When the message that things were not only getting better and better, but were going to go on getting better until they became perfect, was first preached, its recipients — luckily for the preachers — were in a mood to listen.14
They had not only been enjoying a longish period of domestic peace. For the upper classes and upper middle classes there had been a general increase in wealth and comfort, a situation which tends to encourage people to believe that their personal good fortune means that everything is getting better for everybody.
To begin with, as we have seen, progress was attributed to human intelligence. Men were backward because they were ignorant: proper education would set everything right. But soon progress came to be seen as a tendency operating throughout nature independently of man. The most usual way was to think of it as a physical force like one of the elements. Then Hegel introduced the idea that the forward march of things follows the pattern of an argument between philosophers, Darwin made it dependent on the fight for survival between contending species, and Marx on the clash of classes.
How did these ideas slip so easily into the European consciousness without anyone noting their novelty? No one had ever doubted that things had got better at different times and places. But after a spell they had usually got worse again. What reason was there for believing that now, even if there should be occasional relapses, they were destined to go on getting better until they became perfect?
There were, in fact, no reasons. But there was a strong cultural climate inclining people to think this way. The idea came from the Jewish-Christian belief that history has a beginning, a middle and an end — a direction and purpose. Although the idea is now widely taken for granted, it had nowhere established itself outside of the Judaeo-Christian world.
All other great civilisations known to us, when immune from Jewish or Christian influence, have taken the view that time and history, like the planets, follow a cyclical course. Whatever has happened once will, after the passage of enough time, happen again, and these recurring cycles will repeat themselves ad infinitum. (Scientific belief in the theory of an oscillating universe seems to be a partial return to this ancient idea.) History is essentially futile, while matter is often seen as evil or an illusion. Wisdom consists in escaping from the wheel of time or the burden of matter by contemplation, leading to the individual's spiritual absorption into the "One." 15
The fact that many Westerners have continued to believe in history's having a beginning, end, direction and purpose so long after they have rejected the grounds for such a belief is a tribute to the power of mental habit, but nothing else. Obviously there are vast differences between Neolithic times and now, but there is nothing in philosophy, science or history to assure us that the gains in natural knowledge and artistic and technical achievements must go on forever, or that they are destined for a triumphal climax in this world. The Enlightenment simply took over Christianity's linear view of history, removed God, and placed the "kingdom of heaven" inside, instead of outside, time. It is in this sense that we can call the religion of perpetual progress a Christian heresy.
It is also a simplification of human history which wins assent only by ignoring its mysterious and intractable factors.
When we talk of things getting better, are we simply thinking about faster cars, improved central heating, more powerful space rockets? Surely not. Who would want to be that crass? Isn't it the whole collection of ideas, activities and achievements which go to make up what we call "civilisation" and "culture"? But they vary in value and do not all progress in the same way or according to the same laws.
Perhaps the best way of understanding the problem is to see civilisation as having a "soul" and a "body." Religion, philosophy, manners and morals make up the "soul." The body comprises the things like literature, art, architecture, science and technology which we can lump together under the term "culture." Soul and body interact. They form one whole. But unless we distinguish between them in the way I have suggested, the ambiguities implicit in the notion of progress remain irresolvable.
The West, even when pursuing spiritual goals like the reign of justice and peace, attaches most importance to the "body." Justice and peace will be achieved by technical means — better political structures, social engineering or psychological manipulation.
For the Church, the "soul" has priority. The measure of a civilisation is not, in the first place, cultural or technical achievements, however good and pleasing to God they may be in themselves. Civilisation's highest achievement is the transformation of the human heart under the influence of grace. A loving, united family, no matter what its material circumstances or level of culture, is "more fully human" and therefore civilised (at any rate supernaturally) than one whose members, even though they have polished manners, are cold and selfish. Nor is justice dependent on advances in knowledge. A primitive society could be more just and peaceful than a highly developed industrial one.
It is the same when we turn from the state of men's hearts to the contents of their heads. If we compare a culturally backward community where there is knowledge of God and respect for his laws with a learned society steeped in unbelief and moral relativism, the total of intellectual darkness is, from the Church's point of view, greater in the latter.
Civilisation in this deeper sense is a matter of the slow building-up of mental and moral habits, rather than of sensational leaps forward in the technological and cultural spheres, and its continuation depends on millions of unknown people maintaining what has already been achieved. 16
No doubt, had there been no Fall, "soul" and "body" would have progressed hand in hand. As it is, however, too much or too rapid growth in the "body" can impede the growth of the "soul" or send it into decline. As we get richer or more powerful we do not necessarily get better. It is as simple as that. Progress in virtue is not a linear ascent, as increase in knowledge and know-how tends to be, but it advances and retreats in individuals and civilisations beneath or within the other kinds of historical change.
Many other components of civilisation seem to follow this fluctuating, rather than steadily ascending, course. As a work of art, Chartres cathedral is neither an advance on the Parthenon nor a regression from it. They are simply different, like the daffodil and the rose. Moreover, while architectural and artistic techniques can improve, with technical improvement there is often a loss of artistic power.
