Restoring the Fresco of Progress

Wilfred M. McClay

We have become uneasy with the very concept of progress. We are not prepared to give it up entirely; that would be nearly inconceivable. Peel away the ironic surface of even the most insouciant postmodern pose, and you find revealed, startling as a ghost, some brightly colored and long-forgotten fresco, a gaudy metanarrative of progress still silently at work, shaping our choices of ends and means and norms. There are many such hidden frescoes still at work today. The West is still remarkably committed to the idea of purposive action, and resistant to the lure of fatalism, perhaps because rebellion against the binding power of necessity forms the very core of Western identity.

A culture like ours has enormous progressive inertia. It does not necessarily have to acknowledge the existence of its earlier commitments to be propelled or guided by them for a very long time. Nor can it dispense with the underlying frescoes without also dispensing with all of the surfaces that have been painted over them. We have no intention of doing that. But we do not feel quite as ready as we once were to endorse the idea of progress without qualifiers or sneer quotes. This is perhaps the most obvious sign of our unease.

If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we still believe implicitly in the possibility of something that one could legitimately call “progress.” This is nearly inescapable. Even our occasional efforts to sound fatalistic in our speech betray all the things that such speech silently presumes: that, as free and purposeful beings, we cannot help projecting certain ideals or goals, if even only short-range or proximate ones, into the inchoate future. This is particularly so in the United States, where every lamentation has a way of turning into a jeremiad, and thereby into a form of moral exhortation, the polar opposite of fatalism. The language of true fatalism would be silence, and that is not what we are hearing.

But our compulsive belief in progress is being challenged constantly by the honesty of our unbelief. Hence when we speak of progress, it is so often “progress” that we speak of. The use of sneer quotes is often a way of pretending to be superior to the concept being quoted, and to those who would be so naïve or mendacious as to use the words without critical distance. But their use may also be a way of frankly confessing one’s inability to get beyond straddling an issue. It may even be a way of evading the law of noncontradiction, by both asserting and not asserting something at the same time. A way of saying tacitly what was once said biblically: “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief.” (Mark 9: 24)

We have become skeptical about one of the constitutive elements of the modern, post-enlightenment West. And the skepticism runs deep. Not only do we question the inevitability of progress, but the very idea that we would know for sure what progress is, if it indeed does occur.

Some of this diffidence reflects intellectual fashion, or cultural boredom, or the occasional metastasizing of the Western self-critical impulse into a raging self-hatred. But the problem arises not out of psychology, but out of historical reality. The idea of progress, after all, received its first, and perhaps profoundest, shock in the response to the First World War. That conflict’s unprecedented, cataclysmic scale of destruction, its having arisen for the most obscure reasons and then having been carried along, seemingly unstoppably, by its own horrifying momentum, made a mockery of the great progressive assumption: that the growth of knowledge, social organization, and human control over forces of nature would lead steadily and inevitably to greater harmony, prosperity, rationality, and well-being.

Progress has been on shaky ground ever since, and its detractors have found no want of additional evidence to support their case. The rise of maniacal and murderous regimes in the heart of civilized Europe, the many brutalities of the Second World War, the advent of nuclear and other weapons of inconceivable destructive power, the intense and troubling moral self-examination that came with the end of the great European colonial empires (and continues in those societies today, with the growing social tensions posed by postcolonial migration), the massive global inequities in the use of resources and distribution of wealth, and the growing fear that the planet itself cannot provide the means to sustain Western standards of social and economic life—all of these concerns have added to the weight borne by the West in its reconsideration of progress. Many of us see a sign of profound civilizational demoralization in the growing specter of “demographic winter” in the West, as the birthrate in country after country in the developed world plunges beneath replacement levels.

It sometimes seems as if the steady march of progress has, all along, been accompanied by a Döppelgänger, a shadow side, a reversal of Hegel’s famous “cunning of reason,” which has sought to make the march of reason conduce to the benefit of unreason, and to make all that we had thought to be progress into something regressive. Such sweeping pessimism is, in a sense, far too easy, and regards too lightly such triumphs as the abolition of the African slave trade whose 200th anniversary we have just observed, or the many material improvements, such as manifold advances in medicine and nutrition that have brought longer and fuller lives to countless persons all over the globe.

Yet it is more than plausible to argue that what we call “progress in history” has not brought moral progress along with material progress. It is more than plausible to assert that what progress we have made in freeing humankind from the constraints of material necessity has also increased the possibilities for human transgressiveness and wanton cruelty and destructiveness on larger and larger scales. In addition, it has estranged us further from nature, which both our science and our mores regard as non-normative in character, and inhibited the development of resilient individuals who are also capable of sustaining love, empathy, and self-giving. In this starker view, what would appear to be steady progress has actually, in human terms, been steady degradation.

At the very least, one can say that the expansion of human agency, of the growing ability to master the material terms of our existence, has been an ambivalent achievement. Far from bringing inevitable moral improvement, it may even severely impede the moral life, which derives not from a sense of mastery but rather from the acceptance of a life encircled by limitations and interdictions. Far from bringing inevitable happiness, it may even bring on a kind of bottomless despair from which there is no exit, since there is no remaining excuse for one’s failings, and no escape from one’s putative mastery into the absolving fog of irresponsibility, let alone forgiveness. The more we are exclusively in control, the more we are exclusively to blame. The less willing we are to be judged, the less able we are to be forgiven.

