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The Enticing Light of Progress

Helena Moradi asks if the promise of pure progress is problematic.

In November 1784, the Berlinischer Monatsschrift published an article titled ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ The article’s author was Immanuel Kant. His famous answer was, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from self-inflicted immaturity (Unmündigkeit).” This long-standing question is a historical staple that continues to preoccupy the present. Two hundred years later, the French post-modern philosopher Michel Foucault still asks it in What is Enlightenment? (1984). In this essay, Foucault claims that modernity finds itself with a constant desire to know where we are right now. So where are we? Has humanity emerged from our immaturity, that is to say, really progressed?

American author J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress, published in 1920, contains a difficult interpretation of ‘progress’. According to his definition, the idea of progress is the belief that ‘civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction’. But what is ‘desirable’ here? When the elderly Romantic philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau went for a walk in a pasture he admired for its beauty, he discovered a knitting factory in the middle of the idyll and was horrified and disgusted. Yet if his old adversary Denis Diderot had made the same discovery he would have become curious and happily interested, maybe even paid a study visit. For Diderot, but not for Rousseau, the factory in nature’s womb was a sign of progress ‘in a desirable direction’. So clearly, subjective perceptions cannot be used to define progress. Social movement is always in some direction and we’ll never have universal agreement that any particular direction is good.

The solid foundation to the idea of progress is the idea that human beings, through deliberate action, can change the circumstances of their existence. Man has some control over his future. The advocate of progress further believes that such changes can realize their dreams and desires. The detractors of ‘progress’ do not deny the power of action to shift situations. Rather, they are convinced that massed ‘progressive’ behaviour merely destructively disrupts the natural order, or simply confirms man’s attachment to an inherently hopeless existence.

A forward-thinking optimism about the long-term direction of society is often traced back to the seventeenth century. However, if some thinker is to be crowned as the idea’s founding father or mother, it has to be the English philosopher and politician Francis Bacon (1561-1626). Sometimes also called ‘the father of empiricism’ and ‘the man who died of a cold from trying to freeze a chicken’, it was Bacon who first made a serious claim that people could improve their lot with the help of new knowledge, new technology, and new forms of cooperation.

For a long time, this ideal of progress had few followers. However, through the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, the idea gained in popularity. Nonetheless, only a thin layer of educated people shared the perception of progress. When one of the first hot-air balloons – which Kant saw as the pinnacle of technological progress – crashed to the ground outside of Paris, it was attacked by peasants armed with pitchforks, under the impression that the moon had fallen from the firmament! In most places, a widespread shift toward a belief in progress did not occur until the end of the nineteenth century (if at all).

Optimism is never simple. It’s surrounded by ‘if’ and ‘but’ qualifications. At first glance, the English nineteenth-century philosopher Herbert Spencer appears unshakable in his belief in positive development, basing his theories on cosmic and biological evolutionary laws. The progress of man and society appears to him to be the result of the great universal law of evolution. But when the laissez-faire society he champions ran into unexpected challenges in the form not only of trade tariffs and other competition restrictions, but also measures that made the lives of the poor and oppressed more difficult, Spencer wrote The Man Versus the State (1884), stating that if the authorities did not recognize that the free struggle for survival was a blessing, progress would come to an abrupt halt. The human race’s development was thus dependent on a conscious adherence to the laws of free natural selection.

The Progress of History
The Progress of History by Friedrich Farshaad Razmjouie, 2022

Progress vs Decay

There are few visions of a better future for humanity without reservations. Progressive thinking is never limited to asserting or establishing a specific process for progress, it also identifies action that will allow for continued positive development and warns of dangers and disasters that can only be avoided by following a specific, probably difficult, path. Thus the concept of progress is never without a dark shadow of decay, degeneration, and threatening accidents. This is partly due to the fact that the concept of progress says: do this, and things will improve. In the same breath, however, it threatens: if you do not follow my advice, you will suffer misfortune.

Only dyed-in-the-wool pessimists such as Arthur Schopenhauer deny the possibility of truly progressive action. According to Schopenhauer, the pursuit of life is instead captive to the force of blind will, and the only freedom from the will is freedom from all desires and drives. The best way to achieve such peace is through contemplating art, ideally music.

