The Idea of Progress: Once Again, with Feeling

Monday, July 30, 2001

Almost four years ago I began work on a book that now has the working title Truth and Beauty: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Human Accomplishment. It is a flamboyantly ambitious book, as the title suggests, but not in the way that most people assume. I have no overarching thesis about the trajectory of civilization that I want to test. Instead, I am fascinated by the pageant of human accomplishment and am trying to capture that pageant whole.

Think of human accomplishment as the résumé of our species, the things we have done that make us proud to be human, our cumulative legacy as a species—accomplishments as varied as the Chartres Cathedral and the abacus, the Brandenberg concertos and the water wheel, the Nichomachean Ethics and penicillin. Now imagine that we can take the range of human accomplishment from the Chartres Cathedral to the abacus and assemble a large sample of such events. Imagine similar inventories of the people who did those things, ranging from Mozart to the man who invented the first successful plastic (John Hyatt, seeking a substitute for ivory in billiard balls). Imagine each of these discrete accomplishments as a line in a database, accompanied by variables designating the prevailing political system, level of wealth, and population of the country where it happened and such variables as the education, age, gender, and parentage of the people who were responsible for the accomplishment. Think of all the fascinating questions we could ask of such a database and all the winding pathways it could take us down. Such is the nature of the enterprise I have undertaken.

If you want to govern successfully, to construct social and political arrangements that work, your only choice is to draw on the wisdom of the past.

I am still unable to say much about the conclusions, for all of them are still subject to major revision before publication. But while I still cannot be sure what the conclusions of the book will be, it is oddly true that I can already be sure what the conclusions of the reviews of the book will be. I think it is safe to say that the book will be described as Eurocentric, sexist, elitist, and I suppose racist too. It will be none of those things, if those words are understood seriously. But of course they are not. They are the mudballs of today’s discourse, labels for enemies of contemporary intellectual fashion, and it is impossible to write honestly about human accomplishment without running headlong up against contemporary intellectual fashion.

By contemporary intellectual fashion, I am referring to the constellation of views that come to mind when one hears the words multicultural, gender, deconstruct, politically correct, and Dead White Males. In a broader sense, contemporary intellectual fashion encompasses as well the widespread disdain in certain circles for technology and the scientific method. Embedded in this mind-set is hostility to the idea that discriminating judgments are appropriate in assessing art and literature, to the idea that hierarchies of value exist, hostility to the idea that an objective truth exists. Postmodernism is the overarching label that is attached to this perspective.

I am happy to engage in serious discussion with those who accept that technology and affluence are a net plus but who worry about their troubling side effects. Spare me, however, the sensitive souls who deplore our high-tech, materialistic world, but whose idea of the simple life comes from an Eddie Bauer catalog.

I do not want to seem to be creating an artificial bogeyman. My own view is that these people are isolated, confined to a small segments of American life. But since those small segments include the liberal arts departments of our leading universities, they do in fact determine contemporary intellectual fashion. Unfortunately, they also include some large proportion of people who are assigned to review books for the New York Times. The reason I know that the postmodernists will hate the book is because I already know this much about the content of Truth and Beauty: it will be doing its damnedest to restore the idea of progress—the idea that history has a direction, the idea that human action has been, and is, making the world a better place.

The idea of progress was the reigning intellectual paradigm in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It seemed self-evident that mankind was progressing, not just economically and technologically but as a civilized and moral species. Then came World War I. Then came Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, making one wonder if mankind was going backward. Then the disillusionment seeped into a broader intellectual rejection of progress that remains with us today. There is a reason for this rejection. If you believe in the idea of progress, you also believe in some other dangerous ideas.

Robert Nisbet, one of the twentieth century’s foremost conservative intellectuals, wrote a book late in his career called History of the Idea of Progress in which he spelled them out. He called them five "crucial premises" of the idea of progress. They were "belief in the value of the past; conviction of the nobility, even superiority, of Western civilization; acceptance of the worth of economic and technological growth; faith in reason and in the kind of scientific and scholarly knowledge that can come from reason alone; and finally, belief in the intrinsic importance, the ineffaceable worth of life on this earth." My contention is that all these premises are valid—objectively true. I consider each seriatim.

Belief in the value of the past. This is a classic conservative sentiment, identified most often with Edmund Burke. The accumulated wisdom of mankind speaks to us today. Why do I say "objectively true"? Here’s an example. Suppose you are in my position and are setting out to assemble a database of human accomplishment in the field of, let us say, the understanding of human nature as it relates to social behavior—a critical topic in deciding how societies should be governed. Here are a few of the works that must be in your inventory: the Socratic dialogues, Aristotle’s Ethics, Augustine’s City of God, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Locke’s Second Treatise, Spinoza’s Ethics, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, and the Federalist Papers.