The same applies to civilisations as a whole. The best periods usually come fairly early on and are marked by a certain simplicity. As they ripen and grow in wealth and technical mastery, a coarsening sets in. We see it when we compare fifth century Athens with the Hellenistic age, or fifteenth century Florence with the Florence of the Medici Grand Dukes in the following century. Moreover, as distinct things with their own charms and qualities, civilisations grow, flower, and fade, now in one place now in another, and, once destroyed or dissolved in a different culture, they are gone for good.
The idea of a super-culture at the end of time somehow combining all the virtues and beauties of past cultures may be a nice idea, but it overlooks these patterns of growth and decay. The nineteenth century tried it in architecture and interior decoration, and the result was, for the most part, a collection of pastiches. That you cannot blend cultures without killing them is something conservationists recognise. They are challenging the notion, dear to Teilhard de Chardin, that what is complex and high-powered is in some absolute sense necessarily better or more beautiful.
The scientific and technical advances of the last three centuries do not readily fit into a textbook pattern of progress either. Up to the late Middle Ages, the world's main civilisations had developed to a great extent independently, with all but one, the European civilisation, reaching much the same technological and scientific level, then stopping short in a state of arrested development or collapse. Suddenly from that one has burst a firework display of discoveries which have enriched whole populations in ways that make Roman emperors look like paupers.
The single world civilisation that appears to be coming about as a result will undoubtedly be "higher" in the sense of more powerful. The "body" will be physically stronger, with possibilities for immense good and immense evil that everyone can see. But the "soul . . .? One can easily conceive of a great civilisation of rich, healthy clever people who had supposedly "solved" all their social problems and yet were thoroughly wicked. Already, much that our contemporaries see as progress actually represents regress, and certainly should be seen as such from the Christian perspective.
Here, science-fiction writers often show more wisdom than many theologians and university professors. In their "worlds of the future" or in outer space, the struggle between good and evil goes on undiminished, super-technology notwithstanding.
The main problem for the Church is that in giving her newly developed teaching about the role of civilisation and progress, she has to do it with her rival breathing down her neck and large numbers of her children lending both ears to the rival's message. The more she insists that there is not going to be a heaven on earth this side of the Last Day, the more she exposes herself to the charge of not being wholehearted in her commitment to human welfare, while the more she speaks about "transforming" the world, or building a better one, the more her children are likely to conclude, and indeed do conclude, that she secretly does believe in an earthly utopia and that turning the world into a universal Hilton hotel is what the Church primarily exists for. Many of the Western faithful of all kinds and degrees are now children of the Enlightenment first and Catholics second. They think in the categories of the Enlightenment, make its priorities their own, and see progress, rather than the struggle between good and evil and the salvation of souls, as the central theme of human history. 17
Whether or not the Church wins the immediate battle of words with her new religious rival, the realities of history and human nature make it clear that she rather than that rival is the truest friend of human welfare, in spite of not being able to promise a heaven on earth. By telling her children they must do good at all times, whether civilisation is advancing or retreating, she cannot fail in the long run to produce the most persevering benefactors of the human race. The best proof can be found in St Benedict, with his rule and his religious order sowing the seeds of a new civilisation while his own was falling apart around him, and there seemed every reason to despair of civilisation's future. What comparable motive for courage and perseverance can atheism offer in the face of history's inevitable setbacks and tragedies? 18
15. The uniqueness of the Judaeo-Christian world-view and its importance for the development of modern science is compellingly presented by the historian of science, Stanley Jaki, building on the work of the early 20th century French physicist Pierre Duhem. See The Road of Science and the Ways to God and The Saviour of Science (Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press, 1978 and 1990).
16. Enlightened thinking about progress is often contradictory. If the past was as bad as it is often claimed to have been and everything has to be rebuilt from the ground up, then there has never been any progress.
17. According to The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC)."God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the 'convocation' of men in Christ. and this 'convocation' is the Church.The Church is the goal of all things" (art. 760).
18. "The orthodox Christian is committed to believing in the ultimate victory of good over evil, but not necessarily in the triumph of the Church . . . in this world . . .Where in the Gospels is He (Christ) recorded as assuring his followers of a triumphal march through history?" Nor did He claim "that if his followers encountered difficulties and opposition they should set to work revising his teaching and adapting it to the spirit of the age. He looked for persevering loyalty" (Memoirs of a Philosopher, Frederick Copleston SJ, London, Sheed & Ward, 1993. pp. 205-6.) With regard to civilisation and culture, the ancient Greeks perhaps had an inkling of this truth in the myth of Sisyphus. Every time the ex-King of Corinth got the stone which he had to push up a hill almost to the top, it slipped aside and rolled down to the bottom. The history of civilisation and culture is a bit like that. They are part of God's plan. They are the stone we have to roll up the hill. But in this world we are never going to get it to the top either. After the Last Day, when we have done what we can. God will carry it to the top for us.
Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018
Family Publications has now ceased trading. The copyright has reverted to the author Philip Trower who has given permission for the book to be placed on this website.