To the classical philosophers, history was cyclical. J.B. Bury observed that thought in ancient Greece was dominated by the idea of cycles, and that time was itself the enemy of man to the degree it eroded the value of the corporeal world. Marcus Aurelius wrote that the rational human mind “stretches forth into the infinitude of Time, and comprehends the cyclical Regeneration of all things, and discerns that our children will see nothing fresh, just as our fathers too never saw anything more than we.” Not until modernity, as Daniel Boorstin noted, would “the idea of novelty in history” be woven into the fabric of Western thought.
The idea of Progress can first be seen in the writings of the Epicureans, and most predominantly in their acceptance Democritus’ atomism as an explanation of the universe moving forward without the intervention of the gods. In later years, Xenophanes—who viewed time as a human projection—wrote “the gods did not reveal to men all things in the beginning, but men through their own search find in the course of time that which is better.” Plato’s The Laws depicts human progress as an evolutionary process of development from the state of nature to their higher tiers of culture and politics, while in Aristotle, the development of historical self-consciousness is implied in his recognition of his own place in the development of thought. Aristotle acutely understood the debt he owed to his own teachers, and acknowledged that his own ideas were the direct product of his reflections on Plato and the pre-Socratics. This implicit recognition of the idea of progress led Werner Jaeger to observe that Aristotle was “the inventor of the notion of intellectual development in time.” And so the secular theory of Progress was born, but it would not be until the seventeenth century—the age of the scientific method and unprecedented technological advancements—that Progress would transform into what Christopher Dawson called “the working religion” of modernity.
Following the War of Spanish Succession, the Abbe de Saint-Pierre first “clearly formulated” the idea of Progress “when he was conducting his propaganda for the formation of a kind of League of Nations which should ensure perpetual peace in Europe.” Although the doctrine of Progress was a by-product of Saint-Pierre’s schemes to reorder the fabric of international politics, the idealistic priest was convinced that political systems and government could manufacture a perfect human society. In 1773 he published his Project to Perfect the Government of States, in which he articulated a view of history animated by the belief that civilization develops through a succession of stages in which laws, security, and the arts are improved by the passing of each generation. Saint-Pierre was convinced that Heaven could be found in the earthly city, but that the cultivation of this secular paradise was dependent upon a series of wise reigns in the European states. To Saint-Pierre, European civilization was in its infancy and the dawn of a perfect future lay in the enlightened vistas of tomorrow. This was optimism, and naiveté, at its height.
Saint-Pierre’s terrestrial paradise was predicated upon a faith in omnipotent government and the corresponding view that political institutions are capable of creating happiness among men. Previous failures of governments to attain political perfection, he argued, resulted from the fact that history’s most talented thinkers did not devote their energies to the study of politics. He asserted that modern political theory in England and France represented a substantial advancement when compared to the best works of even Plato and Aristotle. In Saint-Pierre’s vision of Progress, the key to political perfection and universal happiness resided in the advancement of ideas, the liberation from old norms, and the perpetual improvement of manners and morals. Only through war, superstition (i.e., religion), and the jealousy of rulers has the progress of civilization been slowed. Beginning with the time of Bacon, however, Saint-Pierre argued that European civilization awoke from its intellectual slumber and once again embraced the liberality and learning of the Greek philosophers. The expansion of commerce, the study of mathematics and physical sciences within the universities, and the growing universality of print, he maintained, each contributed to the liberation of Europe from the authority of its medieval masters. It was optimism un-tethered from the realities of both human nature and historical circumstance.
To attain this future Progress, the intellectuals of the eighteenth century reached back to embrace the classical tradition as an alternative to the age of “superstition.” As Joseph Priestley wrote immediately before the French Revolution, the apologists of Progress understood their cause as one exalting “a change from darkness to light, from superstition to sound knowledge and from a most debasing servitude to a state of the most exalted freedom. It is a liberating of all the powers of man from that variety of fetters by which they have hitherto been held.” Priestley’s optimism was fueled by the belief that civilization—itself an abused term—was determined to move away from the “superstition” of the Middle Ages and toward a world animated by ideas, independent thinking, and egalitarianism. In Priestly, the philosopher and discoverer of oxygen, the English found their progressive voice.
