Progress or Infinite Change?

H.G. Wells

I have recently been spending a fair amount of my time during my sabbatical year at Princeton as a Madison Fellow reading and thinking about H.G. Wells, in preparation for an upcoming Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good conference. Wells was tremendously influential in the first half of the twentieth century and, as it seems to me anyway, he was crucial in popularizing “progress” as a kind of moral imperative, an idea whose strengths and weaknesses are still with us today.

Wells, along with Winwood Reade (whom I discuss in my new book Eclipse of Man), was a pioneer of trying to tell the human story in connection with “deep history.” But so far as I know he never argued, nor would he have been so foolish as to argue, that there was any kind of steady, incremental progress in human affairs that could be traced all the way back to prehistory. While as a progressive he may have been second to none, his view was far more careful and nuanced.

First of all, he knew at some level, along with his friend G.K. Chesterton, that any talk of progress requires a goal, and he wrote in The Outline of History that the foundations for the human project that would become progress were only laid in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c. As Wells put it,

The rest of history for three and twenty centuries is threaded with the spreading out and development and interaction and the clearer and more effective statement of these main leading ideas. Slowly more and more men apprehend the reality of human brotherhood, the needlessness of wars and cruelties and oppression, the possibilities of a common purpose for the whole of our kind.

Yet even at that, our power to actually achieve such goals is, in Wells’s account, severely limited until Renaissance thinkers open the door to the scientific and technical revolutions that, by the nineteenth century, have given humankind unprecedented power over nature, with far more promised to come in the future.

Indeed, real progress for Wells was something that was still to come. That is because it would not have occurred to him to think that at any given moment the positive changes in human affairs necessarily outweighed the negative. Each generation may not even be better off than the one that came before:

Blunder follows blunder; promising beginnings end in grotesque disappointments; streams of living water are poisoned by the cup that conveys them to the thirsty lips of mankind. But the hope of men rises again at last after every disaster…. [Ellipses in original]

Progress was not a sure thing, an obvious fact of history, but the hope that a golden thread running into the relatively recent past would not be broken. Such a hope may or may not be realistic, but it is refreshing to see Wells identify it for what it is, rather than trying to adduce some sort of necessary laws of historical development or to find all the silver linings in very cloudy weather.

Now, Wells gets himself into trouble when he tries to reconcile this view of progress as the achievement of old goals with an evolutionary, competitive imperative that forbids him to imagine the future as any kind of stable end state. While in numerous books, at often tedious length, he lays out various relatively near-term futures that represent his view of how human brotherhood and peaceableness could be realized by an elite’s proper deployment of science and technology, they often include a certain amount of hand-waving about these utopias just paving the way for even more extraordinary possibilities as yet unenvisioned because perhaps unenvisionable by us, with our narrow views. In principle, at least, this means that in the end Wells can defend change, but not, past a certain point, progress.

This difficulty reconciling progress with mere change is still alive in our own day. Our tech industry sometimes tells us the ways that it will make our lives better, but sometimes adopts more neutral terminology — we routinely hear of “change agents” and “disruptors” — no longer even promising progress except understood as change itself. “The Singularity,” strictly speaking, is just the extreme expression of the same idea. But it is not really “progress” any more if perpetual competition means that all that is solid perpetually melts into thin air. The changes that come along may be wonderful or not, each in its own way. They may aggregate into circumstances that are better or worse, each in its own way. Our non-prescriptive, libertarian postmodern transhumanists are in the same position; to call “anything is permitted” progress is only possible if progress is defined as “anything is permitted.”

When the way we understand future history thus dissolves into particularity, it is hard to see how the future — let alone the bloody and oppressive past — could be a positive sum game, as we expect that one generation will have only a severely limited common measure of “positive” with the next. We see signs already. Is the present generation a little better off than the previous one, because they are being raised with cellphones in hand? Surely the passing generations, with their old-fashioned ideas of friendship and social interaction, are entitled to doubt it, while the generations yet to come will wonder at the bulky and clumsy interface that their progenitors had to contend with. How did they walk along and look down at the screen at the same time? What a toll it must have taken! Perhaps people just had to be much tougher back then, poor saps….