The most recent of the titles I just listed dates from the late 1700s. Now contemplate the items in the inventory that date from the twentieth century. What have we learned that is truly new about human nature in the last two centuries? I submit that the body of even the best work consists overwhelmingly of commentary on insights first expressed centuries ago. Where does Freudianism, its intellectual position so commanding fifty years ago, stand today? Remnants are left but only remnants. What is left of Marx? Virtually nothing. If you want to govern successfully, to construct social and political arrangements that work, your only choice is to draw on the wisdom of the past.

Nisbet’s second premise refers to one’s conviction of the nobility, even superiority, of Western civilization. Here is a touchy one, particularly given my personal history. I spent six of the most formative years of my adult life living in Asia, my two oldest children are half-Asian, and I still prefer some aspects of Asian culture to Western culture. Having said that, the second premise is still hard to argue with. Among the 7,000 events in my science and technology inventory is a stunning array of accomplishments from East Asia, overwhelmingly from China—stunning both for their importance and for the dates at which they occurred. Magnetic compasses were in use in China in 500 b.c. The first reference to their use in Europe dates from a.d. 1180. China invented the sternpost rudder, a crucial development in naval architecture, in about 200 b.c. Europe figured that one out more than 1,400 years later. The list goes on. These accomplishments will find an admiring description in the book. And yet it is also true that among the 7,000 items in the science and technology inventory, only 2 percent come out of East Asia. Suppose I limit the inventory to events occurring during the last millennium. In that case, 99 percent of the events come from Europe and North America and 1 percent from everywhere else. This is not a function of Eurocentrism. Nobody from any culture can come up with a list that does much to those percentages.

Does this vindicate the "nobility, even superiority" of Western civilization? Not by itself. But the other inventories, of music, literature, the visual arts, and philosophy, tell similar stories—some spectacularly wonderful work out of East Asia but easily lost in the profusion of accomplishment in the West. On what dimension can one make a good empirical case that Western civilization is not superior?

Nisbet’s third "crucial premise" is acceptance of the worth of economic and technological growth. Every author has his crotchets and prejudices, which make it hard for him to take seriously people who disagree with him on certain topics, and I’m afraid we’ve just come to one of mine. I cannot rid myself of the belief that 99 percent of the moaning and groaning about economic and technological growth is hypocritical cant. On every measurable dimension of human well-being, the last three centuries have brought sensational improvement. Another way of thinking about this problem is to ask oneself this question: Can you think of any earlier moment in history in which you would prefer to live your life? At first blush the answer may be yes. For someone like me, the America of 1776 seems attractive. But then one starts to think about the reality of life in 1776. Even disregarding the big issues—life expectancy, for example—do I really want to live with eighteenth-century dentistry? Plumbing?

I am happy to engage in serious discussion with those who accept that technology and affluence are a net plus but who worry about their troubling side effects. Spare me, however, the sensitive souls who deplore our high-tech, materialistic world, but whose idea of the simple life comes from an Eddie Bauer catalog. Do technology and economic growth create problems? Of course. But Maurice Chevalier’s comment when asked about whether he minded growing old—"Not when I consider the alternative"—applies to technology and economic growth as well.

There is a magnificence about Homo sapiens at his best that we need to start acknowledging again.

Nisbet’s fourth crucial premise refers to faith in reason and in the kind of scientific and scholarly knowledge that can come from reason alone. We live in a contradictory time. It has never been more obvious that technological growth is underwritten by ruthlessly severe logic. Logic and reason have always played this role in technological development, of course, but the bare bones of it have seldom been so close to the surface of our everyday experience. A computer chip and the software it runs are monuments to Aristotelian logic, towers of "if-thens."

And yet disdain for logic and the scientific method is everywhere. Truth and Beauty will run up against this mind-set most obviously in its discussion of scientific accomplishments. But I think Nisbet’s fourth premise will have its most intriguing application to the discussion of accomplishment in music, the visual arts, and literature.

Aristotle, writing in the Ethics, makes an argument about human enjoyment that I think is brilliant and absolutely accurate. John Rawls calls it "the Aristotelian Principle." It goes as follows: "Other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities . . . , and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity." In other words, what we enjoy—I use "enjoy" in its most profound sense—is using our abilities to the fullest. The Aristotelian Principle lends itself to systematic, even quantitative, investigation. Let me offer a simple example via a thought experiment.

