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A fragment on Conservatism and Progress

Here is a Sunday question: what is the status of the idea of PROGRESS in Conservative thought?

G. K. Chesterton was not an ungenerous man — indeed it would be hard to find a more mistaken description for him. Thus a stark judgment like the following one, when one encounters it in his writings, comes as something of a shock or tonic. “Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word ‘progress’ than we.” Whether this was ungenerous to the early twentieth century, when Chesterton wrote, I leave aside for the moment, in order to take up a more pressing question: whether it is ungenerous to those who inherited that century’s world: namely us.

Now in order to merit any serious effort of moral examination, our concept of Progress must most emphatically be distinguished from mere material advancement. The latter is not, in strict common sense, a subject of moral inquiry. That more people have wealth does not tell us anything about the nature of wealth. That more technical knowledge is available, will give us no hint as to how knowledge ought to be used. More importantly, material progress is strictly speaking not dependent upon the moral fiber of a society. As far as we can tell, the gain to be had in treachery, plunder, fraud, is (alas) not a feature of the world within our power to remove. The popular celebration of material progress, on the whole understandable, must be viewed with some caution, for it risks pushing us into that perilous and impious habit of mind which Lord Acton said sanctifies success. Some rather narrow Calvinists once thought material prosperity was evidence of sanctity, and Acton’s reproach was aimed at one very successful Calvinist, Oliver Cromwell. But Acton’s point holds: all who succeed are not admirable; nor is all success good. No: to speak of an age being right or wrong in its use of the word progress, is instantly to fling oneself into all the vague, boisterous, inescapable world of what is called moralism. It is to begin that quintessential of human activity of moral judgment.

How then ought we to think about progress? And how much real progress has modern man (say, the last 100 years) made?

It must be acknowledged, a careful study will disclose hard evidence against us. For almost a century, virtually every step of real progress we have made, has in fact been a grinding gritty effort of restoration or reclamation from some mad heresy, which was itself advertised and accepted as progress. We sundered the Nazi State, concatenated of the heresies of Race and Evolution (a synonym of progress) and Socialism, by laying waste to much of Europe. We more peacefully subdued Communism, thus recovering our ancient orthodoxies on Property and Sin, but before this struggle could be decided, half the world was thrown into a new slavery, while much of the remaining half was thrown into bitter strife. Our successes on these counts are not diminished by noting that they were successes against Progress, but that is what they were.

Men came roaring forth from the laboratories of their fevered minds, shouting of the new and true Progress they had discovered, and first cursing, then murdering those who ventured any skepticism. It is not just that the heresiarchs proclaimed their theories Progress; it is that millions upon millions accepted them as such. It is vital to understand this. For some time the theoretical “wave of the future” was that races no less than species move progressively through history, their success sanctified and their supremacy authorized by the fact of their survival and prosperity. For a considerably longer time another progressive fad reigned which made scientific Social Organization a path to omnipotence, Property an obstacle and oppression, and the Planner who plunders the latter to empower the former, a kind of god. I do not see how such doctrines can be refuted on the grounds of pure materialist science. They are evolution concrete and simple. Today theorists apply Darwinism to collections of thoughts, called memes, and tell us that Charles Darwin the great revolutionist overthrew God; yet they strictly command us to never think of Social Darwinism again?

Progressives from both factions, Nazi and Communist, supposed that the State, by calculated intervention in private life, can bestow upon men and societies ontological meaning. It can give life, or take it away. The State was the agent of material progress; human beings were raw material.

These collectivist movements were not trivial, they were hardly fleeting, and they were extraordinarily popular, not least with that class of people whose business is the public intellect. In truth they were wicked, and they were sanguinary in the extreme; but it is only in retrospect that we can fairly call them “reactionary.” Nazism and Communism were, in bare pulverizing fact, the Progress of the Twentieth Century. It is instructive to remember this; and also remember that what objective progress was made in that era, was made as a great, brutal, tragic counterattack against a heretical enemy who was vulnerable chiefly because of his overconfidence.

So perhaps in this little sketch the reader may discern the lineaments of the Conservative’s suspicion of Progress.

