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Is Progress Possible?

CS_LewisThis essay by C.S. Lewis was originally published in The Observer in 1958. It was subsequently printed in the book God In the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, subtitled “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.”

Intro from God in the Dock: From the French Revolution to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, it was generally assumed that progress in human affairs was not only possible but inevitable. Since then two terrible wars and the discovery of the hydrogen bomb have made men question this confident assumption. The Observer invited five well-known writers to give their answers to the following questions: ‘Is man progressing today?’ ‘Is progress even possible?’ This second article in the series is a reply to the opening article by C.P. Snow, ‘Man in Society’, The Observer (13 July 1958).

Progress means movement in a desired direction, and we do not all desire the same things for our species. In “Possible Worlds” Professor Haldane1 pictured a future in which Man, foreseeing that Earth would soon be uninhabitable, adapted himself for migration to Venus by drastically modifying his physiology and abandoning justice, pity and happiness. The desire here is for mere survival. Now I care far more how humanity lives than how long. Progress, for me, means increasing goodness and happiness of individual lives. For the species, as for each man, mere longevity seems to me a contemptible ideal.

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