What Is Progress? | Pushing the Wave

What Is Progress?

Opinion, 19 April 2023
by L.A. Davenport
London Skyscrapers
Skyscrapers in the City of London
My fourth edition of The Little Oxford Dictionary, published in 1969, defines progress principally as “forward movement,” “advance,” and “development.”

The way we use the word, however, and did in even the 1960s is more commonly in the context of progressivism. As Wikipedia (apologies for using that source, but convenience reigns) has it, the word thus means “advancements in technology, science, and social organization” that have resulted, “and by extension will continue to result, in an improved human condition.”

This is an interesting idea. Note they refer there to the human condition as opposed to humanity itself. The human condition is the context and way in which we live, whereas humanity is what we are as humans, our innate characteristics.

As Dr Saul Levine puts it, the human condition, as a term, “was coined in 1958 by the political thinker Hanna Arendt, and summarizes for me the complexities, and both the rewarding and difficult experiences of being a human being.”

In other words, it is all about major aspects of life and the events that define it, including birth, learning, emotion, aspiration, morality, conflict, and death, as Wikipedia again has it. Human nature, on the other hand, is the essence of humankind, or what it means to be human.

The problem is that we have a tendency, as humans, to conflate the two ideas into one, believing that improvements in the human condition improve us as humans.

And again we confuse what actually improves the human condition with what simply changes the way life is lived. It is moot whether colour televisions, juicers and yoga mats are actually an improvement in the human condition in the same way as sanitation, workers rights, and modern medicines, for example.

The consequence is that we think that modern conveniences improve not only the way we live but also us as humans, which they do not. Worse, this twisted logic lends people to think that those with washing machines and fridges are ‘better’ than those who do not have such tools, thus fuelling a large part of the prejudice that people in the West have against most other people on the planet.

There is another aspect of our assumptions that has in part been discredited but nevertheless persists and shapes our frame of reference. It was assumed in Western thinking that progress was an arrow pointing forever onwards, with one single destination: the achievement of the ideal human, living in the ideal conditions.

Being a Western philosophy, it was naturally assumed that civilisation as it was found Europe, and then in the US, was the ultimate expression of all that society and humanity could offer, and once it had been cleansed of its worst and mixed elements, it would offer to the world the shining example of life and how it should be lived.

You can see where this would lead: directly and unswervingly to Nazism, or something very much like it.

And yet, defined in that jumbled and conflated manner, there is no such thing as ‘progress’, which is a truth that we have never grasped, or even really tried to tackle.

That statement may seem odd when one looks at how individuals lived in the 16th century, with their lack of inside toilets and basic human rights, but one only has to compare them the existence of well-to-do Romans around the time of Christ to realise that progress, such as it exists, is nothing at all like a straight arrow pointing perpetually into the future (a series of circles might seem more appropriate as a metaphor).

The reality is that our circumstances and the tools that we use (see my discussion of ChatGPT) may shift constantly, but humanity is reborn with every generation, clean and fresh as the day it began.

Armchair commentators may be amazed that the thoughts and frameworks of the common people do not progress or even change at all but of course that is much to the relief of the psychologist, psychotherapist or philosopher, who rely on human nature remaining fixed and unchanged by external evolutions to make a dime.

All of this makes me think about that landmark piece of historical journalism Extraordinary Popular Delusions and The Madness of Crowds, by Charles Mackay, which was first published in 1841 and debunks among other things alchemy, crusades, duels, economic bubbles, fortune-telling, and haunted houses.

I came to it first as a late teenager and devoured it, although I actually understood very little of it. I was, at the time, bewildered by much of what was going on in the world, and this book told me I was right to be, as there was plenty of historical precedents to show that humans have been capable of folly from time immemorial.

Now, much older and apparently a little wiser, I understand the book in much more depth, and appreciate more the parallels that one can draw between events in the past and today’s collective idiocies.

What I find sad now, however, is Mackay wrote the book because he thought he was in a new age of reason, when all the silliness would disappear and the wider provision of education would mean that the ill-equipped wouldn’t have to be duped by charlatans, as they would be enlightened. Consequently, we would approach things in a cooler, more rational manner.

How wrong he was. There are so many examples I could pick from the current age, but GOOP is a perfect example. Even when Gwyneth Paltrow and her products are quite rightly derided in the press and by people at large, there are enough people desperate to believe in what she peddles that she can make millions.

It is easy to mock and move on, of course, not thinking any more about why someone might buy her particular brand of snake oil or would be taken in by the frankly dangerous claims around homeopathy or crystal healing, among others, especially when we live in an age of light and clarity, and the rigours of the scientific method can offer so much reassurance. It is nevertheless an important phenomenon to consider.

People, all of us, want control. We want to feel we have, in the modern parlance, agency over our own existences. And so much of the world, then and now, takes that sense of agency away from us. Whether it is the callousness of commerce, the cruelty of illness, the depersonalisation of the medical process, or whatever else you care to name, that is what we suffer, regularly.

It makes us feel powerless and alone, and we look for something or someone to make us feel as if we are cared for, and that our emotions are given as much importance as the contents of our wallets or the likelihood that we are going to die.

We are searching for dignity, and some of us, when in deeply vulnerable need, are sadly taken in. These people shouldn’t be mocked, and certainly not pitied, but understood, and helped to see the truth more clearly.

In my mind, it is the salespeople targeting the vulnerable and desperate who should be ashamed, and it is they who should be exposed again and again.

Perhaps we need another Mackay, to catalogue the embarrassing follies of humanity over the intervening almost two centuries. Just as long as we don’t think that humanity will change, or that we have much chance of progress.
Well, I went on there much longer than I thought I would, so I shall leave it there for now. Other than to say that, on the writing front, I am making good progress with a follow-up to my memoir My Life as a Dog.

I have also finished the first part of a much project that I hope to have up and available for you to listen to in a few weeks.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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What Is Progress? | Pushing the Wave