Theory of progress

A theory of linear succession or progress has been the premise of Western philosophy of history from the beginning of the Christian era and on through today. In the earlier form, taken from biblical sources, the line went from creation to fall to redemption to apocalypse: a straight-forward line exemplified by Augustine’s City of God but nascent in all the thinking of the era.

With the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the same point of view is merely secularized, and progress is recast as the evolving of reason, knowledge, discovery, and technological advancement. In the 19th century, Hegel established the framework for a philosophy of progress, and Darwin’s theory of evolution provided a scientific confirmation, especially for the nascent sociology of the time.

But one of the representative writings on the subject, The Idea of Progress by the British historian J. B. Bury, argues that the theory of progress was not possible until the 17th century — not in antiquity, the Middle Ages, nor even in the Renaissance, for three reasons: 1) the view that Greece and Rome had attained the apex of civilization, 2) a lack of acknowledgment of the value of mundane life and its contribution to society, and 3) the lack of a separation between science and philosophy which would free science for its revolutionary breakthroughs.

Hence, Bury would not link the Christian view to a formal theory of progress, nor to Hegel, probably, but to concrete material conditions resulting from the application of post-17th century thought. However, when this theory of progress is contrasted with an alternative such as the Eastern cyclical view or Nietzschean recurrence does it become clear that the theory of progress is distinctly Western, nor merely Christian, scientific, or modern.

The optimism of the West in the continued evolution of society on principles of social and technological progress is basic to Western thought, a faith in rational principles leading to universal improvements, to a best of possible worlds. But the pragmatic theory of progress is functionally contrived by those few who would benefit from the extension of the instruments and institutional structures of progress (economic, financial, political, military, educational, etc.). The average person is expected to accept the notion that society can undergo constant evolution and progress so long as that innate force within history (Spirit, Reason, Science, the “market”) is allowed to be interpreted by the authorities, much like the ancient Roman augurs.

Every once in a while, this acceptance is gainsaid in a particular part of the world, but like a natural seismic eruption or the cycle of tidal ebb and flow, conditions return to where they were, only with new faces replacing the old ones.

Only with the 20th century has faith in the theory of progress been shattered in the minds of many intellectuals, though the majority of the people stubbornly adhere to the augurs of progress. World War I had an enormous impact on a generation of writers, artists, and thinkers, but their work has been viewed by critics (under the rubric of “the academy”) as a subjective expression of mere stress, angst, and the hothouse behavior that results when a person is placed under unnerving conditions.

A theory of progress, decorum, and complementarianism (the view that creative efforts should be expressions of the social-political paradigm, what in the Soviet Union was called social realism) persists in media and popular expression. The coverage selected and the criticism applied has the function of keeping within bounds what the masses consume, what they must consume in order to maintain allegiance to the present paradigm of institutions and beliefs. Underlying these beliefs must be a theory of progress, implicit in the notion that security, order, and well-being are granted by power from above and not sought for or achieved by independent individual effort.

Progress can only be a product of individual consciousness defining health and well-being. No sage has ever advocated consulting the institutions of his age for wisdom but recommended plumbing the mind or heart within to derive direction. Only after the death of sages is the message seized by others for their aggrandizement, made to be a theory of power and domination, and set forth to undermine the spirit of the orginal sage, which always preferred individual effort and a philosophy of solitude and benevolence.

Solitude is inimical to power, shuns power, seeks its own progress. A progress that is an illusion, enhancing the few and fooling the masses, is for the solitary the opposite of progress, for it does not consult nature or quiet the mind in order to begin reconsturcting the self. But the theory of progress is an old device masking power, and concealing what the 20th century creative souls — and those brave 19th century figures like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche — unmasked as lies about human nature.

What is the alternative to progress for the grand institutions of today? It is a devolution to simplicity, to individuals and small social units, to natural industry and exchange, to a relationship to nature based on value and not exploitation or power. The alternative to progress is a devolution of artificial wealth, privilege, and legitimacy.

The “decline of the West” (to cite Spengler’s title) means not only the decline of the theory of progress but the decline of the artificial social and economic conditions that have propped up institutions and circles of wealth and power based on belief in that theory. Here is a beginning point for anyone who has not connected the experience of the 20th century “Age of Anxiety” with the present devolution of global systems of power. Here is the beginning point for a philosophy of solitude based on a realization that progress is a chimera, a fog that suppresses mind, spirit, and body.

Tao te ching 8

Chapter 8 of the Lao-tzu Tao te ching presents water as that from which virtues can be derived by imitation of its characteristics. Water is an example of how nature (or an object of nature) teaches or presents models for human behavior that allow the individual to identify what is fruitful and harmonious for the self. While one may argue that other models of nature exist (“nature red in tooth and claw,” for example), they are out of context with the totality and often a priori. Taoism presents water as a universal object, at all times and in all contexts. The characteristics of water underlie the potentialities and actions of the myriad creatures, among them human beings.

(Here again we’ll use the D. C. Lau translation for its clarity and scholarship.)

