C.S. Lewis from The Case for Christianity
“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where 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. There is nothing progressive about being pig-headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world it’s pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We’re on the wrong road. And if that is so we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.”
C.S. Lewis had a way of capturing a sentiment in simple language that made it seem like the commonest of sense. Unfortunately, in a world where the notion of common sense has become suspect, we often have to strain to hear his now distant voice so that we might access the timeless truths he articulates so effortlessly.
I’ve been thinking about the meaning of progress lately, trying to tease out and name what being a true progressive means. As Lewis clearly states, progress is something we all want. I strive to be good, just, humble, loving, and generous toward everyone and everything in my life. To the extent I am successful in my efforts, I am always mindful that progress is always inextricably connected to Truth; if Truth doesn’t drive progress and keep us on the right road, we quickly make a wrong turn and need to do an “about-turn” to find our way back to the right road before we can regain our forward momentum.
If Lewis is right about what it takes to become the “most progressive” persons we can be, he is asking us to recognize the innumerable mistakes humanity has made in the name of progress—and take a more conservative approach in our quest to attain it.
I think the Founding Fathers understood what Lewis meant about the way human beings make progress—haphazardly, often taking one step forward and two (or more!) steps back, suffering along the way, learning slowly—painfully slowly—from their mistakes. I’ve been thinking a lot about why the Framers made it so hard to enact change—meaningful, True Change—and it seems obvious they knew that we limited and self-righteous and “pig-headed” humans weren’t keen on admitting mistakes. Thus, they pieced together a governmental structure that would help to save us from ourselves.
Though safety cannot be guaranteed, a look back at the wise thinkers and writers who have walked this mortal road before us can at least alert us to some of the danger we are bound to encounter along our collective way. Progress doesn’t mean constructing a new road—or a new reality. It means gathering up the knowledge passed down to us and carrying it forward a few steps at a time, always mindful that we may have to retrace our steps after making the inevitable mistakes we humans always make.
2 thoughts on “When progress means turning back to go forward”
How lovely to encounter Jack Lewis unexpectedly! (I’ve always thought Tolkien the better writer of fantasy and the better scholar, but I suspect Lewis was the better teacher.)
And I must admit, Bill, that our political arena the past couple of years has made me understand the importance of the balance of powers as never before – and appreciate the men of the Enlightenment who created it.