Comments (13)

I'm three chapters into Chesterton's Everlasting Man and it seems to me (I didn't see it explicitly stated anywhere) that his goal in those beginning chapters is specifically to exorcize the baldly irrational assumptions of "inevitable progress" that attend twentieth century biology, anthropology, history, and sociology (as well as Marxism and Naziism, of course). It's illuminating to be shown how easily one can fall into the prejudice that Later equals Better Somehow. Chesterton has a vision of not just cycles (that would be another heresy, I think), but tangles and eccentricities of history that makes one realize just how... well... dumb it is to shove every historical development into a great arc of Progress.

Progress for the great nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historians (against whom GKC was writing in The Everlasting Man) was a kind of secular alternative to Providence. It is indeed one of the merits of that fine book that it so subtly and yet effectively dismantles the progressive assumption.

I have these memories of being on the beach at Dauphin Island, Ala. (which, incidentally, was utterly devastated by Katrina) back in maybe 2002, reading The Everlasting Man and being vividly disabused of my unthinking progressive assumptions.

Keep in mind, also, that Chesterton accomplished this well before the full fury of 20th century Progress had revealed itself.

How then ought we to think about progress?

It's odd that one of the best remedies against the idolatry of "x-in-itself" as a good is to read Plato.

It is telling that we have in our midst a political faction that terms itself routinely as Progressives.
This self flattering description is grounded in State action, apparently and unthinkingly unlimited, and as such incurably materialistic.

Bad as it is that progress is axiomatically assumed, worse yet that it is based on a government sponsored ethos which displaces civil society to a subsidiary and dependent role. Left virtually unnoticed, certainly uncared for, is the condition of the nation's culture and learning, a potpourri of discordance, noise,emotions, self absorption, and a miscellanea of gadgetry to occupy the unread mind.

History has been degraded to a political tool and morals weighed against one's fealty to the reigning political ideas.
And this is Progress.

Chesterton also referred to his time, and no less ours, as "the only period in all human history when people were proud of being modern". And with modernity has come the false idol of Progress, in reality an unexamined decadence whose bottom we can not yet forsee.

"Nazism and Communism were, in bare pulverizing fact, the Progress of the Twentieth Century."

Bracing, and well put.

"Nazism and Communism were, in bare pulverizing fact, the Progress of the Twentieth Century."

I actually think that this is a relatively cynical way to look at "progress" in the 20th century. There is really nothing that new about totalitarian government. Both Naziism and communism are basically variants of old themes.
I would point to the development of antibiotics; the huge drop in rates of infant and maternal mortality; the green revolution, which held off the much of the mass starvations due to population increase that had been predicted by doomsayers in the first half of the century; even, the communications advances that has put most of human knowledge, and the means to access and share it at our fingertips (and made blogs like this one possible).
I think that we are self-deluded if we don't find our own society every bit as materialistic as Nazi Germany, or Communist China, albeit in different ways.
The concept of linear history, with an alpha and an omega, which gave rise to the concept of "progress" is a thing of our Judeo-Christian culture, and all the various perversions of it.

I think there is solid reason behind the arguments that totalitarianism was a new category of tyranny, precisely because it added the might of modern social organization and technology to new doctrines of impiety and inhumanity.

Your second paragraph, Rodak, seems wholly innocent of my third, where I said, "Now in order to merit any serious effort of moral examination, our concept of Progress must most emphatically be distinguished from mere material advancement."

I find your mention of the green revolution darkly comical. It held off "mass starvation"? Say what? I think what held off mass starvation was the Free Enterprise system. And the ethics of much of the green revolution, I am afraid to say, gave us its own "progress" of 40 million aborted babies.

our own society [is] every bit as materialistic as Nazi Germany, or Communist China, albeit in different ways

If mere materialism were the only charge against those two regimes, we wouldn't often mention them, would we?

If you mean we are every bit as wicked, well, you are entitled to such an opinion; but the rest of us are not obliged to listen to it.

