On the tiresome notion of “Progress”
“Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.”
– G.K. Chesterton
I’ve been a little obsessive lately.
But no apologies are forthcoming.
Let me explain.
In reflecting on the series of essays I have recently written (with no intention of making them a series), I found that I have returned to a common theme again and again. Take a look. Can you detect it?
Why culture matters
Why you should build a library
How to organize your library
The repository is you: Classic literature and Bob Dylan
On reading and re-reading great literature
God and a thousand lost golf balls
What’s gone wrong in the training of doctors and how to make it right
Why your doctor should read great literature
In a world of immediate communication, limitless information, and instantaneous gratification, we glory in our connectedness, revel in our knowledge and lounge amidst our pleasures. And if ever we are asked to articulate what these blessings (???) truly offer us, we hear our society (and at times, ourselves) chant (all together now),
Progress. It’s a word that insists on saying, We’re going places! Onward and upward! Continuous improvement! Lean forward!
But what does that mean?
Progress by itself needs a definition. It needs terms.
G.K. Chesterton had some choice insights about Progress in one of his earliest works, Heretics,
As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress–that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal… For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress… But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree…I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common.
Again, Progress, in its modern form, simply denotes a direction. Without a “definite creed and cast-iron code of morals” from which to start and a clear visionary goal toward which to work, Progress simply means movement. “Let’s champion movement!”, the cry goes. Toward God? Perhaps. Toward the Devil? Potentially. Towards confusion? Without an established foundation and clarified goal, definitely.
Along with the vague notion of movement that Progress inspires, the only direction it hints at is THE FUTURE. Can you hear it? Leave those shackles, those constraints, those fusty, irrelevant vestiges of the past in the dust where they belong. The present and the future are here to correct the past and to liberate you from silly superstition, outdated mores and ill-gotten “facts”. This doesn’t mean that the past is without mistakes which can be corrected in the here and now. But the present and future don’t corner the market on wisdom. And the past has its own enduring verities and valuable corrections of the many mistakes of modernity.
This rankles adherents to mystical Progress. Instead, they reason that the present and future, by their sheer “modern-ness”, are simply better-informed, smarter and wiser than all that has preceded them. C.S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery”. And he scoffed at it. G.K. Chesterton, likewise, disapprovingly lamented,
“My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.”
And so this is where my recent posts come in. Again and again, I am stunned by the wisdom to be found in timeless faith, enduring tradition and enriching culture. The Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Plato and Aristotle, Plutarch and Cicero, Dante Alighieri and William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne and Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke and T.S. Eliot (and the list goes on) are alive and well. They do more than simply teach us; they ennoble us. They don’t only make us smart; they make us wise. And guess what? They come from the past… and still unparalleled after all this time.
As a Catholic, I believe the Bible (and Church Tradition) provides the foundation stone – the definite creed and cast-iron code of morals – from which to grow. These deep wells of dignity, calling, suffering and grace nourish us, not only about to starting points and destination, but also to the purpose of our journey. And the countless additional works of history, philosophy and literature (from Homer to Eliot) help us become more thoughtful, more insightful as we move to become more gloriously aware of the Divine and more humbly aware of our humanity.
Now that’s Real Progress.
So we must know our Faith and grow in it. And we must seek out these other truth-tellers again and again so that we may continue to flourish and, ultimately, pass our hard-earned wisdom to our children.
And as to the tiresome modern notion of Progress… what of it? There is still hope. C.S. Lewis said it brilliantly,
We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when we do arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.
With respect to modern Progress, we are on the wrong road and we must go back.
It’s the quickest way on.
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