The Enticing Light of Progress

In November 1784, Berlinischer Monatsschrift published an article titled “An answer to the question: what is enlightenment?” The article’s author was Immanuel Kant. “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from self-inflicted immaturity (Unmündigkeit),” he famously replied. And Kant’s stance on the question has yet to lose its charm. Nearly two hundred years later, Michel Foucault still asserts the question of “what is the Enlightenment?” and claims that modernity finds itself in a constant desire to know where we are right now. This long standing question is a historical staple that continues to preoccupy the present.

American author J.B. Burys, in The Idea of Progress published in 1920, shows a conflicting and difficult interpretation of progress. According to its definition, progress is the belief that “civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction.” But what is preferred in this instance? When the elderly Rousseau went for a walk in a pasture he admired for its beauty, he discovered a knitting factory in the middle of the idyll. He was horrified and disgusted. Yet if his old adversary, Denis Diderot, had made the same discovery, he would have become curious and happily interested. Maybe even paid a study visit. For Diderot, but not for Rousseau, the factory in nature’s womb was a small sign of progress “in a desirable direction.”

Subjective perceptions cannot be used to define progress. Its solid foundation is the idea that man, through deliberate action, can change the circumstances of his existence. As a result, man has some control over his future. The advocate of progress believes that change can realize their dreams and desires. His detractors do not deny the shifting power of action. Nonetheless, they are convinced that it disrupts a natural order or simply confirms man’s attachment to an inherently hopeless existence.

Such a forward-thinking approach can be traced back to the 17th century. However, if someone is to be crowned as the subject’s founding father, only one man holds such esteem: the English philosopher and politician, Francis Bacon. He was the one who made the understandably serious claim that people could improve their lot with the help of new knowledge, new technology, and new forms of cooperation.

For a long time, this ideal of progress was a show with few followers; however, with the Enlightenment in the 18th century, it gained in popularity. Nonetheless, it was a perception that only a thin layer of so-called educated people shared. When one of the first hot-air balloons — which Kant saw as the pinnacle of technological progress — crashed to the ground outside of Paris, it was attacked by peasants armed with pitchforks and other weapons. They were under the impression that the moon had fallen from their firmament. In most places, a widespread shift in belief of progress did not occur until the end of the nineteenth century, if at all.

Optimism is never easy. It’s surrounded by “if” and “but” statements. At first glance, the English 19th-century philosopher Herbert Spencer appears unshaken in his belief in positive development of the future. He bases his theories on cosmic and biological evolutionary laws. The progress of man and society appears to be the result of the great universal law of evolution.

But when the laissez-faire society he envisioned ran into new, unexpected challenges in the form of not only trade tariffs – and other competition restrictions — but also measures that made the lives of the poor and oppressed more difficult, Spencer issued the pamphlet The Man versus the State (1884). If the authorities did not recognize that the struggle for survival was also a blessing for those who did not manage to survive, progress would come to an abrupt halt. The human race’s positive development was thus dependent on its conscious adherence to the laws of development.

There are few visions of a better future for humanity without reservations. Progressive thinking is never limited to asserting or establishing a specific process. It also identifies action that will allow for continued positive development. It warns of dangers and disasters that can only be avoided by following a specific, possibly difficult path.

Thus the concept of progress is never without a dark shadow of decay, degeneration, and threatening accidents. This is due to the fact that the concept of progress is always more or less action-oriented. It says: Do this, and things will improve. In the same breath, it threatens: If you do not follow my advice, you will suffer misfortune.

Only well-considered pessimists, such as Arthur Schopenhauer, deny the possibility of such an action. The pursuit of life is merely in captivity under the guise of blind will. The only freedom that exists is freedom from all desires and drives. According to Schopenhauer, the only way to achieve such peace is through pure music.

One of Schopenhauer’s successors, Eduard von Hartmann, combined optimism and pessimism in an unusual way. Humanity has truly advanced. Knowledge expanded. Everyone would one day gain a complete understanding of the essence of existence. Then they’d realize its nothingness and commit a massive collective suicide.

