Departments

Progress

I have tried, and failed, to disbelieve in progress. My question is not whether, but how. The twentieth century – and let us only say of it that every worst thing that has ever happened, happened in the twentieth century – killed the metaphysical notion of provident inevitability, of Progress as the slope down which History flows. But the worth of a faith in progress is proved not in society, but in the individual.

You may more or less share the sensibility of your age; you may find it unsympathetic, or unapproachably alien. You may fly to the remnants and inheritance of another age for the company of like minds. But however alone you are in it, there is something unworthy and childish in abandoning your own time for the past. Only a coward who would volunteer for such an amputation as to hide from the latest developments, discoveries, creations, thoughts. Only a coward would turn from the unknown, could live out their life happily within some foreknown and mapped-out stretch of time.

We rightly abhor those who would burn old books; but hiding from new books and their authors is the same error. To suppress any part of human experience is to darken the whole.

Progress is not by ascent, but by accumulation. We find that every age, every generation, every city, every circle and school and subculture has its characterizing contribution, it work and its problems. What does not meet them is either addressed to the past, which cannot answer; or to the future, which cannot reward. But only to share the work of others is to be held back by them. Whatever work you propose to do, if you do not mean to keep it only to yourself and God – or to contribute only a footnote to your age – you must allow for progress as a tactical consideration.

In science there is much which seems valuelessly obsolete: etheric vortices, caloric fluid, absolute time. But these retain their place as links in a genealogy of ideas: they were mistakes, but not terminal ones. And what were wrong turns for those who made them become signs and stories of warning for the rest of science against naive materialism, against the applicability throughout the cosmos of the experience of Earth, against the applicability throughout the eons of Earth of the experience of mankind.

Even crank theories have relevance – at the edges, in work which bears that appearance, but is not taken from that well, like Ramanujan or Dalton; and in how ready power is to champion them, like Lysenkoism.

There are eddies, where in the pursuit of a strange end, a familiar thought rings out ahead of its time – Bruno’s inhabited cosmos, Boscovitch’s grains of energy; and there are tragedies, where science take the wrong path so long that it cannot find its way back, and a good idea must be re-invented, like the nebular hypothesis. Under the appearance of successions of obsolescence, science proceeds by accumulation. It even has heroes, like Archimedes who, millennia dead, can make the front cover of a physics journal.

Worked-out systems of ideas have an imperishability and a transposability which can deposit them far from their original purpose: how the Hippocratic system of humors, intended to explain disease, has become the model for modern analyses of personality.

We are told that art is inextricable from the class, the sex, the generation that created it; that our distant appreciation must be inferior – at best, second-hand. Art, certainly cannot mean to you what it meant to those who made it, and those it was made for. You cannot catch all the puns and allusions, or interpret all the symbols. In the age of photography, you cannot recapture the sense of the miraculous in the meticulous realism of the Dutch Masters. But the notion that your circumstances fully determine the reach of your meaningful reaction to art is an injury to individuality. To any given artwork, you will not react like a person of another generation; nor would another person of that same generation have reacted in the same way as the first; nor would another person of your own generation react as you do. Art that is not valent between individuals does not endure. And it is not all lessening in the change. We may without regret say that after Walter Pater, the Mona Lisa means more to us than it did to Leonardo, or to Lisa Gherardini, or to her husband – as long as remember that it meant something different to each of those. We do not only make progress by accumulating works of arts, or by widening the range of subjects and sensibilities that art can address (Nature and ecstasy with the Romantics, horror and terror with the Moderns), but also as every work and every milieu acquires an ever-lengthening wake of associations.

Progress is real gain; but change in the world is less by introduction, than by different emphasis. Each age is distinguished by the kinds of human nature it gives scope to; but all the varieties of human nature are always with us. On the street, you may pass or meet a man whose gravitas would have fitted him to be a senator of Rome; another, hard and hungry, fit to pillage with Huns; another, patient and subtle, a born Schoolman; another, willing and pitiless, a wild-west gunslinger. They will likely be undistinguished, for in any one era, only a few kinds of people have room to unfold themselves; only a few can have or find a place of their own in the world. But they are all always with us as the armory of mankind against the uncertainty of a future as unknowable as (it is to be hoped) very long. The lesson of history is less of cause and effect, than it is a promise and threat which are the same: that whatever we are, some have been before; that whatever we have been, at worst or best, we may yet be again.