One of Schopenhauer’s intellectual successors, Eduard von Hartmann, combined optimism and pessimism in an unusual way. Humanity has truly advanced, he said. Knowledge has expanded. Everyone will one day gain a complete understanding of the essence of existence. Then they’ll realize its emptiness and commit massive collective suicide.

From Bury onwards, many books have been written about the concept of progress, but they often suffer from not distinguishing the positive aspects of ideas of the future from the negative; the promises from the threats. The literature on the concepts of degeneration and decay is more limited, yet one powerful modern monograph on the subject, Arthur Herman’s The Idea of Decline in Western History (1997) is well worth a read.

Herman is an excellent narrator who has amassed a vast amount of material. The flowing report of various ideas of decay is the book’s best feature. On the other hand, to my mind, the analyses don’t accurately examine what these ideas seek to understand. On yet another hand, Herman rightly emphasizes the close relationship between progress and the concept of intellectual and moral maturity. They’re two sides of the same coin. He also observes that those who predict disaster usually point to a path that contrarily leads to a prosperous state. Herman also unequivocally associates what he sees as an Enlightenment doctrine of progress with individualism. He thinks that every non-individualistic ideology has been linked to a doomsday scenario (an idea I find absurd).

Herman produces a long list of villains for his epic of historical decline. Some are more obvious, such as Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, who with his aristocratic racism was a predecessor to Nazism; or Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, who with the idea of ‘social Darwinism’ warned of humanity’s impending decline unless decisive action was taken to prevent the ‘worst specimens’ in society from reproducing.

Optimism & Pessimism

Other writers are more refreshing to divulge. Henry Adams (1838-1918), belongs here. He’s a historian and author known best for his autobiography, and the brilliant representative of a New England family that produced two U.S. presidents. Adams’ ideals of progress were no doubt shaped by people he thought of as mentors, two greats among that list being Auguste Comte, the father of positivism, and Karl Marx. However, Adams drew pessimistic conclusions from both their theories. From Comte’s writing he discerned the disintegration of the times, while Marx taught him that industrial society embodied insurmountable injustice. Adams saw his contemporary United States as a decaying society due to its large influx of immigrants and restless modernization. His inner circle, who shared that same belief, dreamed of an arcadian existence where the ideals of the Constitution were alive and well, while in reality the U.S. embraced materialism, which was bringing about moral decay.

Another American, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963), came from a less privileged background than Adams. Yet what Du Bois achieved was remarkable in that he was able to study at Harvard as a black man. Throughout his writing, he devoted himself to the future of black Americans and Africans. One of the bad habits of vulgar (social) Darwinism was to predict the eventual demise of the dark-skinned races. Du Bois flipped the script, stating that it was the whites who were doomed to decline. As it dissolved social ties and culture, industrialization was already bringing signs of such disintegration. But for blacks there was still hope.

Adams’ and Du Bois’ discussions of decay are both limited. Both see industrialization as a symptom of decay, and seek salvation in a society where development takes different, non-industrial paths. Both are action-oriented, though: they talk about what needs to be done to avoid impending disasters.

To get both progress and degeneration theories right, the two sides must be combined. The story of human Enlightenment is not a simple heroic tale of light versus dark, but also a tale of power and control, of superstition, and of the desire to win. It’s not the story of a unified thinking benignly spreading knowledge and empowering action, but of many different obstacles presenting themselves, in which scientific and technological progress can easily be combined with moral and political decline.

The modern age is frequently described as a period of ‘Disenchantment’, to translate Max Weber’s term Entzauberung. Everything that was once sacred is being sacrificed to increased efficiency and scientific rationality. But we must also see modernity’s Enchantment. Even our present time, with its own affirmation of progress and fascination with new technology and ways of social organization, demonstrates Enchantment. We can only begin to clearly see where we are when we can view the Enlightenment project through this dual gaze.

© Dr Helena Moradi 2022

Helena Moradi is a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University School of Law. She’s focusing on the legitimate use of violence and what rights are worth killing for.

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