Public Square & Theology 101

C.S. Lewis on True Progress

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We have seen so much progress in science, technology, and medicine that has proven to be beneficial, and even life-saving.

But C.S. Lewis warns that we cannot give a blank check to “progress” in itself. After all, some progress leads to sickness rather than health.

Progress, but In What Direction?

A story from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the fifth book in The Chronicles of Narnia series illustrates the wrong kind of progress. In the book, King Caspian encounters Gumpas, the Governor of the Lone Islands.

Gumpas tells Caspian that the slave trade practiced in his domain is an “essential part of the development of the island.”

Caspian objects to the practice. Gumpas counters his objections by claiming that all the economic indicators prove his case, and he has the statistics and graphs to back it up.

“Tender as my years may be,” says Caspian, “I do not see that it brings into the islands meat or bread or beer or wine or timber or cabbages or books or instruments of music or horses or armour or anything else worth having. But whether it does or not, it must be stopped.”

“But that would be putting the clock back,” gasps the governor. “Have you no idea of progress, of development?”

“I have seen them both in an egg,” says Caspian. “We call it going bad in Narnia. This trade must stop.”

Caspian’s response reflects Lewis’s contention that not all progress is good. The newly-developed slave trade was an example of “progress” in a direction that would lead to rottenness.

Turning Back the Clock

Sometimes we need to go back in order to go forward. G.K. Chesterton says,

Real development is not leaving things behind, as on a road, but drawing life from them as from a root.

Though some would object that looking backward for wisdom is like turning back the clock to an earlier century, Lewis answers this objection in his book, Mere Christianity:

We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when we do arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.

Certainly it is never wise to go back to the past simply for its own sake. The past sometimes shows us how to live and sometimes how not to live. The classic proverb holds true: If we do not learn from history’s mistakes, we are bound to repeat them.

Are We Progressing for the Sake of Progress?

C.S. Lewis was not afraid to be called old-fashioned or outdated. Lewis gave a classic talk entitled “De Descriptione Temporium” as his inaugural address to his professorship at Cambridge. Toward the end of his address, Lewis claimed to be more a part of the old Western order than the present post-Christian one.

He acknowledged that while his outlook might seem to disqualify him from having anything important to say, it could also be a positive qualification. He admitted, “You don’t want to be lectured on…dinosaurs by a dinosaur.” On the other hand, he argued,

“Where I fail as a critic, I may be useful as a specimen. I would dare to go further…I would say, use your specimen while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.”

Every day, we move forward toward a goal. Often, this progress is beneficial both to us and those around us. But instead of progressing for the sake of progress, it is always helpful to reevaluate our goals, motivations, and end results. Lewis’s advice is not outdated; it is timeless wisdom. To follow it is real progress.

What is true progress? When might this involve “moving the clock back?” Leave your comments here.

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