What Makes Real Progress Possible?

Jan 31, 2020

Most great human projects will need more than one generation to come to fruition. This means that real progress necessitates that older generations be capable of persuading younger generations that their projects are worth continuing. Otherwise, younger generations will simply tear down what already exists and begin again, their children will do the same, their grandchildren will do the same, and a cathedral which requires a hundred years to build will never move beyond the twenty-five year mark, even though the laborers continue for many centuries.  

Some great human projects are measured materially, like the construction of dams, bridges, concert halls, and canals, while other great human projects are immaterial, like the pursuit of “peace, freedom, law, civility, and public spirit,” as Roger Scruton once noted. If we cannot convince our children that our understanding of peace is right, our children’s pursuit of “peace” cannot be regarded as genuine progress toward our goals. The fact that five successive generations have claimed to pursue “peace” does not mean five generations have steadily progressed toward their destination. If all five generations understand peace in radically different ways, they are not much like the builders of Notre Dame, and far more like the Israelites wandering in circles through out the desert, merely passing time. Multi-generational progress is only possible with a multi-generational agreement on the destination.

Of course, multi-generational agreement is very difficult for any people whose favorite strategy for progress is unmasking power structures. One generation’s act of unmasking power structures becomes the very power structure which the next generation aims to unmask. At this point in postmodernity, we are no longer unmasking power structures, we are unmasking the unmasking of the unmasking of the unmasking of power structures. The idea that “progress” during the 20th century was an articulation and careful re-articulation of the same goals— like some kind of safecracker with his ear pressed to the metal, slowly turning a dial and waiting for a nearly inaudible click— is ludicrous. What was thought progressive and enlightened in the 1990s is now thought backwards, vulgar, primitive, supremely ignorant. We are presently unmasking the unmaskers and raising up a generation that will unmask us, expose our nakedness, and glory in the spectacle of our shame. Our children will not accept our definitions, they will not credit our philosophies, and neither will they acknowledge our destinations and goals. As soon as they are old enough, they will happily do an about-face and begin systematically undoing our work. Our children will not respect us any more than we respect our parents, but we have condemned our parents because it is easy to do so.

Making progress over many generations necessitates rejecting the postmodern belief that all human relationships essentially boil down to a power grab. The postmodern conviction that all success is predicated on luck or exploitation can never fund a movement which enjoys that much success without becoming manifestly hypocritical. The more successful progressive parents are in unmasking power, the more vehemently their children must condemn them. For the postmodern man, all success in unmasking power must be ultimately judged exploitative— the only escape from this vicious cycle of resentment and condemnation is to admit that some people deal well with power, and that people who deal well with power should be given more power than others. “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” has proven a powerful maxim in the modern mind— and yet this also makes it a corrupt maxim.

Persuading our children to make progress toward our goals— and not to burn our work to the ground once they are in charge— will impose natural limits not only on our goals but our strategies for obtaining them. We must undertake reasonable, prudent projects and not make extravagant promises. We cannot simultaneously tell our children a utopia is possible and give them history books to read, for history will testify against us. We must accept the parameters which common sense places on us and make decisions based on experience, not on theory. Providing realistic answers to social problems means looking to the successes of the past because what is and is not realistic is determined by experience— and experience is necessarily of the past. Realism itself is always born of a respect for the past, while theories are free to ignore what usually happens. No one who despises the past is capable of realistic solutions.  

No systemic problem is purely systemic, but also born out of the deviousness of individual human hearts. While some systemic problems do exist, progressives are quick to label social problems as “systemic” simply because it means systemic answers are required and systemic answers have a history of being socialism. The French Revolution began with many noble-sounding speeches affirming human rights and universal human dignity, but when these speeches failed to bring peace and love and full stomachs overnight, the revolutionaries quickly moved on to a more systemic solution, which simply meant taking people’s money and rights. Atheists and materialists will always have an easy solution, then, for they refuse to acknowledge the tricky, impractical demands of piety and virtue— both of which are concerns of the soul.  

Easy solutions will always be fashionable, though, and Christians will always be tempted by them. People who shrug off easy solutions are usually mocked as luddites and snobs, but history also has a habit of deciding that the easy solutions of yesteryear were superstitious and racist. The question is really whether one would prefer to be condemned now or later.   

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs is an author, lecturer, and teacher of classical literature at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of How To Be Unlucky, Something They Will Not Forget, and Blasphemers. His wife is generous and his children are funny.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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