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The Rise and Fall of "Progress"

One of the peculiarities of Western civilization is that it alone has conceived of history as the course of human events forming a meaningful whole. This idea was formulated very recently in time, and has since almost disappeared; it flourished in the nineteenth century.

The Indian religions, for instance, despised life in this world, and considered all of its events as meaningless and repetitious. For Zoroastrianism and Judaism, this world was a stage in which the divine drama was set: the war of Light with Darkness, or God's covenant with His Chosen People. Both told of a definite beginning of time, the world, and man -- and an end. But in each case, the operative force was God, not man, and human history was subsumed within cosmological myth.

The philosophers of ancient Greece and China had only vague and inconsistent ideas about the temporal scope of the world and of man. In effect, they assumed them to be eternal and unchanging. Beneath the flux of events, if they considered the matter at all, they saw only the repetition of secular cycles. Both civilizations began, independently, the intellectual enterprise of history; but the Greek historians were only concerned with particular events, and the Chinese with their dynastic cycles.

The Persian/Semitic idea of an overarching pattern in events, demarcated by episodes of divine intervention, was carried over into Europe by Christianity, which inserted a dramatic plot-twist into the middle of the story: the incarnation of the god, between the creation and fall of the world on the one hand, and the millennium and resurrection on the other. Aside from these episodes, human history is repetitious and meaningless, and the purpose of Christianity is to kill time until God decides to put an end to things. The Christian conception of linear history, of continuity between past, present, and future, was thus still part of a cosmological myth, in which human events were ignored or warped into a non-human perspective.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, men conceived the idea that human history has meaning in and of itself. History has a single direction and a single goal: the improvement of the human condition by human effort. This was the idea of "progress," made explicit (if not invented) by A. R. J. Turgot and the Marquis de Condorcet, the Enlightenment's preeminent philosophers of history.

The idea of progress was solidly based on observed facts. When we look back at history, we see that progress occurred long before it was identified and (partially) understood; it happened (however erratically) throughout the course of history. Man acquired knowledge, he created works of art and social institutions, he increased his mastery of nature; civilization grew, diversified, expanded. In the eighteenth century, the philosophical historians looked back on these developments (made accessible to them by the progress of historical study itself), and discerned in them the meaning and destiny of history.

As soon as "progress" became a self-conscious political project -- progressivism -- its meaning and purpose were subtly altered to suit the ideas of the time, i.e. the Enlightenment. The purpose of the "progressive" party was to advance the human race more speedily and deliberately along its natural tendency -- as the Enlightenment understood it. Progress was both the result of Enlightenment and historical justification for it.

As the idea of progress moved into politics, it inevitably became bound up with particular views of the ideal society towards which we are supposed to be progressing. For the Enlightenment and (with variations of emphasis and method) all subsequent versions of the Left, the basic ideal has been a universal and homogeneous society of free and equal individuals. The Enlightenment placed greater emphasis on freedom, and hoped to achieve the ideal society through reason; contemporary Leftists (except libertarians) place greater emphasis on equality, and hate reason because it has a painful tendency to puncture their illusions.

By a quirk of intellectual influence, this Enlightenment rationalism, progressivism, and cosmopolitanism inspired the Romantic reaction in favor of faith, tradition, and nationality. In the progressive view of history, the past is valuable only insofar as it leads up to the present; the Romantic view redeemed the past and looked to it for inspiration. To medievalists, the present was a falling-away from the past; to nationalists, the nation's history imbued the present with meaning and the future with hope -- though they were progressive-minded enough to regard the movement towards national unity and independence as the main line of history, which devalued all else.

In the nineteenth century, the great age of popularized history and historicism, two views of the meaning of history were held and taught side-by-side: the nationalist view, which took the evolving nation-state as the proper unit of study; and the progressive view, which continued to receive systematic reformulation in the works of Hegel, Comte, Marx, Spencer, et al. Each of these was convinced that history had gone, and was bound to go, in the "right" direction -- though each had a somewhat different idea of what was right.

