The Great Conversation:

By Gabriel Blanchard

The idea of progress is one of the most influential—and distinctive—qualities of the modern age.

The idea of progress colors the modern world in ways that would have been totally foreign to our medieval and classical ancestors. To us, “the latest” usually means the most fashionable, sophisticated, and powerful example of whatever it is we’re talking about. Ancient views on time, grand narratives of history, etc., were somewhat varied. Some philosophers, like Empedocles and Aristotle, thought that time was more or less cyclical: progress might be possible in a given field or society or what have you, but there was no over-arching metaphysical progress that defined history. A handful of optimists might, like Virgil, frame history in terms of some divine cause all else had been building to, and the tragedies of Æschylus seem often to have been structured on this theme; but these were the exception, not the rule. The transition to a mostly Christian outlook in the Middle Ages might have been expected to bring a narrative of progress with it, since Christ was seen as the culmination of history, and the Church now dwelt between that and the Second Coming, history’s end—but in fact it mostly did not. One of the favorite figures of medieval discourse was the Lady Fortune, who raised up this man or cause or realm on her wheel one day, only to plunge them down again the next.

However, the atmosphere began to change in the Enlightenment. The notion that mankind was perfectible came to the fore—something earlier generations might have understood in terms of sanctity (and observed to be fairly rare), but which Enlightenment thinkers tended to describe in terms of reason, education, and, well, enlightenment, accessible in principle to almost everybody. With the conspicuous exception of Thomas Hobbes, political philosophy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries tended in this direction of rationalist perfectibility. Social contract theory, though it did not depend on human progress, frequently went together with it, and human freedom to renegotiate social contracts—as expressed in the American Revolution, and in subsequent revolutions inspired by it in Latin America—was positively asserted.

This political outlook developed in tandem with what used to be called “the Whig view of history,” which tended to frame the human story in general as proceeding from a past of benighted oppression to a present and future of wisdom, prosperity, and liberty. This formed a popular analogue to the more systematic philosophy of history set forth by Johann Fichte and developed by Georg W. F. Hegel in the early nineteenth century. According to this school of thought, history—which is in some sense guided by “God” or “Spirit”—consists in a series of theses (states of affairs), which clash with their antitheses (conditions that oppose or contradict the theses), and by a fusion of the compatible elements of the two, a synthesis (a new state of affairs) comes into being. The synthesis then becomes the new thesis, and the process repeats itself.

I have not lost faith ... because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

The Hegelian approach to history was an important source for the work of Karl Marx. He identified the current clash as being between the capitalist class, who control a vast majority of available property and money, and the proletariat or working class, who possess little more than their personal effects. The only way for the conflict (“class warfare”) to be resolved was for the proletariat to conquer the capitalists, figuratively or literally, and effect an equitable redistribution of available resources. This of course led to the rise of the Communist Party, as well as to a number of other Marxist or Marx-influenced movements that were less “orthodox” in Communist eyes, from anarchism to the Catholic Worker Movement.

Without always taking a specifically Hegelian view as Marx did, many other significant political and social movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries relied upon similar motifs of thought. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and the civil rights movement all claimed to be not mere alternatives to the current state of affairs, but actual moral advances upon it—in a word, progress, with the destination of a just world in mind.

The concept of progress also had a major impact on certain forms of theology. In some cases this meant a particular modern school of thought with a defined notion of progress came to shape a school of theology as well, or prompted theological reflections on the subject. But in one case, the idea of progress as such became the defining idea. This was what is known as process theology; it comes in a few different forms, united by a general tendency to think of God in terms of relationships, and even of being affected in some sense by history. (Whether this meant discarding the classical attributes of God as immutable, impassible, and so on varies according to the process theologian in question.) Alfred North Whitehead was probably the most celebrated exponent of this school in academia, though in some Christian circles Pierre Teilhard de Chardin may be better known.

But there is one field of progress—or perhaps we must call it two fields—that has arguably shaped modernity more than any other, which we have yet to address: science, and the technological advances it has made possible, from the steam engine to the cell phone. Beginning with astronomy in the early sixteenth century and proceeding to chemistry, physics, medicine, biology, and in fact essentially every branch of scientific knowledge, both theoretical frameworks and practical application have seen progress so immense as to dwarf all previous accomplishments. These in turn have allowed people to not only develop the instruments of the Industrial and Technological Revolutions, but to increase the rate of progress itself. Technologically speaking, there is about as much difference between the years 2020 and 2000 as there was between 2000 and, say, 1940. (Consider for a moment that, as recently as twenty years ago, it was still fairly common not to own a cell phone—and no one owned an iPhone).

Both the rapid advance of technology and the theory of evolution, as well as our typical narratives of history, can encourage what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” or the tendency to consider things implausible, morally inferior, or otherwise flawed simply because they are of the past. This, of course, is a misapplication of the idea of progress; by its very nature, progress must build on the past in order to exist at all. The equal and opposite error is that of the reactionary, who makes all the same mistakes about the present that the chronological snob makes about the past. All the more reason to think carefully about what distinctions we draw between progress, decay, and mere stability.

Suggested reading:
Æschylus, The Eumenides
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
St. John Henry Newman, On the Development of Christian Doctrine
G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything


Gabriel Blanchard is the editor at large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you liked this piece, check out some of our other posts from our series on the great ideas, from chance to hospitality to war and peace. You might also be interested in these reading and listening recommendations from the guests on our podcast, Anchored.

Published on 28th April, 2022.

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