Good Tidings: The Belief in Progress from Darwin to Marcuse

Good Tidings: The Belief in Progress from Darwin to Marcuse

Good Tidings: The Belief in Progress from Darwin to Marcuse

Good Tidings: The Belief in Progress from Darwin to Marcuse

Excerpt

Since the eighteenth century, nothing illuminates the spiritual character of Western civilization so well as the response of thinkers to the question of human progress. Their belief (or disbelief) in progress and their explanations of the mechanism of progress reflect the whole course of modern history, and sum up the hopes and fears of Western man.

Great ideas are inevitably difficult to define, if only because their meaning tends to change from generation to generation. Even at a particular moment they have many uses and operate on different levels of complexity. But the belief in progress poses special problems. Thinkers in all fields have filled it with every imaginable kind of substantive content. In itself the idea of progress is a thought-form, or in Arthur O. Lovejoy's terminology a "unit-idea," rather than a doctrine with a prescribed ideological thrust. Depending on one's values, a belief in progress may be conservative or radical, religious or anti-religious, rational or irrational. Everything hinges on the thinker's definition of the good, by which he measures what is "better" or "worse" in the stream of history.

The word "progress" carries with it no necessary axiological implications. A Roman who progressus fecit in studiis advanced in his studies. The tour taken by a prince or prelate on official business was once known as a "progress." Even today, "progress" may denote nothing more than simple forward motion or development. "The army made little progress in its attempt to reach the sea." "The doctors were alarmed by the rapid progress of his disease. . . ."

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