“Cheat the Prophet” revisited

I was having some fun on Twitter this morning with this piece of prophetic silliness — silly even for the a-scientist-predicts-the-future genre, which is saying a lot. Computers will disappear! — because they will be ubiquitous, and I’m sure there’s no need even to wonder if ubiquitous computing could be useful to ubiquitous governments, because we’re told later in the piece that technology is bad for dictators. Capitalism will be perfected! — which means that there will no longer be any possibility of sales resistance, of saying No to the capitalists. That silly “digital divide” people used to talk about never happened! — which I know is the object of constant gratitude for all those kids in Bangladesh and Mozambique with their iPads. And since there’s no mention of global warming in the piece, or the provision of electricity to places and people that don’t have it, or the availability of clean water to places and people who currently don’t even have that, I’m sure all those little glitches in the March of Progress will have been straightened out by 2050, probably with a few lines of elegant code.

You know the kind of thing. So here I just want to make one comment: that whenever I read this kind of thing I find myself recalling the first chapter of Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill, from 1904, which begins with these still-utterly-relevant words:

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called “Keep to-morrow dark,” and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.

closed minds

Peter Conrad:

Hillier compares Chesterton to Dr Johnson, whom he physically resembled thanks to his dropsical belly and rolling gait, and whom he often impersonated in pageants. But Johnson’s gruff dismissals – of Scotland, of opera, of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, and of anything or anyone who irritated him – were the expression of quirky prejudice; unlike Chesterton, he never pretended to papal infallibility. Johnson prevailed by bullying Boswell, but Chesterton threatened anathema, as when he disposed of the Enlightenment by announcing: “I know of no question that Voltaire asked which St Thomas Aquinas did not ask before him – only St Thomas not only asked, but answered the questions.” There speaks a man with a closed mind, a neo-medievalist who abhorred Jews and pined for the return of an agrarian feudal economy in which with every man would be allocated “two acres and a cow”.

Once someone says that Johnson — a man who by his own admission “talked for victory,” and was labeled “The Great Cham [Khan] of Literature” (by Oliver Goldsmith) for good reason — “never pretended to papal infallibility,” you need to be on your guard when he says anything else. Though Johnson is the incomparably greater writer, he and Chesterton manifested a similarly complex balance of confidence and vulnerability. And only a very closed mind — or a very ill-informed one — could deny that Aquinas did indeed anticipate and respond to the key questions posed against the Deity by Voltaire. One may not agree with the Angelic Doctor’s answers to questions Voltaire and his admirers thought unanswerable, but they are there.

Chesterton in that passage is merely trying to point out that our ancestors did not believe as they did merely out of ignorance. They thought about many of the same issues Whiggishly self-congratulatory late-moderns think about, but often came to different conclusions. And it’s actually rather instructive to discover what those conclusions are, and how they reached them. Aidan Nichols’s Discovering Aquinas is quite helpful in this regard.

a Christmas Eve thought

From G. K. Chesterton:

There is no more dangerous or disgusting habit than that of celebrating Christmas before it comes, as I am doing in this article. It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is. Up to a certain specific instant you are feeling ordinary and sad; for it is only Wednesday. At the next moment your heart leaps up and your soul and body dance together like lovers; for in one burst and blaze it has become Thursday. I am assuming (of course) that you are a worshipper of Thor, and that you celebrate his day once a week, possibly with human sacrifice. If, on the other hand, you are a modern Christian Englishman, you hail (of course) with the same explosion of gaiety the appearance of the English Sunday. But I say that whatever the day is that is to you festive or symbolic, it is essential that there should be a quite clear black line between it and the time going before. And all the old wholesome customs in connection with Christmas were to the effect that one should not touch or see or know or speak of something before the actual coming of Christmas Day. Thus, for instance, children were never given their presents until the actual coming of the appointed hour. The presents were kept tied up in brown-paper parcels, out of which an arm of a doll or the leg of a donkey sometimes accidentally stuck. I wish this principle were adopted in respect of modern Christmas ceremonies and publications. Especially it ought to be observed in connection with what are called the Christmas numbers of magazines. The editors of the magazines bring out their Christmas numbers so long before the time that the reader is more likely to be still lamenting for the turkey of last year than to have seriously settled down to a solid anticipation of the turkey which is to come. Christmas numbers of magazines ought to be tied up in brown paper and kept for Christmas Day. On consideration, I should favour the editors being tied up in brown paper. Whether the leg or arm of an editor should ever be allowed to protrude I leave to individual choice.

And a blessed Christmas to all!