Home Page

Posts Tagged ‘Screwtape Letters’

YOLO: The Wisdom and the Folly

In Time on March 22, 2016 at 9:43 pm

Yolo“YOLO” — You may have heard a young person say this just before they do something stupid, or as an explanation as to why they did something stupid. It means “You Only Live Once.”

It suggests we ought to live for the present, as opposed to think too much about the future.

On the surface, there is some wisdom in this. Focussing too much on the future is foolish.

I know I think too much about the future. I think about the airplane crashing. I think about my future health. I think about next year’s writing projects and potential speaking engagements. I think about retirement. I don’t think I am alone in my obsession with the future. Our obsession with the future plays right into the hands of the demonic powers–this is C. S. Lewis’ view articulated in The Screwtape Letters. Senior tempter, Screwtape, says that God wants us “to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which [we] call the Present.” The devils purpose, then, is to get us “away from the eternal, and from the Present.” They do this by making us ” live in the Future, because thinking about the Future “inflames hope and fear.”

By thinking about the future we are focused on “unrealities.” I can simultaneously worry about never marrying (being alone for the rest of my life) and about marrying the wrong person (being miserable for the rest of my life). That both of these would occur is impossible, still I manage to fear both. And one lifetime is not enough to encompass all that I have ever hoped for. I will not get one of those $20,000 grand pianos that play all by themselves. I won’t live in New York City and write books. Won’t get a PhDs in history, philosophy and literature. I won’t work as an author/artist in Britanny. With all its hopes and fears, the future is filled with unrealities, and to live in the future is to live outside of reality.

We want a man hag-ridden by the Future . . . We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present. –Screwtape

The YOLO mantra correctly breaks us away from obsessing on the future, and turning toward the present.

Coffee can only be enjoyed in the present.

A good book can only be enjoyed in the present.

A friend can only be enjoyed in the present.

A lover can only be enjoyed in the present.

We can only be kind in the present.

We can only be happy in the present.

We can only be honest in the present.

But if you dig a little deeper into the YOLO philosophy, you will find it empty.

Lewis says that the Present is the most real component of time, and it is “the point at which time touches eternity”; it is “all lit up with eternal rays.”

The YOLO philosophy says that the present is important, but not because “it is all lit up with eternal rays,” but because it is all there is.  This life is all there is. When it is over, there is nothing. So if you don’t do it now, you will never do it. There is no eternity, so have fun while you can. Live for pleasure; live for the present.

Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. –Mere Christianity

The Myth Progress

In Time on December 31, 2015 at 4:33 am

The above quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. I don’t think it’s true. For one thing, I don’t think it is necessarily the most dangerous phrase — others are more dangerous. For instance, “because we’ve always done it this way, let’s try something else” would be more dangerous when applied to driving on the left or eating glass.  Sometimes the way we’ve always done things is the best way to do it.

That’s the way it is with sayings; they aren’t universally true, but they communicate a truth.

Hopper’s saying resonates particularly with Westerners because we love change. We tend to equate change with progress.  We believe that new ways are better than old ways.

We believe time is structured by progress.

Interestingly, the ancients actually assumed the opposite.

Book five of The Iliad follows Diomedes’ busy day on the plains before the city of Troy. In one episode, Diomedes has just killed boastful Pandarus with a spear throw that severs the braggart’s tongue. Aeneas attempts to recover Pandarus’ body, but has to face Diomedes who “picked up a stone, a massive rock which no two men now alive could lift. He threw it all by himself with ease.” The Greeks thought that the great men of old were better than the men alive in their time, and not only in terms of physical strength.

The modern story, however, believes that our times are better than previous times. The increase of knowledge in the area of science and the conversion of knowledge to power through technology certainly can give the impression that civilization is advancing.

Check out this Radio Shack flyer from twenty-five years ago. The author of the accompanying article points out that the function of almost every item from the coolest page in the newspaper in 1990 is now on the phone in my pocket. If that ain’t progress, I don’t know what is.

It is progress, but only in two categories.  Progress in scientific knowledge and technological power is not the same as cultural or moral development.  In these we’ve not progressed at all; human beings remain the same. The problem is that our scientific knowledge and technological power do not make us better, they only increase the effects of what we do–whether that be good or evil.

Human cultural and moral progress is a myth.

People tend to confuse the words, ‘new’ and ‘improved.’

The nugget of truth in this saying, uttered by Agent Colson, in the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D., is that time is not structured by progress.  C. S. Lewis agrees:

“The idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. ”

— (“The World’s Last Night”)

In Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, an experienced demon, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, Wormwood, a novice tempter, on how to undermine the faith of “the Patient” and thereby secure his soul for damnation. One of the diabolical strategies for populating hell, is to control how modern man understands the past.

Screwtape describes the “the intellectual climate which [the demons] have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe” (139). He jubilantly reports,

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done so by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. . . . To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is important to cut every generation off from all the others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. (139-140)

Lewis calls this view of history, “chronological snobbery,” and defines it as “the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” (Surprised by Joy 167).

We are certainly progressing technologically, and we are moving steadily toward a more free, open, liberal or tolerant society. But make no mistake, humanity is making no progress culturally, politically or morally.  Nor will we–ever.