Battle over the idea of progress has been long-running, depending on how you want to see it, since the Enlightenment, or in recent forms since 1923, when J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress appeared. This seminal book summed up progress as an optimistic function of secularism, rationalism and science. It became a new religion on the Continent during the eighteenth century and—delayed by Napoleon’s wars—in England during the nineteenth century. Fortune, however, proved fickle. World wars and depression in the first half of the twentieth century destroyed the belief, replacing it with the tragic sense of life. Angst eased during the “trente glorieuses” only to mount again as those years ended ingloriously amid stagflation, unemployment, unsavoury dictators and underground torture.
The twentieth century, however, was a game of two halves. Rising liberal capitalist prosperity transformed decisively, if unevenly, home, hearth and workshop around the globe, not to mention its face, seen today by billions in comfort from forty thousand feet up. Most non-capitalist countries rushed to join in the game, as Marx predicted. The very prosperous again saw need to rebel against their oppression by the poor, a development foreseen by Aristotle long before Thomas Piketty.1 So are further optimistic cannonades in the progress wars now due? Some recent writers think so, among them Joel Mokyr, an economics and technology historian, in A Culture of Growth, and Matt Ridley, an evolutionist, in The Evolution of Everything. On the side of sceptics, and perhaps populist politicians, John Gray’s Soul of the Marionette weighs in with counter-punches.2 Who is right, or at least headed in the right direction?
Mokyr’s Culture of Growth makes a pleasant change from the tsunami of books on globalisation, for or against. He steps back in time, albeit with modernity in view, and undertakes to explain “why” and “how” what happened in Europe from 1500 to 1700 led to growth through scientific and technological progress, perhaps deeper background to David Landes’s work on the period after 1750, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. 3 Mokyr’s central idea is that writers and thinkers in Europe developed a preference for what Bacon called “useful knowledge”, rebelling against subservience to traditions of authority that Mokyr thinks characterised Europe till that point, much as it did other world cultures. To explain the unique European break-out, Mokyr tries to apply systems drawn from evolutionary and economic studies to the development of ideas by thinkers, both well-known and less well-known. Along the way he gives good accounts of influences prevailing among them. And in a separate article dealing with his leading exemplar, Descartes, he concludes, like Churchill, or perhaps Maurice Chevalier, that belief in progress is “better than the alternative”.4
But how much of this is true? Amiel maintained that “a belief is not true because it is useful”. And Bacon, a courtier high up the slippery pole of authority, thought he saw that “a man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true”. What does belief mean? What are the alternatives? Faith? Hope? Charity? Fate? The Deity? Which is better? And how can describing the factual “evolution” of any of these give rise to any judgment of value?
Few nowadays will refuse importance to the idea that knowledge should be useful to human life in the here and now rather than in the life to come, if any. This was a leading idea of the Renaissance and Reformation in major European countries in general, together with secular ideas about linear time—as opposed to classical circularity—and the value of the individual (both concepts invented by the Church and adopted by secular thinkers).5 These ideas have long been noted—although Mokyr does not note them—as crucial to the rise of new liberal ideas in social, economic and political thought as well as in arts, medicine, science and technology. Altered worldviews resulted, about history, geography and “Nature” as well as about humanity’s place in the scheme of things. Bacon’s own career illustrates this. Slipping back down the pole—he accepted so many bribes he threatened the official system of bribery—he turned to writing essays, essentially tips for apprentice courtiers, and scientific utopias. Nevertheless, the idea of revolt against authority may seem newer than it actually is. Bury mentioned it in his book, but it had short shelf life and has been soft-pedalled in subsequent skirmishes for good reason. It is wrong.
This essay appears in the current edition of Quadrant.