Across the Channel, late eighteenth century Progressivism found expression in the writings of the Marquis de Condorcet—the ideological heir to Saint-Pierre. As the high-priest of Reason, Condorcet believed in the perfectibility of man and did not hide his disdain for the Middle Ages:
During this disastrous stage we shall witness the rapid decline of the human mind from the heights that it had attained, and we shall see ignorance following in its wake…Nothing could penetrate that profound darkness save a few shafts of talent, a few rays of kindness and magnanimity. Man’s only achievements were theological day-dreaming and superstitious imposture, his only morality religious intolerance. In blood and tears, crushed between priestly tyranny and military despotism, Europe awaited the moment when a new enlightenment would allow her to be reborn free, heiress to humanity and virtue.
Like his fellow liberals Voltaire and Lafayette, Condorcet believed in the supreme power of ideas and the primacy of the intellect to free the European mind from the barbarism and superstition to which it was allegedly bound for over a millennia. Upon the lofty heights of individual reason and science, the liberals of eighteenth century sought to build a society of unbounded perfection. It would be ordered, peaceful, and imbued with the spirit of equality. Eager to displace kings and cardinals, princes and clerics, the new liberal elite erected an aristocracy of reason, science, and brotherhood—or at least they thought. Animated by a belief that human nature had no intrinsic boundaries to inhibit an ever-forward movement in knowledge and morals, the apologists of Progress became the priests of a new religion with humanity as its god and liberalism as its creed.
In contemporary politics, Progress has become the genteel nom de plume of liberal thought—it is the fashionable pseudonym for eighteenth century rationalism that is distilled to modernity through nineteenth century devotees including Comte and Marx. Propelled by a faith in the righteousness of change, sentimental humanitarianism, and revolutionary zeal, it has its own prophets and apocalyptic theology. As a pretender claimant to Christianity’s throne, it has long reigned, as Dawson noted, as the working religion of the West.
Now, to be Progressive is to hold specific beliefs about the role of government, to understand political economy exclusively through the lens of equality of condition, and to favor the supremacy of the state over religious institutions. The philosophical foundations of Progressivism are constructed upon a bedrock of secular, unabashedly anti-religious sentiment that tolerates no opposition. To be Progressive is to adopt an outlook that permeates every aspect of life—an outlook dependent upon the undermining of traditional norms, customs, conventions, and social rules. It is to question the integrity of our cultural patrimony and to discard the morals and standards that always governed civilized people. In their zeal to embrace the newest trends and fads, Progressives confuse innovation with progress, and indiscriminately apply identical meaning to both terms.
The appeal of Progress is that it constantly aims toward the new, the exciting, and the unknown. Progressivism, however, is not concerned with the totality of the human drama; rather, in its popular form, it focuses almost exclusively upon material advancement, forgetting that material victories often invite spiritual defeats. Ignoring Fustel de Coulange’s observation that religion and spirituality lay at the heart of every culture, Progressives are content to fix their gaze upon those tangible aspects of civilization that can be objectively measured or empirically proven. Shackled to the cause and effect rationalism fashionable three centuries ago, the contemporary Progressive lives entirely within the world he can see and scoffs at the idea that something may lay beyond his comprehension. Rejecting Plato’s maxim that true wisdom is founded upon a reflective understanding of one’s own ignorance, the modern Progressive is obsessed with the so-called objectivism of science, mathematics, and individualism. Uncomfortable with his lack of omniscience, the Progressive rejects everything beyond his knowledge as inconsequential, mythological, or false. He is the modern archetype of Plato’s cave dweller; the contemporary expositor of the fallen man par excellence.
The irony of modern Progressivism, however, is that at some point, it became old, outdated, and stale. It lost whatever elements of reform or improvement once contributed to its vibrancy and quickly became nothing more than a vehicle for left-wing radicalism. As an ideology, it bears little resemblance even to its intellectual forbearers and reflects a static theory of governing. Suffering from a lack of imagination, the idea of Progress has revealed its susceptibility to age, innate contradiction, and dullness in the same way as other ideologies that promise more than ideas can deliver. Progress is a creature of its time and place—a three-century old vision of tomorrow. Recognizing this truth may ultimately provide the West with its path forward.
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