Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview

Literary Images of Progress: The Fate of an Idea

Samuel L. Macey

Summary I shall concentrate on some of the ways in which Western technology and its associated modern sense of time consciousness have affected the development of the idea of progress during the past three hundred years.

The British horological revolution of 1660-1760 was at the cutting edge of Western technology and resulted in an increased consciousness of time in the English language. Among other words, progress itself changes its meaning during the seventeenth century from a progress through space (as in Pilgrim's Progress) to a progress or advancement through earthly time, in which, for example, bourgeois financial aspirations are satisfied through navigation and trade. This newer meaning of progress is reflected in the many novels of Defoe.

Chronological awareness also becomes much more acute during the seventeenth century. It is clearly related to the new meaning of progress and is well illustrated in Condorcet's utopian vision of man's social and moral progress in the future. Ironically, however, the ultimate eighteenth-century clock in the form of the chronometer contributed greatly to the improvement in navigation and mapping. This brought an end to utopias (or even dystopias) placed in unknown distant lands. As a result, many of the more recent dreams of progress (as occurs with Condorcet, Marx, or Huxley in contradistinction to Utopia, the New Atlantis, or Gulliver's Travels) had to be projected into the future.

In the age leading up to Darwinism, the rigidity of the clockwork in Newton's universe meant that the model was doomed. The organic model, foreshadowed in Humes's Dialogues ( 1779), would be more appropriate to the evolutionary connotations with which progress was to become associated. In the nineteenth century this sense of progress through time motivates not only Darwinian evolution but also the dialectics of Hegel and Marx. In our own Einsteinian century the newly discovered expanding universe is similarly based on the model of an evolutionary progress through time.

Three hundred years ago, the idea of making a worthwhile progress in terms of our time on this earth allowed us to break out from an enclosed world inhibited by transcendental values and the fear of an Armageddon to be produced by God. Today, our quickening sense of future doom, particularly among the young, warns us that Western technology could create its own Armageddon. The next generation may well refuse to pay the price that unrestricted progress would now appear to demand.

Those of us who are from the Western world and more than forty years old have spent the greater part of our lives in a society where the idea of progress was equated with virtue. Progress was clearly good. There were, of course, such earlier indications that all might not be well with the idea of progress as the fin de siècle disillusion with material progress and the post-World War I despair with progress.1 During the middle of the 1960s, however, progress--and more specifically material progress through technology--came to be questioned on a scale that had not occurred for some three hundred years. Since the questioning of the idea of progress involves an agonizing dilemma that will remain with us for the rest

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