From Bury onwards, several books have been written about the concept of progress. They suffer from a lack of distinguishing the positive aspects of future images from the negative; the promises from the threats. The literature on modern concepts of degeneration and decay is more limited. Yet one powerful monograph on the subject, Arthur Herman’s The Idea of Decline in Western History, is well worth it.

The flowing documentation of various ideas of decay is the book’s best feature. Herman is an excellent narrator who has amassed a large amount of material. On the other hand, the analyses don’t accurately examine what they seek to understand. An example of this is Herman’s habit of grouping together performances that have little in common. He dislikes thinkers who try to test their readers’ patience with a certain level of complication.

On the other hand, he rightly emphasizes the close relationship between progress and the concept of maturity. They are, as he says on the first page, two sides of the same coin. He also observes that those who predict disaster usually point to a path that contrarily leads to a prosperous state.

Herman takes on a long list of characters for his treatment. Some are obvious, such as Joseph Arthur de Gobineau, one of Nazism’s ancestors with his aristocratic racism, and Francia Galton, Darwin’s cousin, with her warnings of humanity’s impending decline unless decisive action is taken to prevent the worst in society from multiplying. Oswald Spengler’s Destruction of the West (1918-22), as well as his more sympathetic English counterpart, Arnold Toynbee, are also difficult to avoid.

Others are less obvious and more refreshing to divulge. For instance, Henry Adams (1838-1918), the brilliant representative of a New England family that produced two U.S. presidents, belongs there. The historian and author was known best for his autobiography. Adams ideals of progress were no doubt shaped by those he knew as mentors. Two greats among that list of mentors being Auguste Comte, the father of positivism, and Karl Marx.

However, Adams drew pessimistic conclusions from both their theories. He seemed to be able to discern the disintegration of the times by relying on Comte. Marx, he believed, had taught him that industrial society bore an insurmountable injustice. Adams saw his contemporary United States as a decaying society due to its large influx of immigrants and restless modernization. His inner circle also shared that same belief. They dreamed of an arcadian existence in the United States, where the ideality of the constitution was alive and well. In reality, the ideal of the modern U.S. embraced materialism which brought about moral decay.

Another American (to whom Hermans refers), William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963), came from a less fortunate background than Adams. Du Bois was Black, but he was remarkable in that he was able to study at Harvard. Throughout his writing, he devoted himself to the future of Black Americans and Africans.

It was one of the tenets of vulgar Darwinism to predict the demise of dark-skinned races. Du Bois flipped the script stating: it was the whites who were doomed to decline, not the other way around. As it dissolved social ties and culture, industrialization was already a sign of such degeneration. For Blacks, there was still hope. Du Bois, who was in his eighties at the time, became a communist and eventually emigrated to Ghana, the first European colony to gain independence.

Adams and Du Bois’s discussion of decay is very limited. Both see industrialization as a symptom of decay, but seek salvation in a society where development takes different paths. Both are action-oriented: they talk about what needs to be done to avoid impending disasters.

Gradually, it becomes clear that Herman’s concept of degeneration is polemical. Attacking ideals that plant the seeds of degeneration in the hope to stunt its growth, while preserving those he favors.

In an afterword, Herman joins what he sees as an Enlightenment doctrine that he unequivocally associates with individualism. It appears that every non-individualistic thought was linked to a doomsday scenario, which I find absurd. In order to get on the right side of both modern progress and degeneration theories, the theories must be combined.

The story of Enlightenment is not a simple heroic tale of light versus dark powers. It’s a tale of power and control, superstition and the desire to win. It’s also not the story of a unified mind spreading knowledge and action, but of many different barriers, where scientific and technological progress can easily be combined with moral and political decline.

Modernity is frequently described as a period of “Disenchantment” in Max Weber’s imitation (Entzauberung). Everything that was once sacred is being sacrificed in the name of increased rationality and efficiency. But, in the end, we must present the critical notion that we too must also see modernity’s enchantment. Our own present time, in affirmation of progress and fascination with recent technology and organization, also demonstrates its enchantment. We can only begin to reflect on where we are when we can see the enlightenment project with this dual gaze.

Shuresh Moradi is currently a Postdoctoral researcher focusing on the legal theory and development of technology from a critical perspective. Read other articles by Helena.