Aug 29, 2012
neil

All change please? Tolkien and Lewis on the great myth of social progress

When leaders of our society (political and intellectual) urge us to embrace social changes designed to promote social transformation their main argument is that such change is a mark of social progress.

The speeches of our politicians, the views esposed on the BBC and in the columns of newspaper commentators present the social revolution that has taken place as an inherently good thing. What lies behind the rhetoric is an assumption that we really do know better than the generation(s) before us when it comes to the issue of how to live well in the world.  Our values, they say, are not merely different, they are superior.  We are told that the new values demonstrate a more enlightened, better informed and more sophisticated view of ethics than held by previous generations. Whether its no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, more liberal licencing laws, redefining marriage they are each presented as indicators of moral advance.

What is beyond doubt is that a great ‘experiment’ is taking place in which we are exchanging one set of values (predominately Christian) for another set (predominately anti or post-Christian). But in his chapter on the philosophy of history in The Philosophy of Tolkien Peter Kreeft highlights just how profoundly Tolkien and CS Lewis disagree with the idea that the social progressivism we are witnessing equate to actual advance. Both men were proud traditionalists and here are my 5 points drawn from Peter Kreeft’s analysis of Tolkien & Lewis’s reasons why.

1. Traditionalists respects and holds onto tradition with good reason

Kreeft writes of how Lord of the Rings is itself a call to respect the wisdom passed on to us. Tolkien is implicitly asking his readers, his culture, to remember their links with their own ancient wisdoms… Few lessons, however indirectly taught, could be more socially relevant than this one, for tradition means linking, unifying over time; and no community can exist without common unity over time as well as place. A generation gap destroys a community more surely than a war.

2. Progressivists are not telling you anything about what is true but merely what is fashionable

Countless studies have proven that children are happier, healthier and perform better at school when raised in a home together by a mother and a father and that Mum and Dad are much more likely to stay together if married. You would think the results of repeated studies would lead to government promoting marriage yet that is the one thing politicians of all persuasions have refused to do for at least 20 years. The attitudes of progressivists highlight that in their minds fashion trumps wisdom when they do.

CS Lewis describes such progressivism as simply ‘’‘chronological snobbery’ when it insists that ‘the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted ( and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.

3. Progressivism hides behind a ‘great myth’

CS Lewis in his essay entitled the Funeral of a Great Myth shatters the myth that simply because a society is advancing scientifically and technologically it must also be advancing in its ethics. A society can be in advance and in decline at the same time – depending on what it is we are measuring! That is as obvious a conclusion as it is possible to draw from the 20th century. The philosophy of social Evolution has hoodwinked us into thinking that humanity is ever-improving. CS Lewis writes;

It is, indeed, manifestly not the case that there is any law of progress in ethical, cultural, and social history.

4. Progressivism gambles with your future

In rejecting a thousand years or more of Christian tradition one has to also face the question ‘how do we know what the new ethic will produce?’ How can we possibly predict the consequence, intended or not, of a whole new set of values. Kreeft highlights that progressivism is arrogant, for we know the past far better than we know the future.

CS Lewis again; About everything that can be called ‘the philosophy of history’ I am a desperate sceptic. I know nothing of the future, not even whether there will be any future…. I don’t know whether the human tragi-comedy is now in Acts I or Acts V, whether our present disorders are those of infancy or old age.

5. Traditionalism secures the future.

The great trick of progressivists is to label those resistant to change as being opposed to progress but as Kreeft is quick to point out traditionalists far from being those simply ‘stuck in the past’ with no vision for the future are actually those keen to secure our future. Tolkien’s traditionalism, with all its dependence on the past, does not make the mistake of ignoring the future. In fact, the main reason for tradition is to guide the future. It is not even accurate to say that Tolkien’s heroes balance their traditionalism with a sense of responsibility for the future, as if the two things were opposites. For listening to the past and responsibility for the future are two sides of the same coin.

1 Comment

  • I love what Tolkien said about “progress” in Oxford:

    ‘Not long ago—incredible though it may seem—I heard a clerk at Oxenford declare that he ‘welcomed’ the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into ‘contact with real life.’ He may have meant that the way men were living in the twentieth century was increasing in barbarity at an alarming rate, and that the loud demonstration of this in the streets of Oxford might serve as a warning that it is not possible to preserve for long an oasis of sanity in a desert of unreason by mere fences, without actual offensive action (practical and intellectual). I fear he did not.’

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