Still, though, we presume the possibility of progress, and we need to be able to do so, and to do so more fully and confidently and unapologetically than we now do. We need that belief in progress in order to continue to be what we are, to sustain the things we cherish, and to exercise our moral freedom in the profoundest way available to us: by giving of ourselves for the well-being of others. One might say, more succinctly, that the belief in progress, the narrative structure of the progressive idea, is so thoroughly inscribed in our cultural makeup that we cannot conceive what we would be without it. There are, so to speak, no alternative images beneath the fresco—a fresco is, after all, a work of art painted into the very substance of the wall itself. Dedication to a goal outside of and beyond ourselves serves—if I may be permitted one more use of painterly metaphor—in something like the same capacity as the vanishing point in Renaissance linear perspective, the external point of reference by which the whole picture is brought into a comprehensive and harmonious order, a wholeness that would otherwise be unavailable to it.

For these and other reasons, the idea of progress is a big idea that we cannot do without, and that we can ill afford to hold in disdain. But we need to find better ways of talking about it and thinking about it, ways of chastening it, restraining it, and protecting it against its excesses. It can survive as a big idea, but perhaps only if it is not too big. What this may mean is that progress needs to be liberated from being Progress, from the kind of nineteenth-century faith in Progress that posited it as a substitute for religion, with a secular and immanent eschatology.

The need to sustain the idea of progress, in the face of all its problems, was also the underlying theme of sociologist Robert Nisbet’s grand and gloomy book, published at the tail end of the gloomy 1970s, entitled History of the Idea of Progress. The chief innovation of Nisbet’s book was its argument that the idea of progress is not exclusively modern, but that it had ample antecedents in many ancient and medieval authors and texts. But it is perhaps more noteworthy for my purposes to point out that Nisbet strongly connected the health of the idea of progress with the health of the Western religious tradition. “Any answer,” Nisbet wrote, to the question of “the future of the idea of progress in the West” is going to require an answer to a prior question: “what is the future of Judeo-Christianity in the West?” It was, he argued, a prior belief in the dimension of the sacred in human existence that gave authority to “ideas of time, history, development, and either progress or regress.” Only on the basis of such confidence in the existence of such divine patterning could the West come to be confident that there was also such patterning in the history of the world.

Nisbet was not himself a conventional believer, but he is hardly the only one to have come to similar conclusions about the role of religion in forming many of the most crucially important secular ideas. The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has said similar things in recent years. “For the normative self-understanding of modernity,” he said in a recent interview, reported by Richard Wolin, “Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.”

Although it is important to note that Habermas’s focus here is on equality rather than “progress,” and that he remains firmly committed to strictly secular standards of discourse and judgment, the features he names as byproducts of the belief in universalistic egalitarianism are the very same features that a robust Western belief in the idea of progress would wish to claim for itself. It is also worth noting that, according to Wolin, Habermas’s perspective on these matters has been crucially informed by his dialogues with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, and by his growing concern over the moral implications of unconstrained biological engineering and human cloning—problematic fruits of an uncritical idea of scientific or technological progress, and one in which the formulation of strictly secular grounds for the imposition of limits has been slow and uncertain in coming.

It seems inescapable that the perspective offered by the traditional Biblical religious heritage of the West, by what Nisbet called “Judeo-Christianity,” has not only been a originating source for the idea of progress, but is and remains the best source for the critique of that idea’s hypertrophy. The Christian faith gives us resources for a better understanding of that idea. The Christian faith explains the misuses of the idea of progress, including the overconfident identification of man’s purposes with God’s, as paradigmatic examples of sin at work, insisting that the dynamic of progress in history, while genuine, is also by its very nature full of moral peril for us, precisely because of the kind of beings we are.

What original sin is for the individual, the “duality of history’s dynamic” (to use Reinhold Niebuhr’s formulation) is for the idea of progress in history; the second is merely the amplification of the first. What the confident nineteenth century lacked was a sense of the perilousness of progress. But the bloody twentieth century supplied what was lacking. We now understand the peril. We have “progressed” this far, to such a level of self-understanding. But now we risk being overwhelmed by the sense of peril. Having discovered that Progress is not a god, we are now inclined to deny its existence entirely. This seems unwise and unserious. For we do still believe in progress, in some form. The fresco is still there, however smudged and neglected and even painted over.

What we need is a chastened but strengthened understanding of the idea of progress, and of the possibility of genuine human altruism, that has the capacity to hold together a strong sense of both the promise and the peril that our efforts in the world inevitably entail.

Such an understanding needs to put to rest the myths of human plasticity, and begin with a subtler sense of what sorts of beings we are. It should affirm that we humans are, as bearers of God’s image, creatures of enormous creativity and capacity for love and rational discernment—and yet acknowledge that we are creatures in rebellion, harboring depths of utter perversity and wanton destructiveness, the kind of creatures who are capable of appallingly hardhearted deafness to the anguish of others, and who will spray-paint graffiti on masterpieces and anonymously vandalize the computers of people we will never meet, just for the sheer fun of it. It should recognize that both are always present possibilities, and that it is just when we are sure we have advanced morally that we are most in danger.

Progress in history has turned from a complacent march into a tense tightrope walk. We can see now that every step we take not only carries us further along, which makes us hopeful, but also makes a possible fall more calamitous, which makes us terrified. We cannot afford to stop, but we also cannot afford to fall. So we must be very careful where we step, and how we step, and must consider where we are going. And to do so, with the right set of expectations, we need to return to the One Source that explains just what kinds of strange and willful, but also noble and imaginative, creatures we humans are.