Yet alongside these grand schemes there were also more "scientific" approaches to history. There was the Rankean school of historiography: the drive to know the past "as it really was," to discover the facts of history with complete certainty, which tended to obscure the wider truth and meaning of history. A general and conceptual understanding was ruled out, except for the scholastically convenient compartments of nations and centuries. Value was ruled out altogether. Moreover, historical inquiry itself was challenged by the ambitious but confused champions of "social science." Particular facts were too "unscientific": the human condition was to be reduced to numbers.

In the twentieth century, the "scientific" view of history won out, but only temporarily. It succumbed to the "postmodern" view that facts are as illusory as truth and value. The work of Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee, the last and most ambitious philosophers of history, only served to show how peculiar and isolated such efforts had become: few took them seriously, and no one followed them. It became fashionable to assert, as if it were self-evident, that history is meaningless. National history remained as a pedagogical convenience, however, and progressivism remained inextricably entangled with the political prejudices of most historians.

Ever since the concept of "progress" was invented, the definition of "progress" has changed so many times that the term has lost its meaning. To put it another way, "progress" -- the motion of history in a certain, presumedly beneficial direction -- has changed direction, again and again, as times and ideas changed, and each generation pursued its own partial, limited understanding of "progress," rather than allowing society to evolve and progress spontaneously as it had done for ages. Ideas of progress kept going "out-of-date," until finally the very idea itself did.

The ironies here are manifold. "Progress" finally went out of fashion -- even among those who, oblivious to the irony, still consider themselves "progressive." "Enlightened" and "progressive" opinionates object to "ethnocentric" terms like "backward" and "primitive"; but they still traduce their opponents as "reactionaries." They are painstakingly solicitous of every "traditional society" except their own.

The lesson to be learned from these paradoxes is that real progress, the actual advance of civilization, is impeded by progressivism. Progressivism itself is futile, because it undercuts itself. The standard of progress cannot itself progress: one cannot reach a goal that is constantly shifting. It follows, too, that progress cannot be severed from tradition. There can be no advance without accumulation.

Modern man has available to him an incalculably greater wealth of historical knowledge than has ever been available before to anyone; but at the same time, he has incalculably less sense of history. For other peoples, the past is kept alive, partly in shared memory, partly in inarticulate tradition; change is slow, and contained within cultural boundaries. Modern man, in a world of rapid, uncontrolled technological and social change, has cut himself off from the past.

A single generation can transform the landscape almost unrecognizably (indeed, it is only now that the mere generation, or even a decade, becomes an epoch). Once this deracination was justified by the idea of progress, or a certain form of this idea: the devaluation the past as a realm of darkness, oppression, and "outdatedness." Now progressivism has, in effect, committed suicide, after killing off its rivals.

The results of this deracination are both academic and practical, and can be seen all around us: trivial and ideological pseudo-scholarship, vagaries of fad and fashion, ephemeral "news" and "entertainment," the displacement of knowledge by "information," free-floating abstractions emptied of both experience and thought, short-sighted (and therefore impractical) "pragmatism." Without an awareness of the depth of history, beyond the here and now, man and all his works are rootless and superficial.

Our sense of who we are depends in large part on the sense of our place in the world. Are we isolated, aimless individuals, sufficient unto our own shallow selves? Or are we members of some greater whole, and if so, what? The greater whole we belong to, gives us our orientation in both space and time: where we are, and when we are. It enables us to preserve memories of the past, and to project anticipations of the future, beyond the narrow, fleeting moment of our own precarious existence.

Of course, our lack of historical depth is only one example of our general spiritual and cultural exhaustion. But it is through history, perhaps more than anything else, that we can liberate ourselves from our collective autism. Knowledge of the past, in itself, gives depth to one's awareness of life: particularly, it reminds us that the world did not begin when each of us was born. One may hope, too, that exposure to more energetic and creative ages will shame us out of our own effeteness, and give us examples to emulate.

2001 by Karl Jahn