Suppose we take a random sample of 1,000 adults and give them two novels to read: Pride and Prejudice and The Bridges of Madison County. We ask them to state their preference—not which book is "better" in an abstract sense but which they prefer as a reading experience, in terms that simple. Now we take the same 1,000 adults and we give them the SAT verbal test. What will the relationship be between SAT verbal score and their preference? From everything we know about the reading habits of people at different levels of verbal intelligence, there will be a strong relationship. The smarter you are, the more likely that you prefer Pride and Prejudice. Why? Because Pride and Prejudice is, in truth, fine literature, and Bridges is, in truth, poor literature.

Truth exists. Beauty exists. Mankind’s collective yearning for them is what makes our species worth valuing.

For people who were moved by Bridges and bored by Pride and Prejudice, Bridges is in fact the better novel—for them. But we will have proved an empirical relationship between ability and preferences. That relationship is the statistical outcropping of the Aristotelian Principle at work. "Other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities . . . , and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity." Embedded in that relationship is a subversive truth: that a symphony, painting, sculpture, drama, novel—any artistic work—engages our intelligence as well as our emotions. Indeed, if it engages our most profound emotions, it does not do so just viscerally, sometimes not even viscerally, but through emotional responses mediated by our reasoned appreciation of what we are hearing, seeing, or reading.

The last of Nisbet’s five premises is belief in the intrinsic importance, the ineffaceable worth of life on this earth. This issue is not as empirically clear-cut as the others I have reviewed but I will offer this proposition: young adults may strive to accomplish great things because of the lure of the money or power or fame that comes with success, but these motives fade as people mature to be replaced by satisfaction in the doing itself. As I spend my days retracing the contributions that men and women have made to the human résumé, I very seldom get a sense of triumphalism or of hubris. On the contrary, I have a much more vivid sense of the great creators and scientists as craftsmen sitting at their benches, struggling to get it right because to get it right, to do something exceedingly well, is one way in which we validate the "ineffaceable worth of life on this earth." In this, I also see a link between those who accomplish great things and those who accomplish small ones. For precisely that attitude which has been shared by the greatest of our composers, poets, entrepreneurs, and scientists is shared as well by carpenters, plumbers, and maybe the owner of the pizza parlor down the street. It is shared by everyone who takes pride in being very good at what he does.

Years ago, I came across a bit of trivia that captured my imagination. It seems that when they built the great gothic cathedrals of Europe, some of the gargoyles were carved high on the cathedral walls, behind cornices, in places that could not be seen from the ground. In fact, at the time they were carved, the stonemasons had no reason to believe that anyone would ever see them. They were carved nonetheless with the same exquisite care as all the others. It was said of the stonemasons who made those never-to-be-seen gargoyles that they carved for the eye of God.

The image of the stonemason chipping painstakingly on an object that will never be seen captures the essence of the spirit of human accomplishment. It is to me also a heroic image. There is a magnificence about Homo sapiens at his best that we need to start acknowledging again.

None of this is meant to deny our defects. We human beings are in many ways a sorry lot, prone to every manner of vanity and sin and error. The human pageant has been filled with wrong turns, backsliding, and horrible crimes. But our species, problematic as it is, has two compensating virtues, and they are the reason for the title of the book. In closing, let me spell them out.

The first is the abiding impulse of human beings to understand, to seek out the inner truth of things, and the capacity to succeed in that quest. We never do it all at once, and often the increments are so small and so infrequent that even the appearance of progress is hard to detect. But as individuals we are able to discover many small truths and, as a species, as time goes on, to converge on Truth in its large and final form.

The other impulse is Homo sapiens’s abiding attraction to beauty. Some of the earliest artifacts of the species evince the impulse to adorn, to decorate, to create something that has no purpose but to be pleasing to the human eye or ear, to our sense of taste or touch, to our internal sense of what is beautiful. A lucky few of us are able to create beauty; all of us have some corner in our souls that yearns for it.

Truth and beauty. Keats tells us they are one and the same—"Beauty is truth, truth beauty"—and his nineteenth-century romanticism still seems apt. We needn’t push the thought too far—some truths are unlovely and some beauty has only the most tenuous relationship to any truth. But in the pageant of human accomplishment, truth and beauty have been foci, ends toward which the human spirit inclines.

A leading spokesman for contemporary intellectual fashion, Duke professor of English literature Stanley Fish, said proudly a few years ago of modern literary criticism—deconstructionism—that it "relieves me of the obligation to be right . . . and demands only that I be interesting." It was a silly thing for a grown man to say and a criminal thing for a teacher to say. But its very foolishness is a sign of how transitory contemporary intellectual fashion must prove to be. Truth exists. Beauty exists. Mankind’s collective yearning for them is what makes our species worth valuing. Against the backdrop of these abiding truths, no competing fiction can long be even "interesting."