Admitting Defeat to C.S. Lewis

It’s natural to not want to admit that a book is too hard for me. But it’s happened more than a few times. About a year ago I picked up Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and was lost. Completely lost. And humbled. In opening this book I came toe-to-toe with America’s greatest theologian and was ready to throw the white flag after about 10 pages.

C.S. LewisC.S. Lewis just did the same thing to me, with his book, The Abolition of Man. But for a very different reason. An amazing reason.

Usually “difficult” books are difficult to understand because their arguments aren’t clear. The author is smart, but they reduce the accessibility their argument with layered prose. This kind of difficult book might be brilliant, but it’s difficult to get that brilliance into your hands. It takes sifting and thinking and annotating to bring the idea up to the surface. It’s lurking there, between the lines. That’s what makes them frustrating reads: it’s hard to know that their ideas are.

Lewis isn’t like that at all. He’s easy to understand. But his ideas are hard. His presentation is crystal clear. But his content is thick. He does the heavy lifting for you by bring the idea up out of the water. In The Abolition of Man he does this frequently. If you read it, you’ll see him using metaphors all the time to make (extra) sure that the reader knows what he means.

Which makes me all the more frustrated/humbled. After reading The Abolition of Man almost twice, I still can’t put his own argument into words. Lewis essentially handed me the idea, I took a look at it, and realized, “hmmm… here it is. I don’t understand it.” While I’m reading the book, I just barely know what he’s saying. But as soon as I put it down and try to process it all on my own, I’m lost.

If you’re curious, the book is Lewis’ defense of objective morality. He argues that moral values really do exist outside the people that experience them, and that these moral values don’t simply depend on the cultures they show up in. What he calls the tao is this grand set of standards that all people somehow know.

And that’s about all I can tell you.

I wonder if anyone else has ever had this experience with a book. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and read one of Lewis’ more philosophical works. Take a hack at The Abolition of Man. Or his book Miracles.

I’d be interested if you have any similar experiences. Leave me a note in the comments if you have.

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