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Before what today are called secular issues moved outside the Church, they were fully and usually violently discussed inside it, as the reign of Frederick II showed in Italy or Henry VIII in England. Paradoxically, the first lay people were French Protestants. Twelfth-century Albigensians and Waldensians, repressed as heretics and denied sacraments by the authorities, were forced into secular occupations as merchants, bankers, medical men and weavers. These were travelling jobs so their ideas survived and spread in extensive, if repressed networks. (Medicine and weaving were the locus of innovation, if not revolution, in scientific, technological and political affairs, much as merchants and bankers were in commerce, and possibly still are.) As happens under all repressions, the ideas eventually resurfaced with renewed energy and fanaticism, in this case, in Huguenot and Calvinist forms. When persecutions (briefly) eased during the Huguenot wars, the first secular discussions were held between Catholics and Huguenots—in the salon of one Madame Des Loges. An achievement of Renaissance and Reformation—although it may be too soon to know if it is an achievement—was to extend to anyone the critical spirit that spiritual and secular rulers never denied themselves nor allowed to others.6
Mokyr thinks the Enlightenment writers were the first to see themselves as superior to the ancients. But Cicero relates the manner in which modern men of his day were conscious of their own superior city lives, which met all imaginable desires, including incidentally the “equitable distribution of private rights”.7 And discussing the century’s “new history”, Carl Becker shows that every generation as far back as anyone cares to look has invented a “new” history in order to serve its interests against those of previous generations. He cites the “new histories” of Augustine, Aquinas, the Renaissance, and naturally, the eighteenth century. Records of the Western Church confirm this interpretation. As Becker details, in the face of inconvenient facts, the Church changed its opinion, producing with Keynesian panache “new” and ever newer opinions over a thousand years of empire.8 Study of medieval European dissent and protest is nowadays a thriving scholarly discipline. And before all of this, the upstart Aristotle challenged the old man Plato, a drama of ideas powerfully summed up by Raphael’s Athenian Academy. Challenging authority is in the European genes.9
At the same time, it is also possible to overstate how far the philosophes themselves wrote against authority. In one source mentioned by Mokyr, Carl Becker’s 1932 book The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, the main point is that the “Enlightenment Philosophers” were ultimately neither radical nor philosophers. If they abolished God from everyday intervention in the universe revealed by Newton’s laws, Deists to a man, says Becker, they failed to follow their own reason to its logical conclusion. With few exceptions, such as Baron d’Holbach, who did follow his own logic, they kept God out of the daily fray but in prudent reserve, in dread of their own eternal souls.10 Frankel’s book has valuable analysis of the actual writings and is still worth consulting for that reason, especially as Mokyr focuses more on the writers’ interrelationships than on their ideas. The philosophes, if sweeping and exhilarating, were superficial. But when Mokyr considers their ideas, he takes them at face value, a trusting attitude that prevents him from seeing that the philosophes, unlike Renaissance writers, were unconscious slaves to authority.
The biological analogy of evolution, as used by both Mokyr and Ridley, is also misleading. In favour of Mokyr and Ridley, it must first be said that biological evolutionary science has made great advances in recent decades. Evolution can now be seen to occur in the laboratory in real time, and far more is now known about the mechanisms of selection, which turn out to be very various indeed, far beyond the singular notion of sexual selection alone. Evolution theory is now accepted biological science upon which predictions may be made, although enough “black boxes” remain to charm future researchers.11 For all this, the non-scientific bystander can be grateful. However, success in the biolab has prompted risky speculation outside it; Mokyr and Ridley have been emboldened to take the science for another run in areas not amenable to scientific experiment. They thus repeat philosophical error, as did early popularisers of Darwin’s theory, who tried convincing readers by lining up photos showing how beefy roadsters “grew” from primordial penny-farthings.12
These days the early books mainly draw a smile. But are Mokyr and Ridley’s books different or examples of the same genre, perhaps better veiled? For as short metaphor or analogy, “evolution” does good service to enliven dull prose—it enlivens what little of Comte’s vast tomes is still read. But as model beyond biology, it is a mistake when forced beyond limits.
