A Letter to a Friend- No Such Thing as Progress
This letter was written in response to the question: Do you believe in Progress?
In short, no. I believe in complexification and development, and I believe that in no two eras are things precisely similar; but in terms of true moral progress, as in a greater alignment with conditions upon Earth with the will of Heaven, I am firmly in the realm of disbelief. I see a world where what appears at times to be progress turns out to be, instead, differing moral norms and manipulations of power, and most importantly, quite hubristic interpretations of history. This, I hold to hold true to Mankind in general, the largest associations of men, all the way down to most of the smallest.
But as regards the individual, to some degree the family, and to some other degree certain associations and orders formed with individual excellence in mind, I certainly see some greater moral capability. Now this does not mean that I believe individuals can become Christs easily; but nonetheless, the occasional phenomenon of saintliness seems to suggest that individuals can, while not rising out of the muck which forms their bodies, align their soul with that Heavenly will, that fountain of goodness, to some meager degree. The hymn poses that we are ‘one foot in paradise, one in the waste.’ I would argue the reality is more complex, more ugly: We inhabit the waste, while bearing within us a spark of celestial fire which sees a better world, which we may only realize in our lives by feeding the flame.
But this is limited, of course, to the life of an individual. Families, being based upon a love more sublime than any but that of the Creator, and organizations and orders dedicated to excellent individualism, may attain some standards of virtue too. But in general, the only true moral progress may be made in the heart of the single person- and that, as the necessity of religion reveals, is the most truly fallible thing upon this Earth.
If in individuals progress must be so fickle, so constantly ephemeral, how much the more human collectivities? My understanding can be summarized in the title of Neibuhr’s treatise: ‘Moral Man, Immoral Society.’ While the individual may make choices, and arrive at moral dilemmas, human collectivities and societies- factions, all- are immoral to the dignity of individuals by their very nature. In their behavior, they are typically beasts. In their views of themselves, they are angels. This is not progress- this is the very folly of the human condition.
The ancients considered Man and analogue for the Universe at large. I find much wisdom in this understanding, for the fractures and tendencies of both seem quite analogous. But in one crucial factor the metaphor is insufficient: Man may, however imperfectly, attempt to govern himself by will. But there is no Universal Will governing the Universe (save the Will of God, which is beyond our comprehension) nor a truly moral General Will governing any of the various factions so brutal to each other. Certainly, there is a Will in each faction- but it is a Will incapable of self-sacrifice. The will of the individual is.
Thus the best which can be hoped for in this life is a prudent (and more often than not, lucky) development of events causing the least harm and the most good. But that is more a fortunate development than a moral one. The moral choices of life are at the hands of individuals, and always will be. I see no progress from our broken state. We have been condemned to life from our dawn as a race, and we shall be so condemned until we have been extinguished.