Distinctions That Define and Divide   /   Summer 2021   /    Essays

The Problem of Perishable Progress

And its demand for constant upkeep.

Stuart Whatley and Nicholas Agar

Air, Rail, and Water, study, 1937, by Robert Delaunay (1885–1941); photograph Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images.

Late in his life, in the 1820s, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe weighed in on a debate about human progress that had been stirring Western philosophers for at least twenty-three centuries. A civilization may develop for millions of years, Goethe told the German poet Johann Peter Eckermann,

But let humanity last as long as it will, there will always be hindrances in its way, and all kinds of distress, to make it develop its powers. Men will become more clever and discerning, but not better nor happier nor more energetic, at least except for limited periods.… The world will not reach its goal so quickly as we think and wish. The retarding demons are always there, intervening and resisting at every point, so that, though there is an advance on the whole, it is very slow. Live longer and you will find that I am right.11xJ.K. Moorhead, ed., John Oxenford, trans., Conversations of Goethe with Johann Peter Eckermann, (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1998), 275. First published 1930.

Other voices in the first half of the nineteenth century were not as nuanced in their views. Grand theorizing about “Progress” had reached a fever pitch, and was becoming a defining intellectual force behind industrialism and modernity. Building on the French Encyclopédists’ sketches of universal history, thinkers such as the positivist Auguste Comte described a “law of human progress” that could be used to explain the entirety of history and to predict the general course of human development in the future.

Comte, who suspected that human societies ultimately follow the same kind of deterministic laws as those observed in the physical world, was simply following an influential strain of Enlightenment thought about progress to its logical conclusion. In the seventeenth century, René Descartes and Francis Bacon had both broken forcefully with the ancient intellectual tradition, arguing that nothing can be taken for granted. Rather than reflexively honor the Greeks, the Romans, or the Church, Descartes and Bacon advanced the view that much of the knowledge handed down through the generations was a mix of unfounded metaphysics and obscurantist cant.

For his part, Bacon described the great philosophers of the past, from Aristotle to Augustine, as spiders, spinning webs from their own minds with no reference to reality. He argued that we should act more like honeybees, insisting that only by combining reason (our own faculties) with experimentation (the flowers of the field) could we acquire reliable knowledge about the world. It was on this intellectual bedrock that the scientific and industrial revolutions would rest.

Yet far from representing a sharp break from the dogmas of the past, the Cartesian and Baconian streams combined with another expanding intellectual tributary: Puritanism. The Puritans of the seventeenth century saw the new science not as a threat to their beliefs but as a gift from heaven. It was through science and technology that God’s kingdom on earth would be achieved. In the millenarian worldview of the time, ideas about “Providence” and “Progress” were more or less synonymous.

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