Mokyr asserts that the history of ideas shows evolution is a “choice-based” process among thinkers that inexorably leads, through competition in the marketplace of ideas, to the dissemination of improvements in human affairs. But in the science of natural evolution, there is no choice in the sense understood in the human domain because there is no consciousness involved. One way—perhaps the only sure way—to fail an exam in this fast evolving science is to assert that natural selection derives from some metaphysical body “out there” making conscious “choices” about its options with a view to making a little progress on its goals every day. Evolution has no goals, according to scientists, despite Mokyr and Ridley’s evident feeling that the truth should be better than it is. Evolution may (or may not) produce beneficial improvements for organisms but it offers no progress in the sense understood by humanity. There is only “partly-determined” movement without predetermined end and no inevitable continuity. In human affairs, by contrast, as Becker said, “nothing is pre-determined until after it occurs”.13 As writers, thinkers and the man or woman on the Clapham roadster are conscious and purposeful, or usually so, their conduct does not correspond precisely to the biological analogy. If anything, their conduct disproves it.
Ridley uses evolution in the sense of a system not needing external direction as detailed explanation for, well, pretty much anything you care to name: genes, history, economics, government, law and more. His enthusiasm is contagious but his book succeeds no better than Mokyr’s in overcoming the conceptual difficulties mentioned above. It also leads to results some may find odd. In discussing government, for example, he frets that British forms have not much evolved for centuries. He adopts a Shavian, if not peevish tone, wondering about hurrying things up—to where? Does Brexit count as evolution or eugenicide, no pun intended.
Fundamentally, in seeking to explain all, evolution arguably explains nothing about ideas. Bury recognised this problem in dismissing evolutionary explanations in his book: evolution can be made to account for bad results just as well as for good ones, and for everything that didn’t happen as well as for everything that did.14 Herbert Butterfield, commenting on this aspect of the battle over progress, observed:
We may believe in some doctrine of evolution or some idea of progress and we may use this in our interpretation of the history of the centuries; but what our history contributes is not evolution but rather the realisation of how crooked and perverse the ways of progress are, with what wilfulness and waste it twists and turns, and takes anything but the straight track to its goal, and how often it seems to go astray, and to be deflected by any conjuncture, to return to us—if it does return—by a back door. 15
Outside biology, evolution theory is a striking descriptive metaphor but has little or no explanatory or predictive value. One may have to be very highly qualified not to see this.
Extended analogies based on the specialist economics of the market fare not much better. This idea here is that success in the “market place” of ideas depends upon thinkers’ facing competition, having good internal management processes, epigones (that is, friends lower down, sideways and up the hierarchy), and appropriate external dissemination systems, as Bacon did but Newton didn’t.16 Socrates, possibly ahead of his time, did operate in the marketplace but reaped no profits, at least for him. Was Bacon, practised but disgraced courtier, therefore more “successful” than Socrates or Newton, and if so, for how long? In fact, by the nineteenth century England still seemed to lag behind Renaissance peaks of European secular thought—think Rabelais, Montaigne or Shakespeare—and far behind nineteenth-century France and Germany—think Renan and Strauss. As England’s major thinkers from Newman to Darwin show, it remained curiously poised between “authority” and “reason”, a conflicted stance captured in miniature for England’s two cultures by Tennyson’s In Memoriam.
Is our own century better off? Following Einstein and Heisenberg, whose theories produced new revelations concerning the indeterminate nature of matter, it seems nineteenth-century questions are as far from resolution as ever. The science appears to show it can measure relationships between objects in the external world by the use of symbols but can never provide knowledge of the objects themselves nor of causes.17 We can say what has happened—and this of course is the narrative provided by Mokyr and Ridley—but not why or how in a scientific sense. Even a philosophically astute application of evolution theory to ethics by, for example, Mary Midgley ends up with what, to many, may seem a well-known conclusion reachable by other means: choose what is life-enhancing over what is not.18
Given all this, one may fairly ask what evolution theory enables us to understand about the movement of ideas that we cannot understand without it. At the end of the day, Mokyr and Ridley have re-stated in biological, and in Mokyr’s case, market terminology, movements of ideas described in older disciplines of comparative ideology. Even clearing the decks for the next big thing, writers and thinkers pick and choose among ideas, and allowing for miscommunication and misprision, influence each other. The precise mechanisms are mysterious because the human mind is mysterious, and at present, seems likely to remain so.19
