The Myth of Progress

Very often – both in mainstream news commentary and in the undergrowth of internet comments – one hears remarks about the ‘right side of history’. Likewise there are frequent assumptions about ‘progress’ – that certain things will be utterly accepted a hundred years from now, or rejected or whatever. Underlying all this is an assumption that history is progressing in a linear direction towards some destination. This is not a new assumption – both the Whig and Marxist theories of history did the same thing, and both arguably took religious predecessors and stripped them of their theology. Yet the assumption is also false.

The idea of continuous and inevitable progress can’t even be sustained in the field of technology, where perhaps one could make the greatest case. It takes longer to get to New York from London than it did 30 years ago, and technological progress in aviation was far more startling in the 40 years from 1929 to 1969 than in the 40 from 1969 to 2009. Technological improvements have their sudden spurts, but also have their plateaus. They also have their regresses, as the loss of certain techniques following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire demonstrates.

The assumption of ‘progress’ in political or social fields is even more questionable. Something can be socially acceptable in ancient Greece, unacceptable in Medieval Europe, and accepted again centuries later. Which was the move in the ‘right’ direction? Democracy can appear in ancient Greece, be disdained as akin to anarchy for millennia, and then reappear again – is it on the ‘right side of history’? Empires rise, but they also always inevitably fall. The very assumption that one set of political or social standards is ‘right’ presupposes an absolute scale of values – but many of those who use such language reject the existence of any transcendental being or state that would necessarily have to underpin those values.

For those of us who do accept such a transcendental reference point, there’s nothing to imply that humanity is always moving in that direction. To take a more specific example, the scriptures show a humanity that drifts in every which direction – a humanity that fell from the presence of God, and then moves even further away as mankind becomes ‘carnal’ and ‘devilish’ (Alma 12 & Moses 5). A mankind that then engages in a cyclical pattern of history of pride and apostasy, on a national and I would argue an individual level. Neither the Deuteronomic History nor the Book of Mormon depict an ‘onward and upwards’ glorious pattern of progress, but rather an constant cycle that if anything trends downwards. Nor are the scriptures positive of our own period in history (D&C 1 & 45), and likewise the record of our own recent history should humble us: the record of totalitarian genocide in the 20th century and the world wars are a stumbling block to anyone who concludes we’re inevitably making ‘progress’.

Appeals to ‘progress’ or the ‘right side of history’ are founded on a myth, and attempt to short-cut any arguments of reason or morality by effectively arguing ‘this is inevitable, this is the way it’s going to be, why fight it?’ But history twists and turns on itself, and just because something is going to happen doesn’t make it right, or mean we should concede to it, or mean that ultimately there is no turning back. And – however long it takes (and it may take centuries or millenia), sometimes it takes turning back to make ‘progress’, if one has been moving in the wrong direction.

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One thought on “The Myth of Progress

  1. Pingback: Reasons to read the Old Testament #3 | David's random ramblings

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