The notion of progress is a modern invention. It is also — and this explains its unthinkableness by our orthodox ancestors — a heretical notion. For an orthodox medieval churchman there could be no such thing as progress. Man had been created complete and fully human. There was no question of his developing or growing up. Human nature was changeless and had remained so from the beginning. Circumstances might vary from place to place and from epoch to epoch; but this variation was the merest accident. Beneath the shifting surface, human nature remained substantially the same.
The doctrine of progress was made possible by the decay of Christian orthodoxy. What made it inevitable was the enormous expansion of man’s material resources during the age of industrialism. In the course of the last century, the population of the earth has increased about two and a half times. But the production of coal has increased a hundred and ten times, of iron eighty times, of cotton twenty times. The total commercial turnover is forty times what it was at the beginning of the last century. The nautical tonnage of 1830 was a sixth of ours and we have thirty-six thousand times as many miles of railways. Living in the midst of the extraordinary phenomena represented by these figures, men might be excused if they came to believe in progress.
It is not growing like a tree
In bulk doth make men better be.
But in spite of Ben Jonson’s warning, this is precisely what we of the industrial age have fondly imagined. Because we use a hundred and ten times as much coal as our ancestors, we believe ourselves a hundred and ten times better, intellectually, morally, and spiritually.
We may remark in passing that the colossal material expansion of recent years is destined, in all probability, to be a temporary and transient phenomenon. We are rich because we are living on our capital. The coal, the oil, the niter, the phosphates which we are so recklessly using can never be replaced. When the supplies are exhausted, men will have to do without. Our prosperity had been achieved at the expense of our children. “We can only hope that our race may be spared a decline as precipitous as is the upward slope along which we have been carried, heedless, for the most part, both of our privileges and of the threatened privation ahead. While such a sudden decline might, from a detached standpoint, appear as in accord with the eternal equities, since previous gains would in cold terms balance the losses, yet it would be felt as a superlative catastrophe. Our descendants, if such as this should be their fate, will see poor compensation for their ills in the fact that we did live in abundance and luxury.” One of the results of this return to equilibrium conditions will certainly be a diminution of the belief in progress. Enthusiastic business men and advertising agents seem to imagine that expansion can go on indefinitely at the present rate. The corollary to this pleasing fancy is that men become steadily cleverer and more virtuous every generation. When facts have ruthlessly destroyed the primary illusion, its corollary will seen less obviously true.
It is time to consider the idea of progress apart from its material cause and accompaniment. Material expansion may explain the rise of the idea of progress on the spiritual plane; but it does no in itself justify that idea. There is no necessary relation between quantity and quality of human activity, or between wealth and virtue. The idea of progress must be considered by itself and on its own merits.
Believers in progress have appealed for a justification of their faith to the Darwinian theory of evolution. And certainly, if that hypothesis is well founded, there has been a genuine progress in recent geological time. Whether that progress is destined to be continued under the entirely novel conditions imposed on the human species by our social organization it is impossible to say. The forces which, in the past, made for progress may perhaps, in the new circumstances, make for deterioration; one cannot guess. Nor must we forget the possibility that evolution is orthogenetic — that is to say, biased from the start in one particular direction, predestined to take one particular course.
Evolution (if evolution indeed there has been) has been excessively slow. It has taken scores or even hundreds of thousands of years for natural selection to bring about significant changes in the specific qualities of living organisms. If this be the case, then it is certain that no perceptible evolutionary changes in human nature can possibly have taken place within the few thousands years of which we know or can conjecture the history. And unless the scientists produce some startling biological invention in the interval, it is almost equally certain that there will be no specific changes in man’s physical and mental make-up for an equally long period of future time. So far as history and the at all predictable future are concerned, there is no such thing as a specific and heritable progress. A man born in the twentieth century A.D. has no better chance of being congenitally intelligent and virtuous than one born in the twentieth century B.C. The history of art offers us the best evidence of the specific identity of human nature during the last few thousands years. Art differs from science inasmuch as every artists, whatever the date of his birth, has to begin from the beginning, as though no artist had ever existed before him. The style of his work will be conditioned by his environment; but its intrinsic excellence will be entirely his own. The man of science is able to utilize the work of his predecessors to a much greater extent than the artist. Without good instruments and a satisfactory technique, even the greatest scientific genius can achieve little. The instruments and technique of science, being complicated and of a very recondite nature, were only slowly evolved. The technique of the arts is simple and obvious; and men were very early in a position to give unfettered expression to their powers. The results are significant. The arts of ancient Egypt and Babylonia are at least as good as ours. One can go back much further and discover in the Paleolithic caves of Altamira paintings of animals which have literally never been surpassed. All the available evidence seems to show that, in respect to the mental capacities with which they are born, there is little or nothing to choose between the man of today and the man of a hundred or two hundred generations back. It follows therefore that if there has been progress, it must have been due to changes in environment rather than to changes in the intrinsic nature of man.