For decades, John Gray, a historian of ideas, has delivered broadsides against capitalism, predicting apocalypse now, or at least pretty soon. Like many business people and decades of annual Bretton Woods and GATT/WTO meetings, Gray has noticed that while the ways of power may be the same everywhere, capitalism works “differently” in, say, East Asia, Europe or America—to which one might add countries with a savings deficit, a budget deficit, countries running weak reserve currencies, crony banking regulations and so on. At least since the Phoenicians started mining silver in Spain and Greece, business people have taken their opportunities where they find them. Gray takes offence. Where business may see potential, he sees self-contradiction, and one almost feels, hopes for collapse. He has visions of capitalism devouring its own tail, one of Marx’s major prophecies. Also like Marx, Gray seems not to realise that a crisis in capitalism is not necessarily a crisis of capitalism, a perspective not seen, or possibly not seen very clearly, from a seat in the library, even a very good one. Like possibly all prophetic tracts from Isaiah to Marx, Gray’s works suffer from the fact it hasn’t happened yet, though native wit always allows prophets another shot.20
An eerie sense of alternative reality comes to stalk the later pages of The Soul of the Marionette where Gray gets nourishment from a series of science-fiction and imaginative works. As a way of freeing up thinking patterns, this is unobjectionable, perhaps even standard, management-school food. Every decade produces examples of the genre, think William Irwin Thompson’s At the Edge of History, which set the popular myth and science fiction of its Woodstock day against dry management theories favoured in North American technological institutes. In the 1990s, John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards set creative intuition against wearisome dry theories favoured in large organisations practically everywhere.21 In populist political cabinets latterly, the fantasy side seems risen again.
But in the end, Gray’s counter-blasts do little more than update Marx for our times, albeit with tinctures of Freud’s well-known pessimism about the human fantasy side. He identifies things he sees as unjust in our societies and susceptible to improvement. Thus far, well-disposed people around the globe will likely see value in his work, and all but the most stolid will see fun in the science-fiction. Liberals, whose eternally sunny views of human nature block their view of the human underground, might read him with profit. But the search for practical policies yields no more than Isaiah or Das Kapital, where Marx’s sole policy is that revolution itself would provide answers.
Against those who see Reason prey to the Joker—to dark forces, higher mysteries and naked power—there remains strong need to affirm the achievements of liberal human reason whether in science or elsewhere, and to defend its hopes and promise. Progress can only produce progress (or regress), not values or happiness, but unlike the latter, it is at least measurable. Misleading metaphors and analogies, however, do not help this cause and are arguably dangerous. As explanation, “evolution” can suggest automatic processes beyond human influence and a misguided sense of either fatalism or complacency. In human affairs, by contrast, what is arguably most needed is, as Charles Frankel puts it, “a way to distinguish between a better cause and a worse one. We need principles that will help us to get something done and to get it done responsibly and decently.”22
One such principle should be avoiding liberal failures of last century. The besetting liberal sin is ignorance of the dark side, a weakness that catches them asleep at the wheel every time. Lulled by the charms of rational nationalism, which include the growth and global spread of prosperity, they fail to spot its twin in the shadows, irrational nationalism. Macron’s victory as President of the two Frances may be a lucky escape for now but Bury’s conclusion highlights the need for continuous vigilance. He sees belief in progress founded by custom on the “halo effect”: when things go well people are apt to be optimistic and to believe in progress but when they go poorly, they aren’t and don’t. But for the physicists—and David Hume—causation is a matter of custom. There is always a need to stay awake.23 On this basis, Bury’s account of the progress wars is still the latest news.
John Goodman is a former New Zealand diplomat and visiting scholar, Auckland University School of Law. A footnoted version of this article appears at Quadrant Online.
1. Aristotle, Politics, Bk 4, ch. 4; Thomas Piketty, Le Capital au XXIme Siecle, Paris, Seuil, 2013. It may be sobering to recognise globalization is at or near its bicentenary, if one accepts Marx and Engels’ dating in the Communist Manifesto, 1848.
2. Culture and Growth, the Origins of the Modern Economy, Princeton and Oxford, 2017; The Evolution of Everything, London, 2015; London, 2015. The Soul of the Marionette, London, 2015.
3. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, New York, 1998. Ch. 14.
