An understanding of progress and its adherents was not just of academic curiosity to Christopher Dawson. It was central to understanding the good life and preventing those who misunderstood history from gaining control and imposing the will of man upon the creation of God…
“What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say ‘Look, this is new?’ No, it has already existed, long ago before our time.”—Ecclesiastes
While still quite young in life as well as young in his writing career, the extraordinary mind of Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) focused on the problem of order and the role of the human person within God’s economy of grace. In what ways were justice and order related, he wondered, and, most troubling, could a man possess free will within God’s ultimate providence? How could God be sovereign while and if His most profound creation, man, made choices?
For an answer—even if a partial one—Dawson could have consulted scripture or philosophy or the great body of folklore and myth. He could have looked through any one of these or all of these and more.
Not surprisingly, especially given where Dawson would take these thoughts throughout his extensive writing career, he tried to place these questions within the context of the human experience, and even human thought in the context of intellectual evolution or de-evolution. Thus, while ideas greatly matter, they matter most when understood within their own history, development, adaptation, and application.
The interwar period of twentieth-century Europe accepted—without question—the notion that all history and human action moved toward some end point, generally a happy if not paradisiacal one. Dawson feared that this idea, called progress, had become so ingrained as an absolute in the human mind by the 1920s that no one questioned it as a fact to which all must submit. Even the devastation of the Great War (1914-1918) did little to attenuate the belief in progress. That war had been waged in the name of progress, but now the cost was, perhaps, too bloody for interwar Europeans to contemplate as frivolous. Could that entire generation of young men have died for less than nothing, for a phantom idea?
No, apparently not.
Yet, Dawson cautioned, no one in human history had carried such a belief until the eighteenth century. During that century’s so-called “enlightenment,” the belief in progress appeared on the cultural and philosophical scene, almost ex nihilo. Could it be that the moderns had finally understood something that no other people, East or West, in history had ever recognized? Most unlikely, he knew. Instead, the belief in progress was a new type of religion, a faith that even our wrong actions in this world had ultimate meaning and purpose.
Whether in the ancient worlds of China, India, or Greece, all great thinkers and cultures had accepted the belief that human existence moved in cycles, endlessly repeating no matter how many variations of each event, epoch, or person might come into being. If history progressed at all, the ancients thought, it did so against the willful and desired return to the golden age at the beginning of all things. “To the vast majority of the human race,” Dawson wrote in 1927, “change has always seemed evil, and the Age of Gold lies in the distant past.” Heraclitus and the pre-Socratics especially worried about man being trapped within the inevitable and suffocating cycles of birth, middle age, and death and within the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, and winter. They worried that the Urstoff—fire, air, water, or soil—has broken apart and would come together again in ways men could never comprehend fully.
Even the most “progressive”-oriented of the great Greeks, Aristotle, believed that all things move through cycles, ultimately. Within each individual cycle, there might very well be free will and individual actions and decisions, but the cycles of history overwhelmed all nuances and distinctions. Granted, according to Aristotle, every single thing in the created order has purpose, but its purpose is limited to its own cycle, not to those cycles to follow. In those cycles, another Socrates would arise, another Trojan War, another Thermopylae, but another nonetheless.
While many historians have argued that modern belief in progress came from the Old Testament, Dawson believed that this could only have happened as a corruption of Hebraic teaching. The views of Ecclesiastes represent much of the Jewish skepticism about the significance or meaning of man’s actions in the here and now. Still, Dawson argued, of all ancient peoples, the Jews understood that some form of grace—tangible or otherwise—would be necessary to break humanity out of its own cycles of rise and fall and its false belief that it could—through the actions of women and men—claim our own redemption.
As mentioned above, the belief in progress in history might very well have its roots in scripture, but only if those who advocate progress distort the message of scripture so fundamentally as to make it essentially unrecognizable. All modern ideologies, Dawson knew, were simply perversions of old truths, those truths taken out of context and exaggerated to insanity. Communism exaggerates the need for community, fascism exaggerates the need for patriotism, and progress exaggerates the need for meaning and purpose.
Understood properly, the Old Testament repeatedly warned man against and about his own hubris, while it also promised justice. That justice, though, came from God and could rarely be found in this world. When justice came in this world, it did so to promote eternal justice. Even when injustice (the norm) came in this world, it did so to promote eternal justice. Justice, as understood completely, would come in the next world. “Here then we have a conception of history which is clearly progressive,” Dawson wrote, “but it is a progress which fulfills itself only through the interposition of supernatural forces, not through the natural course of human development.”
The progressives of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, Dawson argued, had secularized a sacred concept, believing that God or man would create a world of justice, here and now. Thus, to progressives, those who support progress support God and man. Those who reject progress reject God and man.
In such simplicity, only bullets—especially in the back of the head in some Nazi or Communist prison—could make all good and equal.
As such, an understanding of progress and its adherents was not just of academic curiosity to Dawson. It was central to understanding the good life and preventing those who misunderstood history from gaining control and imposing the will of man upon the creation of God.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Sisyphus” (1549) by Tiziano Vecelli (1490-1576), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.