Geneticists assure us that (except, perhaps, in certain rather uncommon circumstances) acquired characteristics are not inherited. The children of one-legged bimetallists are born with the usual number of limbs and without any economic prejudices. But man, unlike the other animals, has invented methods of recording his mental acquisitions. There are old wolves which are said to have acquired an almost uncanny knowledge of traps and poisons. But their knowledge dies with them. They cannot publish text-books on the habits of trappers for the enlightenment of young wolves. Verbal tradition and writing enable human beings to inherit (if not at birth, at least shortly afterwards) some part of the accomplishments of their predecessors. Many contemporary school boys know more mathematics than Pythagoras not because they are more intelligent than that remarkable man of genius but because the discoveries of seventy generations of mathematicians have been recorded and are at their disposal. Generalizing, we may say that in all intellectual spheres where progress is, to a greater and or less extent, a function of knowledge, the lapse of time has brought progress. With regard to those activities in which knowledge is less important than natural ability, there has been no progress. In other words, progress in science and technology is a real fact, because past achievements can be inherited and exploited. But progress in the arts is impossible, because, once the technique of the art has been worked out (and the technique of some of the arts was perfected before the dawn of history), success depends entirely on personal ability, not on knowledge of previous achievements. Mr. Shaw’s plays are different from those of Shakespeare or of Aeschylus; but they are in no sense an advance on them. In fact, they are pretty obviously not so good. What applies to art applies to other spiritual activities. Religion, for example. It is the ambition of the pious, whether Christian, Buddhist, or Mohammedan, to imitate the founders and saints of their respective religions. The fact that most of these saints lived centuries ago is a sufficient proof that in religion as in art it is the individual spiritual faculty which counts, not the acquired knowledge.
In the sphere of ordinary everyday morals, tradition and education are obviously efficacious, up to a point. Children take for granted the code of morals with which they are brought up. Habit makes them regard the doing of certain things as necessary and right, the doing of other things as wrong and almost unthinkable. The refinement of the traditional code may lead to a genuine moral progress throughout a whole society. Thus, in Western Europe and North America, cruelty to animals is, for many people, unthinkable. Two hundred years ago such cruelty was not so strictly condemned by the current moral tradition.
Let us beware, however, of being led by such examples into a pharisaic self-satisfaction. Laws and ethical traditions may be improved; but it is, after all, the individual who has to choose between good and evil. Like the artist, he has to solve each particular problem from the beginning, as though there had never been any moral beings before himself. The believers in progress are apt to think too much in terms of society and the community — in terms of laws, ethical systems, social conditions, economics, of everything and anything except the individual with his soul and his liberty of choice. The satisfaction which looks at abstract figures about humanity at large finds it fairly easy to believe in moral progress. The orthodox Christian, who considers the individual soul, does not. For every individual soul has its share, in theological language, of original sin. All the social rearrangements do is to make it easier for the individual to avoid one kind of sin and harder to avoid other kinds. Thus the pacification and commercialization of a war-like society will naturally results in a reduction of the amount of violence and cruelty and an increase of covetousness and fraud. We congratulate ourselves sanctimoniously on being less bloodyminded than our fathers; but we forget that our avarice is as deadly a sin as their anger. Similarly, the enrichment of classes previously poor may lead to a decrease of envy and diminish the temptation to steal; but concurrently it tends to increase pride and self-satisfaction and to multiply the possibilities of sloth, gluttony, and lust. A close inspection reveals the fact that most so-called moral progress is really not a progress at all but merely a re-valuation of values and a re-distribution of temptations. Every society has its characteristic vices and virtues. The individual will tend to magnify the virtues and belittle the vices of his particular community. Thus, at present, we hate violence and condone covetousness, pride, and gluttony. In the ages of chivalry, men admired courage and magnanimity and set little store by our commercial virtues of patience, prudence, and industry. Anger and its violent manifestations were for them venial; but they hated avarice and they all theoretically admired, while not a few actually practiced, asceticism and humility. Have men morally progressed since the time of the Crusades? Very little, I should imagine. The most we can say is that the commonest virtues and the most prevalent vices are not the same as they are seven hundred years ago.
Summarizing our previous arguments, we may conclude with a few broad generalizations. Evolutionary progress of the species has not been perceptible within historical times and may, for all practical purposes of record of prophecy, be left out of account as non-existent. Uninheritable progress, due to tradition, has genuinely taken place in the realism of science and technology, where each worker stands on the shoulders of his predecessors. In the realm of morals, the refinement of traditional codes may lead to a certain ethical progress throughout a whole society. But the greater part of what is called moral progress consists merely in changes that are entirely without ameliorative direction. Progress in the arts is very limited and, as soon as the technique of artistic expression is perfected, ceases altogether to exist. Every artists starts from the beginning and depends for success on his personal talents alone. Something analogous is true of religion. Even in the material world the idea of progress is untenable. We are today very rich because we are living on our cosmic capital. When that capital is exhausted, mankind will be bankrupt. Nothing could be more obvious.