4. The Atlantic, November, 2016.
5. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, 1860, trans S G C Middlemore, 1878, Third Edition, London, 1950. Famously, H G Wells made much of these points in his Outline of History, London, 1920.
6. Karl Löwith, Meaning in History, Chicago, 1949, p.80.
7. De officiis, II.4, anthologised in The Idea of Progress, A Collection of Readings, selected by Francis Teggart, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1949, p.90.
8. Progress and Power, New York, 1949, Ch. II.
9 In Puer Robustus, Eine Philosphie des Störenfrieds, Berlin, 2016, Dieter Thoma covers the modern period from, for example, Hobbes, Diderot, Marx and Freud to Mao Zedong, together with future prospects, but the roots of European challenge to authority are far more ancient.
10. New Haven, 1932. In this sense, too, according to Karl Löwith, the extremes of sceptic and believer were and remain united in their joint refusal to accept human knowledge is or ever can be settled, Meaning in History, Chicago, 1949, p.vi.
11. Carl Zimmer, The Tangled Bank, An Introduction to Evolution, Roberts & Co, 2010, Chs 2 & 3.
12. Mary Midgley, Evolution as Religion, London, 1985; an extended philosophical critique on the uses and abuses of evolutionary theories outside biological science.
13. Carl Becker, How New will the Better World Be? New York, 1944, p44.
14. The Idea of Progress, Ch. XIX.
15. The Whig Interpretation of History, London, 1951, p.232.
16. In its similarly reductive way, the Communist Manifesto refers to “free competition” in knowledge.
17. Adam Frank, “Minding Matter,” Aeon, 13 March 2017.
18. Beast and Man, the Roots of Human Nature, London, 1980, Ch. 13, “The Unity of Life.”
19. Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, trans. R F C Hull, 1954, Princeton; Oxford Companion to the Mind, Oxford, 1987, essays on consciousness, mind, nervous system. Jerome H. Barkow et al, The Adapted Mind, Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, Oxford, 1992. There is an extensive bibliography in The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy, 2nd edn, Oxford, 2003, pp196-200. Iain McGilchrist updates neuroscience in The Master and His Emissary, the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, New Haven and London, 2009. McGilchrist sets out why one half of the brain can believe but cannot know while the other half can know but cannot believe. Hume’s syndrome – reason is always the slave of the passions – may seem affliction enough, but such a mental constitution adds insult to injury, abandoning the brain to debate with itself without a deciding vote.
20. See, for example, False Dawn, London, 1998; The Silence of Animals, On Progress and Other Modern Myths, London, 2013. Marx’s heart-rending accounts of capitalist abuses of his day rival, for example, Mayhew, Zola or reports of child-labour in parts of the sub-continent today, but it is his famous prediction (in the Manifesto) about capitalism undermining itself that attracts popularisers such as Lewis Mumford, The Future of Technics and Civilization, 1934, re-published, London, 1986, p.152 ff. Marx’s rhetoric of coming disaster may be hard to distinguish from the so-called “Rhine Revolutionary”, who was inspired to declare generalised catastrophe in ’09, ’11, ’15 and ’21, although he meant those years in his own, sixteenth, century. Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums, 1849, Reklam, 1969, is perhaps the locus classicus for analysis of the nature of Hebrew prophecy. The Hebrew concept of emeth – roughly, prophecy or proleptic truth – is not strictly translatable and has therefore played no formal role in Western philosophies of truth, according to Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, New York, 1961, p.75.
21. At the Edge of History, Speculations on the Transformation of Culture, New York, 1971; Voltaire’s Bastards, The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, Toronto, 1993.
22. Charles Frankel, The Case for Modern Man, New York, 1955, p. 115.
23. Garry Wills gives a similar warning, in “Where Evangelicals Come From”, NYRB, April 20, 2017. He draws structural parallels between the fires of irrational enthusiasm shown in Trump’s personal drives and the periodic outbreaks of mass religious revival having psychic roots in the ever-present human underground. In “The Siege of Western Liberalism,” Edward Luce’s version of this point is “The self-belief of Western elites saps their ability to grasp the scale of the threat,” Financial Times, 5 May, 2017, to which one might add that their lack of self-belief risks death by drowning no less effectively than last time.