Highest good is like water.
Because water excels in benefiting the myriad creatures
without contending with them
and settles where none would like to be,
water comes close to the Tao.

The opening paragraph describes water as not contending or striving with anyone or anything. This characteristic of water is a benefit to all. Water yields when confrontation looms, goes forward when opportunity is available, pulls back and waits patiently when obstacles arise. And water always seeks out the lowest place, that place where there will be no contention because nothing else wants to be so lowly.

Humility is a recurrent theme in the Tao te ching, but one does not necessarily associate water with humility. The characteristic is contextual: a booming ocean wave contrasted to a country ditch or a latrine. But it is water all the same.

The virtues of water are the virtues of sages and hermits. Obscurity is not literal. Water does not hide, flee, or disappear, but it is often hard to find and when found is hard to identify in its origin. So the sage is standing before us, or is one we never see or realize has wisdom. The hermit, too, is walking amongst us, in the city, the town, the countryside — not necessarily hidden away in a monastery or cave or distant hut.

But might as well be, for the hermit is a solitary in mind, heart, and spirit, and naturally seeks out the places where no one goes, indirectly benefiting everyone by lack of contention — by lifting up a heart full of nature and joy, but not as the world celebrates it. The hermit is flexible and a lifting of heart is contextual, as is a quiet or sad heart – booming wave or quiet trickle. The sage and hermit are flexible and easily live in simple or harsh conditions, demanding little, observant of the cycles of nature as they will benefit him or her, just as the sage and hermit will benefit nature and its creatures by not harming, abusing, or exploiting them.

The cycle of seasons instructs the sage and hermit, and water is an integral aspect of each. Not that the hermit is obliged to live in any given place. The taiga of Russia or the deserts of the Middle East were mono-seasonal, though they had subtle changes of season to which the hermit was attentive. Every change of season, even changes in cold or hot places, are brought about by water.

There are modern writers who say that water cures nearly all diseases, based on the premise that blood and tissue and electrical impulses are all based on uses of water and its elements in the body and in the atmosphere. The purity and simplicity of water is a metaphor for health and well-being.

Tao te ching 8 applies the notion of deriving virtues from nature to specific virtues that, like water, benefit all yet retain simplicity and obscurity in their non-contention. Following D. C. Lau, these are two sets of threes, skipping the interpolation of a reference to house-siting, which suggests a later feng-shui interest not appropriate to Lao-tzu:

In quality of mind it is depth that matters
In friendship it is benevolence
In speech it is good faith
In government it is order
In affairs it is ability
In action it is timeliness.

Alternatively, here is Red Pine’s more literal version:

thinking with depth
helping with kindness
speaking with truth
governing with peace
working with skill
moving with time

The first set of three applies to the individual: self, other, others; the second set applies to social interactions: government, business, world. The refrain (in Lau) about what matters in each case establishes, first, the reality confronted by the individual, and then the virtue that should be pursued in order to make the reality non-contentious.

Thus the quality of mind is best when deep, as in meditation, where idle thoughts and images not only do not disturb mind but further do not contribute to depth. The quality of friendship consists in the kindness or mutuality that is shared in non-contention, in the relationship of courtesy and openness that friends share. Communication beyond that is best characterized by “good faith,” or honesty, constructiveness, “truth” in Red Pine’s version — in words that are few but meaningful.

On the social level, government is best when its function is to maintain order. Order means peace internally and externally. Benevolence must first come from individuals in this scheme — if this prerequisite does not exist, government will be incapable of order. Likewise, business (“affairs” or “work”) must be characterized by mutual exchange of abilities, skills, and products of quality, functionality, and endurance. Without this virtue to business transactions, fraud and corruption result. But this fraud will have been the product of previous lack of virtue in this hierarchy from self, friends, society, and “government” or ordered interactions.

Thus, by “government” Lao-tzu refers to the convention of the emperor, but reduces it to order, ultimately a product of individuals. By “affairs” Lao-tzu refers to the convention of business, reducing it to exchanges of productivity and skill, as when a farmer sells his produce or a craftsman makes a tool. Reducing virtues to fundamentals brings us closer to visualizing the simplicity of personal relations, and brings us closer to the context of ancient China when the Tao te ching was composed.

Finally, the reference to action (or “moving”) means that only with these many preconditions does the virtuous person safely “act” or participate. At that point, the acting is to embrace a beneficent situation. The timing of action must be right because beneficence does not always manifest itself in all these factors from mind to friendships to business. If no one in the world is virtuous, the hermit will not act. Thus we extrapolate the Confucian advice to “recluse when the emperor is evil” and we anticipate Chuang-tzu’s philosophy of “non-action” in evil times.

The last sentence in this chapter probably belongs at the end of the paragraph on water:

It is because it does not contend that it is never at fault.

The sage or hermit of today can apply the virtues of water to life itself. These virtues are not mere metaphors or abstractions. The virtues show us how to find in non-contention a source of happiness and well-being.