History of the Idea of Progress 
by Robert Nisbet.
Heinemann, 370 pp., £8.50, November 1980, 0 435 82657 3
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Is there or is there not good reason to believe that the experience of being alive is still on the whole improving for the majority of human beings? And if there is, is there good reason to expect this improvement to persist into the reasonably near, the imaginatively accessible, future? The idea of progress involves the adoption of at least two very different perspectives. The first, plainly, is a vision backwards in time, broadly flattering the past for its prowess in having generated the way we live now. The backward face of progress is a logical correlate of the complacencies of the present. We felicitate the past for its having brought us about. No such vision is likely to be utterly unambivalent, regret being as intrinsic to the human condition as is hope. But even in the stark circumstances of this country now, it would be a wholly implausible claim to make about the consciousness of the majority of its population that they see life here as on balance less good than they believe it to have been half a century ago. There is no doubt that the practical preconditions for these attitudes are under very active menace. But, in contrast with the experienced past at least, there are also many excellent reasons why the attitudes should nonetheless prevail. Any past with which the present life of this society as a whole could be negatively contrasted would have to be recollected in a sentimental and heavily selective manner. The vision backwards from the present can, of course, readily be misjudged. But there is nothing inherently murkier or more bemusing about it than there is to any ambitious interpretation of human experience. The second constitutive perspective of the idea of progress, the vision forwards into the future, is necessarily more venturesome. Human experience encourages the making of predictions, discreet and indiscreet. But insofar as the idea of progress prescribes what the main significance of their lives will be for human beings far into the future, it involves predictions that are of a degree of indiscretion for which human experience offers no rational encouragement whatsoever. As for guessing the existential significance of the distant future of the species as a whole we are, and we will always remain, some way out of our cognitive depth.

Because it more or less brutally yokes together so many types of practical and evaluative consideration progress is unlikely in principle to be both a clear and an uncontentious category of social self-understanding. Since it is such a global category and since what it aims to render more intelligible is the situation of societies in time, its significance is also always as much a matter of sentiment as it is simply one of causal understanding. To write the history of such an idea, even in its retrospective guise, is at least to attempt an interpretation of the Western historical experience in its entirety. To write it with conviction might well require in addition at least some expectations about the status of its prospective guise – as a guess about our own futures and those of our more imaginatively accessible descendants.

There are certainly grounds today for suspecting the prospects for the human future to be inauspicious. There do appear to be quite deeply sited practical contradictions within the huge increase of man’s control over nature and the agreeable extension of material comforts for many which this increase has made possible. Even the more dashing demonstrations of our acquired cognitive skills have had unnerving consequences. It is probably true by now that human beings for the first time in their history knowingly possess the power to wipe out their own species; and, looked at on a generous enough time-scale, it might even be true that they have been actively preparing this outcome for a considerable time. Intense regret at the acquisition of these powers is eminently rational, if pretty undirective in practice. (And it certainly does not necessarily confer rationality on any particular practical course chosen in order to express it.) What it does do, however, is to put progress in its prospective guise blatantly in jeopardy. In the face of these evident hazards, the social and political resources of which we dispose (and through which we must seek as best we can to respond) are far from reassuring. The cultural modalities of modern capitalist societies themselves, both at the level of individual consciousness and at that of collective political choice, look increasingly crass and imprudent, while the brutality and incompetence of Communist states casts a spuriously gentle light upon the deformities of their ideological enemies. The view that human existence is bound on balance to improve for most from now on is weakly supported by present experience. The future is something which we fear, even if it does still titillate the ear.

This may reflect an imaginative paralysis of our causal understanding or it may reflect simply an improvement in our intellectual judgment. (It is hard soberly to imagine a human future at any point in time which did not offer some serious grounds for rational fear.) But on either reading it makes it far easier for us to frame an understanding of the idea of progress in its retrospective than in its prospective guise. We may well continue to hope. But, for us, the expectation of a guaranteed future is virtually a token of derangement. A history of the idea of progress so understood is a threnody for the Western intellectual experience, a celebration of the past which made us possible and at the same time a mourning at the deathbed of this past and at the birth of a future which cannot henceforward be trusted to emulate this astonishing feat. This intense temporal narcissism is ludicrous enough in itself. But it is not arbitrary. Because of the experience of at least the last three and a half decades, to consider the idea of progress today is necessarily to hold a mirror up to a major shift in modern consciousness. Because we not merely are so confused but also know ourselves to be so confused, a strongly distorting mirror is likely to be more illuminating than one which, with heedless fidelity, reproduces the full range of existing confusion. The most striking image perhaps would wound our own narcissism very intimately, disclosing deep antinomies within the intellectual tradition out of which we still very much constitute our identities (setting reason, for example, over against human concern) and portraying the intense moral fastidiousness of the Western experience as a product of protracted historical self-deception. In place of such self-deception, it would urge us to take the human condition altogether more as this used to come, as a condition of finitude, bluntly and for its physically given duration. In the long run we are all dead. It might sneer, too, at the ruin which we make of our lives through the diseased consciousness of our selves as beings awash in limitless oceans of time.

Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress is a bewilderingly awful book. But it certainly does offer us a distorting mirror of a kind. Nisbet is a conservative American sociologist of some prominence (the Albert Schweitzer Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Columbia University). His most widely noted previous works are probably his synthetic study of the 19th-century formation of sociological thought, The Sociological Tradition, and his intellectually rather more invigorating critique of evolutionary social theory, Social Change and History. The present work comes with handsome puffs from the eminent. Professor J.H. Plumb describes its author on the jacket as both ‘a political philosopher with a most acute analytical mind’ and ‘a scholar of very wide and precise scholarship’. Of its width there can indeed be no dispute: from Hesiod to the Jonestown massacre, if not quite to the Reagan Presidency. But the precision is altogether harder to discern. Nisbet certainly refers to a wide range of historical thinkers and he quotes many secondary authorities. Readers whose scholarship is markedly narrower (no doubt a clear majority) may well find this intimidating. Since Nisbet disdains the academic apparatus of textual reference which even pretty slipshod scholars normally employ there is little danger of most readers seeking to compare their judgment with his on any interpretative issue. Any writer who sought to understand a historical process of such breadth would have at times to depend heavily on secondary authorities. Nisbet’s own confidence in the scope and precision of his knowledge can be traced fairly accurately by the density of references to such secondary works, rather thick on the Ancient world and the Middle Ages, but very much thinning out from the 18th century on up until the last two decades when his nerve begins to wilt once again. It is fair, however, to say that the aberration of his judgment is at least as apparent at its most assured as it is at its most diffident. Consider, for example, the claim, offered as evidence that not merely religion itself but also what Nisbet takes to be its intellectual surrogates have ‘seriously waned’: ‘Already in the West Freudianism and Marxism have lost most of the status each enjoyed a century ago.’ Were it not for the setting and the temporal adverb at the beginning of the sentence one might suspect a joke. But, read in context, it is impossible to see how sense and historical plausibility could both be imposed upon it simultaneously. Nisbet thinks too vaguely and writes too inaccurately to elicit much clarity from such a complicated subject. Indeed his treatment throughout is historically too perfunctory and analytically too incoherent to establish any important conclusions at all.

But if he cannot be said to establish conclusions, he certainly does succeed in setting out with some pertinacity a distinctive theme. Progress, an idea which he regards as historically inspiring and culturally creative, is owed historically like most other cultural goods in the Western tradition to the part played by religion in Western history. Progress is not merely compatible with but actually requires an explicit appreciation of the human past. Because religion has for some little time been waning in the West (and appreciation for the past waning with it) belief in progress as a categorical faith is increasingly beyond our grasp. The disenchantment of the world and the secularisation of culture have eliminated the significance from human life and thus from human history, and in so doing they have subverted their own theoretical presuppositions. The death of God is a brief prelude to the death of progress. Yet, at the eleventh hour, the disenchantment of the world and of human knowledge and the secularisation of culture have subverted (or are subverting, or may be about to subvert) themselves. Astrologers outnumber physicists. Pentecostalism thrives. Teilhard de Chardin has reconceived history for us with the sacred tactfully readmitted and we are (or may be) in for a religious revival. If so, but only if so, there may be intellectual and emotional life in the old category yet. The disappearance of ‘the aura of the sacred’ which has led to such a sad decline in social esteem towards the learned may at long last be reversed; and who knows if truly human society may not in consequence be reconstituted upon the religious basis which it should never have had the hubris or bad taste to desert.

Some of these views have less demerit than others. It certainly is true that the more central cultural categories of the Western experience are very elaborately entangled with the history of religion – though disentangling them requires altogether more historical understanding and analytical judgment than Nisbet possesses. A great many ‘progressive’ ideas always were deeply confused and it is now much easier to discern their confusions. A sober and penetrating reconsideration might well leave us not merely a good deal more anxious about progress as an expectation about the future but also a good deal less complacent about it as a retrospective category, a vision of ourselves as a product of historical time. Any secular thinkers who have ever possessed sound reasons for optimism about the human future can only in principle have derived them from a measure of respect for the achievements of the human past. An unhysterical and secular conservative might very well regard the history of the idea of progress very much as Nisbet regards it. What such a thinker could not do is regard the idea of progress in the present with quite the intellectual inconsequence which Nisbet displays. It is entirely possible that ‘the aura of the sacred’ is about to strike back with a vengeance. (Gesta Dei per Reagan?) But the gap between resurgent astrological practice and valid theoretical understanding of man’s place in history will hardly be closed by a combination of Reader’s Digest history of ideas and vapidly conservative sociology.

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