At many points in The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape expresses his satisfaction with the modern European emphasis on fashion, change, and “the new.” This is a signal, of course, that Lewis isn’t at all fond of this emphasis.
At the time when Lewis was writing The Screwtape Letters, Europe’s intellectual history was (and still is) in the shadow of such monumental 19th century thinkers as George Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Charles Darwin. While it would take thousands of pages to make a thorough analysis of all four of these thinkers, one important thing all four have in common is their emphasis on vast, historical processes. Marx, for instance, believed that all economics would gradually move toward a state of communism, according to which the proletariat (working class) would control the means of production. Similarly, Hegel believed that history is a history of ideas—that an idea that is true and “right” at one time may eventually change into another idea. Nietzsche went even further in saying that truth, as we understand it, was impossible—there were many, contradictory truths.
Part of the problem with these intellectuals’ emphasis on change, at least as Lewis sees it, is that they focus too much on the future. By celebrating progress, thinkers like Marx and Hegel point us toward a bright future. One side effect of this, Lewis believes, is that people learn to think of the present as secondary in importance to the things to come. This is dangerous for morality, because all sin is committed because people think about the future instead of focusing on the present. People steal, for instance, because they need the money in the future—they ignore the feelings of guilt and sin that will afflict them in the present. By the same logic, people often commit murder on the pretext that the murder is necessary in order to achieve some lofty, future goal.
Another reason that Lewis distrusts the emphasis on change is that it makes people distrust the simple notions of truth and falsehood. Thus the reader of Hegel or Nietzsche, comfortable with thinking about “relative” truths, or information which can be true at one time and false at another, will lose sight of the one most important truths: the existence of the Christian God.
A final reason that Lewis rejects the emphasis on change, progress, and fashion is that it encourages people to ignore truthful ideas, simply because those ideas have existed for a long time. Thus, Screwtape notes that humans ignore the late classical philosophy of Boethius, who wrote insightfully about God and free will, simply because Boethius died more than a thousand years ago. Similarly, humans reject the doctrine of Puritanism simply because Puritanism—a good ideology that encourages people to be honest, chaste, and moral—has been around for centuries. The overvaluation of new things encourages people to embrace the new simply because it is new. Lewis has no patience for such foolishness—the existence of God and the supremacy of Christianity cannot, in his opinion, go in and out of fashion.
Ultimately, Lewis is skeptical of change, but he’s not a reactionary. Change, he argues, is neither inherently good nor inherently bad—it just is. There may well be new philosophies and ideologies that are worth studying and practicing, but they shouldn’t be taken up simply because of their novelty. By the same logic, people shouldn’t abandon Christianity simply because it isn’t new.
Fashion, Progress, and Change ThemeTracker
Fashion, Progress, and Change Quotes in The Screwtape Letters
Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily "true" or "false", but as "academic" or "practical", "outworn" or "contemporary”, "conventional" or "ruthless". Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.
If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don't let him get away from that invaluable "real life". But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is "the results of modem investigation". Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!
All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged.
The mere word phase will very likely do the trick. I assume that the creature has been through several of them before—they all have—and that he always feels superior and patronising to the ones he has emerged from, not because he has really criticised them but simply because they are in the past. (You keep him well fed on hazy ideas of Progress and Development and the Historical Point of View, I trust, and give him lots of modern Biographies to read? The people in them are always emerging from Phases, aren't they?)
You see the idea? Keep his mind off the plain antithesis between True and False. Nice shadowy expressions—"It was a phase"—"I've been through all that"—and don't forget the blessed word "Adolescent"…
At the other church we have Fr. Spike. The humans are often puzzled to understand the range of his opinions—why he is one day almost a Communist and the next not far from some kind of theocratic Fascism—one day a scholastic, and the next prepared to deny human reason altogether—one day immersed in politics, and, the day after, declaring that all states of us world are equally "under judgment". We, of course, see the connecting link, which is Hatred.
For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy not to inform men but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them.
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.
To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all 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. But thanks be to our Father and the Historical Point of View, great scholars are now as little nourished by the past as the most ignorant mechanic who holds that "history is bunk"…