If you don't think that the "green revolution" i.e., the genetic engineering of food crops, and the development of powerful fertilizers, haven't been instrumental in feeding numbers of people it was once thought could not be fed, then you haven't been paying attention. You can give free enterprise the credit for funding the development of those things; no argument there.
By "materialism" I don't mean only murder, although I've heard many times that the numbers of abortions done in this country will make Hitler and Stalin look like pikers eventually.
The Russians have had atomic weapons virtually as long as we've had them, and never used them. We used them. We keep threatening to use them again.
I don't want to get into an argument about moral equivalence. You can do the math so as to develop stats that suit your own comfort zone. Bottom line: no man is righteous; no nation is righteous.

Rodak, I doubt that anyone disputes advances in medical science, fair to say Mr Cella as well as myself are almost as aware of that as you. Also that both he and I factor said progress into our considerations, along with a host of other scientific and technological advances. But where does that leave us in the overall and comprehensive consideration of what constitutes a conception of progress that includes moral, literary, and humanistic values? To keep the list short.

You say you don't wish to get into arguments about moral equivalence but that is, in part, the grounds on which we argue. I say in part because equivalence is not the issue, decline is. When a Damien Hirst is shown at a major gallery can statistics measure a decline? How about our music, much of which joyfully returns to it's primitive, atavistic roots, do the math? In the interests of brevity I offer these only as examples, the ways of the flesh will go largely without comment.

Your comment on no man being righteous as well as no nation is both too relativistic and a poor choice of words. You see, a man as well as a nation can be righteous but not perfect. A lack of perfection, which is to be expected, does not preclude or eliminate righteousness. But if no man or nation is righteous, or can be, are all equal in sin and depravity. Is there not there the moral equivalence you wish to avoid but raise only to the possibility of evil and wrong doing?

It is possible you missed the essential point of Mr Cella's post. A closer look at his second paragraph, and first sentence there, may help reorient you. But do feel free to pass on any more of your technological tidbits as you feel necessary.

"But if no man or nation is righteous, or can be, are all equal in sin and depravity."

I suppose you think that saying Jack is better than James, but not as good as George on the righteousness scale isn't "relativistic"?
Jesus didn't say "Let him who on a scale of one-to-ten rates above seven throw the first stone."
I say we have made "progress" during the 20th century, and named advances in medicine and agriculture, because in those two fields millions of people who, at one time, nobody really cared about, were taken care of. The hungry were fed and sick were comforted. Throughout most of human history, if your neck of the woods had a drought and everybody was starving, everybody was just SOL. Too bad about that. Now, we find out about it through our improved means of communication; we are able to do something about it, due to rapid transportation; and, most importantly, we CARE about it--due to progress.
As for the bad side; no other nation has been more continually involved in foreign (i.e. not strictly self-defensive) wars during the 20th century than ours. And during the first half, and then some, we were openly racist. Are we decadent today? Yes. But, in many ways, we are also more attentive to the needs of the poor, and that is progress in my book.

this is a relatively cynical way to look at "progress" in the 20th century.

That's all in good style, Rodak. Play the cynical Jeremiah with a rhetorical flourish and you have les mots justes and honor to boot. Ever read Modern Age? No issues goes to print without complaint. It's all-of-a-kind medicine produced by smart, cranky conservatives to feed the neophites.

Not one of those cranky scribblers can deny that there is progress. Most of them recognize that the human good is de-divinized and then farced and filled with numbers, progress, success, and similar "consensus-in-itself" standards.

Rodak, you not only have trouble reading the posts of others, you have trouble reading your own, so why am I doing this?
>" no man is righteous, no nation is righteous"
But you see when you say that there are differences between Jack, James, and George, and conclude that there is a relativistic consideration you admit to degrees of morals and open the door to my point.

I'll skip the vulgar invocation of Jesus in a weak effort, suffice to say Christianity recognizes different levels of both sin and virtue and the actions of a stone throwing mob are not the judgment of God. Why AM I doing this?

As you are incapable of distinguishing between technology, medical or otherwise, and equally incapable of fully addressing the essence of Mr Cella's post I will only say that for example, the invention of penicillin does not, can not, make Rodak a better man, much as it may clear up what seems like a perpetual head cold.

To close, You bandy the word "we' about rather freely, as in racism. I have never been a racist, may I therefore conclude you were and hence misuse the "we"?

The rest of it is more than I wish to spend time on, vulnerable though it is. I will spend the rest of the day in fasting and penance for a wasted effort.

Fasting might help. Give it a try.

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