The Roots of Progress

In the shadow of the Great War

The idea of progress fell out of favor in the course of the 20th century. But when exactly, and why?

In a recent essay I alluded to the pivotal role of the World Wars. Here’s a quote that adds weight to this—from Progress and Power, by historian Carl Becker, published in 1936:

For two centuries the Western world has been sustained by a profound belief in the doctrine of progress. Although God the Father had withdrawn into the places where Absolute Being dwells, it was still possible to maintain that the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law, functioning through the conscious purposes or the unconscious activities of men, could be counted on to safeguard mankind against future hazards. However formulated, with whatever apparatus of philosophic or scientific terminology defended, the doctrine was in essence an emotional conviction, a species of religion—a religion which, according to Professor [J. B.] Bury, served as a substitute for the declining faith in the Christian doctrine of salvation …

Since 1918 this hope has perceptibly faded. Standing within the deep shadow of the Great War, it is difficult to recover the nineteenth-century faith either in the fact or the doctrine of progress. The suggestion casually thrown out some years ago by Santayana, that “civilization is perhaps approaching one of those long winters which overtake it from time to time,” seems less perverse now than when it was made. Current events lend credit to the prophets of disaster who predict the collapse of a civilization that seemed but yesterday a permanent conquest of human reason …

At the present moment the world seems indeed out of joint, and it is difficult to believe with any conviction that a power not ourselves—the Idea or the Dialectic or Natural Law—will ever set it right. The present moment, therefore, when the fact of progress is disputed and the doctrine discredited, seems to me a proper time to raise the question: What, if anything, may be said on behalf of the human race? May we still, in whatever different fashion, believe in the progress of mankind?

(Emphasis added.)

I find it fascinating to see that the downfall of the idea of progress began as early as this, after World War I. World War II perhaps simply reinforced an existing trend.

I also find fascinating Becker’s idea that humanity required some sort of safeguard, a “power not ourselves” to “set it right.”

There is no power outside of humanity. We are the masters of our fate, for better or for worse. If there is to be a 21st-century philosophy of progress, it needs to be based not on an Idea or a Dialectic, but on human agency.

Relevant books

Progress and Power

Comment: LessWrong, Reddit

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