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Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien On the
by Donald T. Williams
Broadman & Holman, 2006
(212 pages, $14.99, paperback)
reviewed by Michael Bauman
We human beings are a mystery even to ourselves—perhaps especially to ourselves. Not that self-knowledge is a futile, silly quest. Under the guidance of revelation and of our betters, we can begin—however haltingly and with difficulty—to de-code the mystery of human nature, elusive though it is. This wise and readable book is an important step in that direction.
In Mere Humanity, Donald Williams, of Toccoa Falls College in Georgia, has gleaned thoughts and insights from the writings of C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and J. R. R. Tolkien into a volume exploring what it means to be a fallen person in a fallen world. The clear and bracing intellect of Lewis, the quirky and eccentric brilliance of Chesterton, and the majestic, mythopoeic vision of Tolkien, are brought together by Williams to form an exercise in theologically astute self-discovery.
Williams’s approach is purposefully expansive, encompassing both the anthropocentric emphasis of Alexander Pope and the fecund interplay of Calvin’s divine/human analysis. Various forms of argument and analogy are beautifully juxtaposed in this little book: poetry and prose, logic and rhetoric, story and syllogism. (The original poetry in this volume alone makes it worth the price. I consider Williams the best practicing traditionalist poet in America.)
Williams delineates what each of his three subjects emphasized as the distinguishing element in human beings—that which sets us apart from the beasts. For Chesterton, he says, this element was art. In this respect, Chesterton believed, man differs from the animals not merely in degree, but in kind. Williams writes:
The most primitive forms of humanity that we have uncovered manifest this amazing trait, and the most advanced forms of other species do not. . . . Monkeys may sharpen sticks to make primitive tools for digging termites out of the ground; they may arrange boxes into a pile they can climb to retrieve a banana hung from the ceiling. They do not arrange the sticks or the boxes into intricate patterns simply so they can sit back and lose themselves in contemplation of their symmetry.
This is why, Chesterton once observed, a man and a dog together span one of the biggest gaps in the universe.
In other words, it’s not as though we humans produced Gothic cathedrals while the apes were still puttering around with Romanesque. The apes don’t create architecture at all—or any other art form. Art is our distinctive signature. By it, we demonstrate that we are not merely adaptive, but creative, that we act not simply “from instinct but from understanding.” As Williams points out, “Man is the only one of the physical creatures with enough of a self to want to sign his name; art is his signature, and he gets it from the greatest Artist of all.”
Lewis’s analysis of human nature, Williams writes, strikes a different, though complementary, note to Chesterton’s. Because we are inescapably immersed in the requirements and consequences of objective moral values, that which distinguishes us from the beasts is moral accountability. A sense of “oughtness” properly attaches only to beings with moral sensibilities and obligations, that is, to human beings and not to animals.
Therefore, Lewis believed, to train up a truly human being rightly requires passing on to him the ability to respond appropriately to whatever life yields. Life “ demands a certain response from us,” Williams writes, “whether we make it or not.” But while these morally appropriate responses are possible and necessary, our state of fallenness means that they do not come naturally. They must be cultivated and nurtured, which is to say, they must be taught.
Education, properly pursued, takes this need for moral training into account, and provides both the time and effort necessary for its growth. Moral education helps make us more fully human, and by it, we pass on civilization from generation to generation.
A moment’s reflection, then, reveals the dehumanizing nature of modern and postmodern subjectivism, both of which suppress the morality by which we know how to respond appropriately and humanly to life, and by which we learn to act, Williams says, “not just out of instinct, but on principle.” On that level, the abolition of objective moral values is the abolition of man, to echo one of Lewis’s book titles. That this moral “oughtness” permeates Lewis’s writings, Williams convincingly demonstrates by a guided tour through all three stops in the Space Trilogy and, for good measure, through Narnia, too.
Making with Words
For Tolkien, the distinctly human demarcation is rooted in Genesis 1:26, where God declares his intention to make man in his image. At that point in Scripture, Williams explains, all we know for sure about God is that he is an articulate maker. He makes worlds with words. (I would add that we also know that he is communal: “Let us make man in our image.”) To be like God, then, to be truly and fully human, Adam had to be a verbal maker as well.
To confirm Adam’s verbal and creative nature, God verbally addressed him, and then gave him the task of naming all the animals, knowing he would give them names that well captured their nature and purpose. From that foundational fact—the fact that we make according to the principle by which we are made—grows remarkable things, things like the entire Middle Earth saga, compete with its history, its language, and its lessons, all brought to us by the man Williams calls “the greatest storyteller of the twentieth century.” Tolkien, like his Creator, made worlds from words, including the creation of hobbits, whom Williams rightly considers “a sub-species of man,” and therefore deeply relevant to our own self-understanding.
Williams goes on to provide a detailed and profound analysis of Tolkien’s art that I cannot summarize adequately in this brief space, but recommend that readers peruse for themselves. They will find it both enlightening and edifying.
Many books about Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien are trivial and mundane, saying less well what these three insightful Christians said much better themselves. Williams’s book is a welcome and remarkable exception. I recommend it highly.