The Fashionable Outcry of Each Generation

Continuing my series on C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters:

“….The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers.  We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic.  The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.  Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later, when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed against the dangers of the mere ‘understanding’.  Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.
But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate this horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will.  It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so useful.  The Enemy loves platitudes.  Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions: is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible?  Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time?  Is it progressive or reactionary?  Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions.  And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make.  As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on.  And great work has already been done.  Once they knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent.  We have largely removed this knowledge.  For the descriptive adjective ‘unchanged’ we have substituted the emotional adjective ‘stagnant.’  We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favored heroes attain—not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.” —C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letter #25

This passage is one of the most delightful, incisive, and illuminating in The Screwtape Letters, and stands perfectly well on its own, needing no commentary or application.  We could all readily think of myriad contexts in which to apply these words of wisdom.  But at the risk of beating a dead horse, I did want to think about them a bit in relation to the subject of my last post—the tempest in a teapot over Toby Sumpter’s recent rant against foodies—but again, only as an illustration of some larger trends.

Conservatives will eagerly nod their heads at the second paragraph: “Yes, that is the problem with the Zeitgeist,” they will say.  “Our liberal culture is constantly worrying about being ‘progressive,’ about being in step with the times, about being relevant, etc.  We need to stand firm against this by standing for timeless and unpopular truths.”  Ok, sure, but not so fast.  The problem is, by being so quick to point the finger at “the Zeitgeist” they quickly fall into a habit of asking of any proposed course of action “Is this in accordance with the Zeitgeist, the general movement of our time?  If so, then we know to avoid it.”  We’re so quick to notice the dangers of trying to be relevant, that we reflexively seek to be irrelevant, or anti-relevant, thus simply aping the disorder we pretend to reject.  We never stop to ask any more whether a particular idea is true, or a particular ethical proposition just or prudent or well-conceived, but simply whether it smacks of the left, “the secular culture,” the Zeitgeist (see some good reflections yesterday from my friend Caleb Roberts on this here).  Into this intellectual vacuum, the devils slip all kinds of pride (at our cleverness), anger (at the idiocy of others), fear (of difference), and ultimately from all this, subtle forms of hate, as well as a tendency to keep on doing whatever the heck we were already doing, without bothering to cross-examine it for its potential moral or intellectual faults.

Moreover, in their eagerness to combat the Zeitgeist and all its unholy spawn, our conservative culture warriors tend to, true to Screwtape’s prediction, charge off in just the wrong direction, or perhaps more problematically, with the wrong method.  In the circles in which I most travel, at least, there is this lingering sense that the great enemy is modernism: the worship of scientific objectivity, the technocratic intelligentsia and all that.  In order to combat this, they deem, our greatest weapon is a sort of Chestertonianism on steroids: playfulness, paradox, “poetry,” and verbal pyrotechnics.  Don’t waste too much time on logic, they say, since the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world.

However, whatever you think of Chesterton, the world we live in is not his.  Our culture’s thinking is not dominated by scientific objectivity but by media spin, and the trend-setting intelligentsia is much more interested in feelings and identity than they actually are in science or logic.  If they have to prove a point, they do it by memes, identity politics, and offense-taking, not by syllogisms.  Meanwhile, we hole up in our conservative bunkers, play our own Christian identity politics (like the “Duck Dynasty” furor just today), and circulate irrational memes to one another; and, if anyone raises a hand and asks for a little more logical explanation, we worry that he must be one of those liberal intellectualists who imbibes too much knowledge and too little common sense (i.e., what’s obvious to the rest of us).

In other words, precisely when our culture as a whole is trapped in sound-bite subjectivist irrationalism, we, instead of clearing the air with a bit of reasoning and evidence for a change, run around sounding the alarm about the dangers of science, objectivism and “taking things too seriously,” couch our critiques in impenetrable thickets of paradox.  These can be great for rallying the troops, just like the identity politics of the left are great for rallying their troops, but neither gets us any closer to answering the crucial question: “How shall we then live?”

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