Books: Drop the Dead Enlightenment. and Find Some Old-Time Religion ; Life, Say the Politicians, Must Always Get Better. Yet the Last Century Saw Endless Atrocities Committed in the Name of `Progressive' Causes. So Could It Really Be Time for a Great Leap Backwards?
Gray, John, The Independent (London, England)
by Anthony O'Hear
Bloomsbury, pounds 14.99, 270pp
SCEPTICISM ABOUT progress is not new. It flowered brilliantly around the turn of the 20th century, when - often influenced by Nietzsche - a whole generation of artists and writers condemned the values of Europe's bourgeois civilisation. They had little influence. The 20th century was ruled by a religion of progress. Soviet Communism was not recognised by opinion-formers for the horror it was, partly because for many it embodied that faith.
Even the Nazi regime appealed to a perverted idea of modernity, justifying enslavement and genocide by pseudo-science. Today, despite this sorry history, no political party stands a chance which does not hold out the promise of a life better than any that human beings have ever known.
The 20th century made a mockery of faith in progress. Yet there are few who dare to question a creed that has been used to justify the worst crimes. Anthony O'Hear is one of that small band. After Progress is a refreshing and thought- stirring interrogation of an idea - or illusion - that nearly everybody takes for granted.
O'Hear traces the history of the idea of progress back to the English statesman, Francis Bacon, whom he rightly sees as one of the first Enlightenment philosophers. Through the influence of the Enlightenment, the idea of progress has come to animate practically all thought. In an acidulous discussion of contemporary education, O'Hear argues that the ideas of Rousseau - paradoxically, one of the Enlightenment's greatest critics - have been used to disparage intellectual superiority. He speculates shrewdly that Dada and Pop Art will come to be seen as the seminal artistic innovations of the last century. In one of the most interesting sections, he notes how planning has been replaced by another, scarcely less unreasonable form of economic rationalism: the cult of the free market.
O'Hear assembles a ragged army of Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, notably Joseph de Maistre, Edmund Burke, and J G Herder, to prove that the idea of progress has never gone uncontested. Here his hostility to the Enlightenment gets the better of his intellectual history. De Maistre may have rejected the idea, but that ultramontane Frenchman is quite untypical of the Enlightenment's critics. Burke cherished the notion of progress as only a pious Whig could, attacking the French Revolution because it endangered incremental improvements. Equally, Herder never dreamt of throwing out progress. He sought to decouple it from French universalism by giving it a pluralistic twist. Burke and Herder aimed to correct the Enlightenment idea of prog- ress, not to destroy it.
O'Hear's slightly shaky account of the Counter-Enlightenment points to a deeper problem. He treats the notion of progress as if it emerged out of nowhere with Francis Bacon. He does not ask why it came about as it did, in early modern Christendom, and had until then appeared nowhere else. …