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The Future of Progress

Reacting to the unbridled modern confidence in progress, G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.” He realized that real progress is not simply a temporal assurance as though the future hold unlimited promise for progress. The proper question is, “Progress toward what?” Where are we headed?

If I am moving closer and closer to an oncoming train, am I making “progress?” Chesterton viewed this unreflected confidence in the abstract spirit of the age as a bit absurd, he said, “Progress is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.” And then, “The modern world is a crowd of very rapid racing cars all brought to a standstill and stuck in a block of traffic.” Recently a friend recommend I read last December’s, The Economist; where sounding very much like G.K. Chesterton, they published an article asking, “Why is the modern view of progress so impoverished?

The article weaves Imre Madach’s “The Tragedy of Man” (1861) throughout. Madach tells an industrial age version of “Paradise Lost.” Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden for eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but Adam is not repentant. He glories in his power and free from God’s rules, proclaims his dream of human progress and achievement. Lucifer lulls him to sleep and then leads Adam through a series of future epochs. The Economist summaries,

Adam gets the chance to see how much of Eden he will “regain”. He starts in Ancient Egypt and travels in time through 11 tableaux, ending in the icebound twilight of humanity. It is a cautionary tale. Adam glories in the Egyptian pyramids, but he discovers that they are built on the misery of slaves. So he rejects slavery and instead advances to Greek democracy. But when the Athenians condemn a hero, much as they condemned Socrates, Adam forsakes democracy and moves on to harmless, worldly pleasure. Sated and miserable in hedonistic Rome, he looks to the chivalry of the knights crusader. Yet each new reforming principle crumbles before him. Adam replaces 17th-century Prague’s courtly hypocrisy with the rights of man. When equality curdles into Terror under Robespierre, he embraces individual liberty—which is in turn corrupted on the money-grabbing streets of Georgian London. In the future a scientific Utopia has Michelangelo making chair-legs and Plato herding cows, because art and philosophy have no utility. At the end of time, having encountered the savage man who has no guiding principle except violence, Adam is downcast—and understandably so. Suicidal, he pleads with Lucifer: “Let me see no more of my harsh fate: this useless struggle.”

With this backdrop, we now visit the perplexing history of progress in the modern world. “Optimists in the Enlightenment and the 19th century came to believe that the mass of humanity could one day lead happy and worthy lives here on Earth. Like Madach’s Adam, they were bursting with ideas for how the world might become a better place.”

The Economist explores the troubled history of the word and idea of “progress” since its flowering in the 17th century. Some of the various approaches to progress include an accounting model, a scientific model, and a business model.

Accounting – Progress by the book
The libertarians Julian Simon and Stephen Moore wrote an extensive study arguing that “It’s Getting Better All the Time.” While they amass statistics highlighting amazing improvements in most living conditions , they ignore increased government oppression in the 20th century. They demonstrate a significant improvement in health and wealth but the numbers do not voice greater contentment, more happiness, a deeper sense of responsibility. They also fail to take into account the dangers as a result of progress like nuclear cataclysm, environmental destruction, or the decline in moral power as demonstrated in Alisdair MacIntyre’s work on moral philosophy.

Science – Discovery with a Hint of Alchemy
While science has transformed our modern world and made possible many of advancements in health and wealth that Simon and Moore document, we cannot ignore the power science wields to change and possibly even destroy the world. The Economist summarizes:

Modern science is full of examples of technologies that can be used for ill as well as good. Think of nuclear power—and of nuclear weapons; of biotechnology—and of biological contamination. Or think, less apocalyptically, of information technology and of electronic surveillance. History is full of useful technologies that have done harm, intentionally or not. Electricity is a modern wonder, but power stations have burnt too much CO2-producing coal. The internet has spread knowledge and understanding, but it has also spread crime and pornography. German chemistry produced aspirin and fertiliser, but it also filled Nazi gas chambers with Cyclon B.

Economics – The End of the Rainbow
There is a bit of irony in this section since The Economist virtue of its name is commited to strong business and a healthy economy. “Yet even the stolidest defenders of capitalism would, by and large, agree that its tendency to form cartels, shuffle off the costs of pollution and collapse under the weight of its own financial inventiveness needs to be constrained by laws designed to channel its energy to the general good.”

Free markets may have delivered economic prosperity but they can’t deliver inner peace, true joy, and an assured future growth. If the natural resources are completely depleted, we may hand our children an ugly world with even uglier social problems haunting them and their descendents.

A Vision of Moral Progress
In the end, we are presented with a possible approach for progress rooted in moral sensibility coupled the junior partner of democratic governance. Citing Susan Neiman, The Economist proposes that there are ways of thinking about morality that are not trapped in power games or institution bigotry. “Ms Neiman asks people to reject the false choice between Utopia and degeneracy. Moral progress, she writes, is neither guaranteed nor is it hopeless. Instead, it is up to us.”

My Initial Responses
While this article doesn’t fully answer Chesterton’s critique of the lack of a specific goal for progress, I think it does point us toward a conversation where those goals might be elucidated. Neiman’s language of moral sensibility is appealing though not having read her, I am not clear the path where she uncovers these moral senses, but I am attracted enough to learn more. It makes me think of C.S. Lewis’s language of moral imagination.

As a person who has been called by Jesus Christ, I look toward the person of Jesus Christ as a starting place for thinking about moral sensibility. Now some might suggest that this is immediately a closed-minded, bigoted response to this call for a “universal moral sensibility.” But as Chesterton points out some where, (and I am loosely quoting from memory) you can’t turn right and left at the same time. The act of turning right eliminates the left turn. The decision to speak of moral sensibility immediately changes the question from the universal to the particular. The real question is whose particular moral sensibility.

In the gospel of Jesus Christ, I encounter a moral sensibility that fulfills the Ten Commandments including the Law and the Prophets. I can engage someone with a different foundation for moral sensibility. I simply make my starting point for moral imagining clear. It is not my own sense of morality (which is often deluded and corrupted) but the Ten Commandments fully enfleshed in Jesus that serves as a starting point for me to think more deeply about moral imaging and the future of progress.

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