Progressivism: The Snobbery of Chronology
Both of these attitudes are prejudices, but the exposure of neither one is a justification of its opposite. Intellectual errors, like moral vices, usually come in pairs.
A second justification for Progressivism is the fact of evolution, which seems to apply to both the growth of the individual and the growth of the human race. As we grow, it seems we get smarter, bigger, stronger, and (in those senses) better, both individually and collectively.
Yes, but we don’t get happier, or holier, or wiser. There are more, not fewer suicides (especially among young people) today than in recorded history; and nothing is a more telling index of unhappiness than that. We are not more saintly than our ancestors but more decadent. And we speak of “modern knowledge” but not “modern wisdom.” In fact, we still speak of “ancient wisdom.” There has been not a single Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas for the last 750 years. Which is more important, wisdom or cleverness? Sanctity or power? Happiness or efficiency?
A third argument for Progressivism is the fact that there has indeed been progress, in fact obvious, automatic, and spectacular progress, in one field: technology. And since this has both causes and effects in every other field, it seems reasonable to believe in progress there as well.
But it isn’t. Cleverness in inventing machinery has no tendency to cause wisdom or virtue in the inventor. If anything, it causes pride, hubris, and addiction to the power the new machines give us. And that is regress rather than progress in wisdom and virtue and happiness. If “all power tends to corrupt,” the same must be true of intellectual, scientific, and technological power. Why don’t we make that inference? Might it be because the addict always lives in denial?
But (so goes a fourth argument) there seems to have been progress not just in the sciences but also in the humanities. War and Peace is better than Beowulf, and Picasso is better than the Lascaux cave paintings, and Stravinsky is better than Gregorian chant.
The answer to that is very simple: No, they’re not. Name one 20th-century Homer, or Dante, or Shakespeare, or Rembrandt, or Beethoven. The humanities are an unmitigated disaster area today. Nine-tenths of our English departments are infected with Deconstructionists and other radicals, who either reduce great works of art to “power relations” among “race, class, and gender,” or else deny that art works have any independent meaning at all. That sort of infection does not respond to arguments, only to exorcists.
A fifth argument points to the virtue of hope. This is one of the three greatest things in the world, one of the three “theological virtues,” along with faith and love. How can you have hope if you don’t believe in progress? The two ideas seem almost identical.
But there are at least four differences. First, progress is faith in yourself, or in humanity, to pull itself up by its own bootstraps; hope is faith in God’s grace. Second, the idea of progress means that long-range improvement is guaranteed; but hope, like faith, is a leap, not a guarantee. Third, progress is a collective idea, but hope is an individual virtue. Fourth, progress means something this-worldly, but hope’s object is other-worldly. (Paradoxically, hope for heaven does have powerful consequences for this world too: throughout history, those who have contributed the most to the improvement of this world have always been those who had a lively hope for the next.)