History of the Idea of Progress, by Robert Nisbet, New York: Basic Books, 1980, 370 pp., $16.95.
Robert Nisbet once again offers the reader a glimpse of his encyclopedic grasp of the intellectual history of Western civilization. This volume covers, somewhat differently, much of the ground examined more than a decade ago in Social Change and History, and it certainly can most profitably be read in conjunction with The Twilight of Authority (1975).
The idea of progress as Nisbet defines it "holds that mankind has advanced in the past—from some aboriginal condition of primitiveness, barbarism, or even nullity—is now advancing, and will continue to advance through the foreseeable future." This advance includes not just knowledge narrowly defined but also mankind's spiritual and moral condition. Although its advocates have seldom felt the need to prove this assumption, Nisbet believes that on the whole the idea has done more good, led to more creativity, given more strength to human hope and the desire for improvement, than any other concept in Western civilization.
Part one traces the idea from the ancient world, through the rise of Christianity, the medieval period, the Renaissance, and up to what might be called the modern era of Western history. Part two contrasts "progress as freedom" on the one hand with "progress as power" on the other. Illuminating the former are some very penetrating discussions of the idea in the hands of Turgot, Gibbon, Adam Smith, the American Founding Fathers, Condorcet, William Godwin, Malthus, Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer. For these writers, progress was essentially reflected in the emancipation of the individual from the control of the State. Among those of the opposite persuasion, Nisbet explores the writings of such thinkers as Rousseau, Saint-Simon, Comte, Herder, Fichte, Hegel, and Gobineau.
The bulk of Nisbet's own analysis about the future of the idea of progress is found in the aptly titled last chapter, "Progress at Bay." If the idea of progress now fails, it will be because of a loss of belief in its "crucial premises," he contends. These have been: "belief in the value of the past; conviction of the nobility, even superiority, of Western civilization; acceptance of the worth of economic and technological growth; faith in reason and the kind of scientific and scholarly knowledge that can come from reason alone; and, finally, belief in the intrinsic importance, the ineffaceable worth of life on this earth." He cites a number of contemporary intellectuals whose works in one way or another question these assumptions.
After Nisbet's perceptive coverage of the history of the idea of progress, and his description of those factors accompanying the present crisis, the analysis of why we are in this situation and what, if anything, can be done to change these circumstances is somewhat disappointing. As in The Twilight of Authority, Nisbet rather hesitantly suggests that "the faint, possibly illusory, signs of the beginning of a religious renewal in Western civilization" will restore authority and a faith in the idea of progress. At times his own work is perhaps all too illustrative of the degradation of knowledge and decline of scholarship which Nisbet complains is characteristic of our age. Thus, as in several of his earlier works, it is difficult in some instances to know precisely from whence a quote—often lengthy—has been taken. Unlike The Twilight of Authority, however, an index has been included in this volume.
The major theme of Social Change and History was a criticism of the use of a biological metaphor—birth, youth, maturity, decline, and death—as a deterministic explanation of the cyclical view of history. An unyielding faith or belief in progress, however, is but the other side of that outlook. The notion of the spiral view of history, which Nisbet does mention without much comment, is an attempt to combine recurring cycles of rise and decline with the idea of progress. Some might think it a rather bad choice of alternatives that Nisbet, having dismissed determinism, calls for a restoration of faith as the underpinning of progress. Determinism is thus replaced by predestination!
There are other options and bases for causation and analysis that Nisbet does not appear to consider and that suggest free will and human liberty, a few examples of which must suffice here. In his Evolution of Civilizations, Carroll Quigley noted that civilizations develop in the first place because of the discovery of some new instrument of expansion which generates a surplus. Because of the ensuing bureaucratization and governmental expropriation of this surplus, the discovery of a new instrument of expansion has been far more effective in rescuing the civilization than either reform or revolution, which, as Jacques Ellul has indicated, tend to become statist in character. As the brilliant research of Jean Gimpel, among others, has shown, Western civilization, contrary to the usual progress model, has already undergone one rise and decline in its development. Furthermore, as L.S. Stavrianos has demonstrated, "dark ages" have traditionally been creative periods of growth. The real uniqueness of the West lies in the fact that no power has been able to establish a universal empire over it.
It would be foolish to be blindly optimistic about the future since progress is not foreordained. On the other hand, the "faint, possibly illusory, signs" of a religious renewal by an essentially conservative thinker such as Nisbet is just that: illusion, in terms of offering any real hope for liberty. In all the floundering and specialization of science, however, what is unmistakable is the gradual emergence of a new synthesis of natural law, which transcends traditional disciplinary lines and modes of thought. Thus, for example, Vernard Foley explains that the core of Adam Smith's worldview derived from the pre-Socratics, while the physicist F. Capra compares the ideas of some of the sophists with the Taoists and points out the similarities with conceptions of modern physics. All of which is to suggest that progress is not so much "at bay" as in one of those exciting periods of anomaly and change, often thought of as "dark" by those of a more orderly and conservative temperament.
William Marina is a contributing editor of REASON and teaches in the College of Business and Public Administration at Florida Atlantic University.