Progress is not linear. It is not a constantly positive quantity, straining for ever-increasing graphical altitudes. Sometimes it is stagnant for long periods. Sometimes it actually goes into negative territory for long periods.
People don’t really think about this. There is this perception that things should always move from bad to better, from negative to positive. We’re always going up, up, up! They say. Well, they are wrong.
This is a leftover from the 18th century Enlightenment concept of constant “progress.” In the view of the philosophes of the day, man would, with the benevolent guidance of Reason and science, make ever-more impressive advances, and that these advances would augment the felicity and security of all mankind.
The scientist and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was in some ways a proponent of this sort of view. And there were many others. In retrospect, the philosophes and scientists of this era overestimated the capabilities of progress and Reason.
It’s not that Reason is bad, necessarily. It’s just that it doesn’t tell the whole story.
They had no sensitivity, or real understanding, for the irrational impulses and the dark underbelly of the human mind. One wonders what they would have thought had they lived to see the events of the 20th century: two catastrophic wars that ruined Europe, and the discovery of quantum physics, which set the comfortable, predictable Newtonian world-view right on its head.
At the heard of things, at the heart of all existence, lay the Unknown. The irrational moral forces that shape and mold things. Chance and probability underlie everything, we now know. And as Heisenberg showed, the idea of knowing a perfectly complete picture was itself a fallacy. It was so disturbing that even Einstein never could bring himself to accept it fully. But there are other reasons, too, why men err in these matters.
Most people just have no conception of history. They just have no idea. Take the Industrial Revolution, for example. For many hundreds of years before the 1700s, there was very little forward movement in agricultural productivity.
The height of the Roman Empire saw an advanced (for its day) economic, political, and social system. And then this withered away (in the West at least), and Europe endured many hundreds of years of backward movement.
Of catastrophic decline, really.
The Mayan city-states of the Yucatan and Guatemala were technologically and culturally advanced in their day. And then political conflict, economic collapse, and environmental degradation caused their once-great cities to wither and die. And soon the jungle would reclaim them. When the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, their glory days were but a memory.
And yet there were stimulating developments and rich civilizations elsewhere. The Dark Ages for Europe were a golden age for the Byzantine east and the new civilization of Islam. The flame of civilization expires in one torch, and yet another one is lit elsewhere.
I have always believed that progress is not linear. It can stop, retrogress, and stagnate. I made this point clearly in my books Thirty-Seven and Pantheon, in the chapters “On Barbarism” and “Easter Island’s Collapse.”
A new book by Robert J. Gordon takes the same view. In his The Rise and Fall of American Growth, he provides extensive evidence over 700 pages that America’s glory days of economic progress from 1870 to 1970 will not be repeated again. It was a one-time deal only, he argues. The more efficient and “advanced” an economy becomes, he argues, the less “progress” it is likely to see.
More specifically, as things pertain to America, he warns that income inequality, bad education and educational debt, and an aging population will make the current generation worse off than any before it.
Well thanks, Robert. Tell me something we don’t already know.
Because Robert is both right and wrong. He is right in the sense that his charts and graphs all make sense, and that progress in history is not a straight upward line. Things rise, collapse, and rise again. It has always been so. It is just that American find this idea disturbing. Well, it is a young country, with a vigorous spirit of place, at least when compared with the ancient places of Europe and Asia. Europe has already risen and collapsed several times. Asia dozens of times.
But not America. Not yet, anyway.
So the technical details Robert gets right. But he stumbles when it comes to the moral issues, like so many do. Yes, progress is not linear. But then, neither is the movement of the soul. Because nations, and civilizations, have souls, just like humans. And just because a society is not “advancing” in one way, doesn’t mean that it can’t advance in other ways. There will always be some development happening somewhere. Something is always living, and something is always dying. It is the way of all things.
Perhaps if Robert here had read more Lucretius he would not be so troubled by his charts and diagrams.
I am more concerned about the progress of my soul, than about the progress of my nation’s gross national product, Robert. The other thing that Robert overlooks is that people have always tried to say, in every age, that things were falling apart. People (many of them very intelligent) have often said that there were no great discoveries left to make. And that there would be no further advances in this or that science.
And the minute they have said this sort of thing, almost on cue, a new round of discoveries and advances are made. Right before the twentieth century, the British scientist Lord Kelvin was going around saying that everything worth knowing in physics had already been discovered, and that nothing new would be found out.
How did Lord Kelvin know such a thing? How? Why, his numbers and data told him so!
And just then, just after Kelvin made his pronouncements, the quantum era began in 1900 with Planck’s discoveries. And it has not stopped yet. So you can’t be too sure when things will take off, or when they will stagnate. You never know if you are in a peak or a saddle. And you’re better off not thinking about it too much, either. Because all it will do is demoralize and depress you. Yes, things are not linear. Yes, progress is uneven. But so are the movements of the soul.
And it is also true that “experts” have a way of making predictions that are wrong. And something tells me that Mr. Gordon’s thesis is myopic. Because we never really know when the next round of rapid progress will be made. Remember Lord Kelvin. Nothing new in physics will ever be found! This sounds a lot like Robert Gordon’s we’ll never see progress again like that seen in 1870 to 1970.
I don’t want to berate poor old Kelvin too much, though. It wasn’t that he was a fool. It was just that he was drawing deductions from inadequate premises. In the same way that I think Mr. Gordon is making some wild generalizations from one historical example. He’s right in one way. But not right in the big picture of things.
Remember this, if nothing else: in life, and in art, the moral forces are more important than all the data served up by statistics and numbers.
Remember this, and mark it well.
It’s not that numbers lie, or don’t lie.
It’s something very different: the numbers are dumb and mute. It is we who superimpose our sorry voices on them.
They do not speak at all.
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