Is Happiness Progressive?

In his article “Is Progress Possible,” published on July 13, 1958, and now available in God in the Dock, Lewis asks this question: “Are people becoming, or likely to become, better or happier?” It’s a question that is difficult to answer given that most people are unknown to ones who might be asking the question, a point that Lewis makes at the first. “We are reduced to generalities,” he says. Nevertheless, he provides some basis to arrive at an answer.

Lewis first turns to science. The advances in healthcare may provide a sense of happiness, but at what costs? “We shall grow able to cure, and to produce, more diseases – bacterial war, not bombs, might ring down the curtain – to alleviate, and to inflict, more pains, to husband, or to waste, the resources of the planet more extensively,” he says. “We can become either more beneficent or more mischievous. My guess is we shall do both; mending one thing and marring another, removing old miseries and producing new ones, safeguarding ourselves here and endangering ourselves there.”

He then makes the appeal to government and its subjects. “If society can mend, remake, and unmake men at its pleasure, its pleasure may, of course, be humane or homicidal,” Lewis says. He then moves into a prophetic passage:

Observe how the ‘humane’ attitude to crime could operate. If crimes are diseases, why should diseases be treated differently from crimes? And who but the experts can define disease? One school of psychology regards my religion as a neurosis. If this neurosis ever becomes inconvenient to Government, what is to prevent my being subjected to a compulsory ‘cure’? It may be painful; treatments sometimes are. But it will be no use asking, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ The Straightener will reply: ‘But, my dear fellow, no one’s blaming you. We no longer believe in retributive justice. We’re healing you.’ This would be no more than an extreme application of the political philosophy implicit in most modern communities. It has stolen on us unawares. Two wars necessitated vast curtailments of liberty, and we have grown, though grumblingly, accustomed to our chains. The increasing complexity and precariousness of our economic life have forced Government to take over many spheres of activity once left to choice or chance. Our intellectuals have surrendered first to the slave-philosophy of Hegel, then to Marx, finally to the linguistic analysts.

As a result, classical political theory, with its Stoical, Christian, and juristic key-conceptions (natural law, the value of the individual, the rights of man), has died. The modern State exists not to protect our rights but to do us good or make us good – anyway, to do something to us or to make us something. Hence the new name ‘leaders’ for those who were once ‘rulers’. We are less their subjects than their wards, pupils, or domestic animals. There is nothing left of which we can say to them, ‘Mind your own business.’ Our whole lives are their business.

Finally, with the cure for diseases and the dependencies of government out of the way, Lewis answers the question of happiness in the affirmative. Yes, happiness can be found. “I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way,” he says, “if he has ‘the freeborn mind’.” His example is Montaigne:

For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of Government who can criticise its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land.

Is it even possible to live in such a manner? In this article, in particular, Lewis doubts that it is. Certainly, we can spiritualize such freedom, but Lewis sticks with our tangible reality, a reality of government that always lacks yet always wants another pound of flesh. Why? Because, “every Government,” Lewis says,  “consists of mere men and is, strictly viewed, a makeshift.”  It leads us to another question:

We have on the one hand a desperate need; hunger, sickness, and the dread of war. We have, on the other, the conception of something that might meet it: omnicompetent global technocracy. Are not these the ideal opportunity for enslavement? This is how it has emerged before; a desperate need (real or apparent) in the one party, a power (real or apparent) to relieve it, in the other. In the ancient world individuals have sold themselves as slaves, in order to eat. So in society. Here is a witch-doctor who can save us from the sorcerers – a war-lord who can save us from the barbarians – a Church that can save us from Hell. Give them what they ask, give ourselves to them bound and blindfold, if only they will! Perhaps the terrible bargain will be made again. We cannot blame men for making it. We can hardly wish them not to. Yet we can hardly bear that they should.

In 1958 as much as today, if we define societal betterment and personal happiness by external forces other than God, we are bound to be disappointed. “Have we discovered some new reason why, this time, power should not corrupt as it has done before?” Lewis asks in the article’s closing line. As much then, and even more now, we haven’t.


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