Reason and Progress

Sometime before Christmas, I quoted extensively from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo and suggested there was one idea about which Hugo was “dogmatically immoderate.” That idea is the idea of Progress. By happy accident, the beginning of a new year is a pretty good time to reflect on the extent to which a belief in Progress is at all reasonable.

First, though, let’s get an idea of what a true believer Hugo was on the subject of Progress. “There is no backward flow of ideas more than of rivers,” Hugo proclaimed, and indeed he portrayed the forward march of moral and intellectual progress almost as a natural phenomenon:

Progress is the mode of man. The general life of the human race is called Progress; the collective advance of the human race is called Progress. Progress marches; it makes the great human and terrestrial journey towards the celestial and the divine; it has its halts where it rallies the belated flock; it has its stations where it meditates, in sight of some splendid Canaan suddenly unveiling its horizon; it has its nights when it sleeps; and it is one of the bitter anxieties of the thinker to see the shadow upon the human soul, and to feel in the darkness progress asleep, without being able to waken it.

God is dead perhaps, said Gerard de Nerval one day, to him who writes these lines, confounding progress with God, and mistaking the interruption of the movement for the death of the Being.

He who despairs is wrong. Progress infallibly awakens, and, in short, we might say that it advances even in sleep, for it has grown. When we see it standing again, we find it taller. To be always peaceful belongs to progress no more than to the river; raise no obstruction, cast in no rock; the obstacles make water foam and humanity seethe. Hence troubles; but after these troubles, we recognise that there has been some ground gained. Until order, which is nothing more nor less than universal peace, be established, until harmony and unity reign, progress will have revolutions for stations.

What then is progress? We have just said. The permanent life of the peoples.

“The permanent life of the peoples”? Yes, he says, even when all appearances are to the contrary. Of course, Hugo sometimes seems to consider Progress “permanent” only because it “infallibly awakens” from time to time, and one might well consider that to be better evidence for the proposition that Progress is transitory. But Hugo maintains that it is always two steps forward for each step back.

Moreover, Hugo seems to have thought he was rather near the endpoint of this development:

[T]he people, rough-hewn by the eighteenth century, shall be completed by the nineteenth. An idiot is he who doubts it! The future birth, the speedy birth of universal well-being, is a divinely fatal phenomenon.

Well, that prediction was nothing if not bold, but I trust Hugo would agree that the twentieth century was a great embarrassment for his theory.

Leaving aside Hugo’s unusually specific predictions, can one rationally believe in the general proposition that moral and intellectual Progress is inevitable? I think not. I think we can safely say we’ve made progress in agriculture, medicine, transportation, communication, and industry — in other words, in the material arts and sciences. But have we made any notable advances in charity? Honesty? Temperance? Humility? Don’t our continuing material advances — and the relative wealth and leisure they have brought us — actually make our moral poverty more plain? For example, if we focus our attention on the Christian tradition, would anyone argue that Christians have made significant moral progress in the last 2,000 years and now live much closer to the way Jesus told us to live? I think of myself as a fairly upbeat guy, but belief in anything like moral Progress as a force at work in human history strikes me as delusional.

Hugo saw Progress largely in political terms, and fairly large numbers of people describe their political views as “progressive,” rarely defining what they mean by that. But politically, what is closer to the truth: that we are always building on our past agreements and achievements, or that we are locked in a cycle of relearning and then forgetting the same lessons over and over again? If one looks at the U.S. presidency, can we really characterize Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush the Elder, Clinton, and Bush the Younger as some sort of steady upward trajectory? Isn’t the pendulum a better metaphor than the vector?

If Progress is an illusion rather than an irresistible force behind the river of history, are there any political implications? I think so. For one thing, I think it should make us skeptical about utopian thinking of any stripe, particularly where moral improvement is concerned and most particularly where moral improvement is presumed. A commitment to “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” is the sort of thing an intelligent person can make, but a commitment to “ridding the world of evil-doers” should disqualify one for any important position of leadership.

So what say all of you? Does anyone believe in Progress — capital “P” — as a force at work in human history?


One Response to “Reason and Progress”

  1. Mark E. Says:

    Welcome back.

    A quick note here and more probably to follow (I’m reading a biography of Einstein right now and despite his reputation, he was very much aware of the SOCIAL world around him.) …

    My first thought was to just condemn Hugo as a !#$%^ romantic (I haven’t really read him and I’m in a rather pessimistic mood right now), but I think it may be a matter of curve-fitting. Sure, if you look at the trend from the short-term perspective the pendulum is the more appropriate metaphor. If you take the long term view, the upward trend might be the correct assessment. A couple of positive moral progressions (at least in the western world – Hugo’s perview): elimination of slavery, universal suffrage. World-wide, I’m not so sure and certainly there are downward trends right now (think Kenya.)

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