “it is in man’s power,” Lewis noted in The Abolition of Man, “to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his own judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulations to alter at will.”

 

Aeschliman concludes, in his own voice:

the integrative metaphysical-ethical vision is the irreducible, indispensable prerogative, privilege, and patrimony of human civilization itself. No one over the last century has done more to convey, defend, and illuminate it than C.S. Lewis.

The scope of The Restoration of Man is limited to literature, literary history, and apologetics. Nevertheless, the book does, I think, cast light on political developments and events in our own time, in particular those subsumed within the category of the social and political phenomenon called “populism.” This suggestion, which may seem startling, is supported by Aeschliman’s assertion that the “integrative metaphysical-ethical vision is for everyone.” Eliot was saying as much in his vision of a “wasteland” that blights everything and everyone equally. Though the artistic and intellectual classes were the first to recognize it for what was (and is), a century after he wrote the poem the reality of the desolation of the modern human and natural landscape is being experienced by people of all classes and walks of life, and at every educational level—except, ironically, the highest ones.

The modern wasteland is an unnatural creation, and therefore a humanly distressing and painful one. It is the inevitable result of the attempt to abolish man and (regardless of the present panicky and strikingly hypocritical concern for the future of “the planet”) nature as well. What the sensitive antennae of educated people a hundred years ago apprehended, the thicker and more clumsy feelers of the lower classes are registering today. The masses have awakened to the scientific and liberal elite’s antihuman project and they are rebelling against it, sensing not just that they are being treated as less than human and more like “objects”—but that the world itself is becoming increasingly inhuman.

A world that was once palpably (and often painfully) real is rapidly becoming a world of mental abstractions. However, people cannot live on abstractions, any more than they can survive on moonbeams. The elite class, on the other hand, thrives on them, or thinks it does—provided it continues to enjoy the wealth that manipulating abstractions earns for it and that allows its members to climb above the wasteland and escape it.

Image: The Scapegoat by William Holman Hunt

Chilton Williamson, Jr.

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Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column "Prejudices" appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review.

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