The idea of Progress—Progress with a capital “P”—has been in disrepute for a long time now. And with good reason, one would think. The experiences of this century hardly dispose us to any complacency about the present, still less about the future. A pessimistic, even apocalyptic view comes more naturally to a generation which has learned, at great pain, that the most impressive scientific discoveries may be put to the most grotesque use; that material prosperity sometimes has an inverse relationship to the “quality of life”; that a generous social policy may create as many problems as it solves; that the economy remains intractable in spite of all the lessons of Keynesianism, post-Keynesianism, and anti-Keynesianism; that even the most benign governments succumb to the dead weight of bureaucracy while the least benign ones are ingenious in devising new and horrendous means of tyranny; that religious passions are exacerbated in a world that is increasingly secular, and national passions in a world that is fatally interdependent; that the most advanced and powerful countries may be held hostage by a handful of primitive terrorists; that our most cherished principles—liberty, equality, fraternity, justice, even peace—have been perverted and degraded in ways our forefathers never dreamed of. At every point we are confronted with shattered promises, blighted hopes, irreconcilable dilemmas, good intentions gone astray, a choice between evils, a world perched on the brink of disaster—all the familiar clichés, which are all too true and which seem to give the lie to the idea of progress.
Yet it is just this idea that we are now invited to contemplate and to embrace. And we are being urged to do so by one of our major social philosophers, a man who has not only shared these dismal experiences with us but taught us how to think about them. William James made much of the distinction between the “once-born” and the “twice-born”: the once-born, simple, innocent, “healthy-minded,” having faith in a beneficent God and a harmonious universe; the twice-born, self-conscious and self-critical, experiencing life as a “tragic mystery,” acutely aware of the potentiality for evil and of the heroic effort required to overcome it. Robert Nisbet is preeminently the twice-born man. He knows all that can be known about the treacherous simplicities of grand ideas. His work has taken him into three distinct disciplines, and from each he has learned the critical lesson: the sociologist’s respect for the complexities of society, the historian’s for the uniqueness of historical events, the philosopher’s for the irreducibility of ideas to easy formulas. Each has made him (and those of us who have learned so much from him) wary of generalizations. Yet it is the largest, most ambitious of all generalizations, a single idea encompassing all of society through all of history, that he now asks us to entertain: “The idea of progress 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 forseeable future.”
This may seem to be the worst of all times to propose this idea. But the last time it was seriously proposed was not much more auspicious—from which, perhaps, there is a lesson to be learned about the relation of ideas and events. J. B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress appeared just two years after the end of World War I, while England was mourning the loss of the best and the brightest of the generation. Perhaps Bury was expressing some intimation of unease when, at the very end of the book, he raised the possibility that just as providence had had its day, discarded by the progress of civilization, so the idea of progress might be rendered obsolete by progress itself. But this supposition, he hastened to add, might prove to be a “trick of dialectic,” the implication being that the idea would survive in some other form.
A dozen years later, again by some mischief of fate, Bury’s book was published in America, this time at the depth of the Depression and in the shadow of the rise of Nazism. The irony was compounded by the auspices under which the book appeared—a long introduction by Charles Beard, the first sentence of which announced, “The world is largely ruled by ideas, true and false.” This dictum was followed by the equally unlikely one (considering the source) that it was only because ideas have this power that “constitutional and democratic government” is possible, since only ideas can resolve social conflict without violence. (This from the author of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, which was not especially respectful of the ideas of the Founding Fathers, nor, for that matter, of ideas in general as the moving force of history.)
The American edition of Bury coincided with the publication of another book that was more in keeping with the spirit of the times, Carl Becker’s The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers. Becker had earlier written a largely favorable review of Bury, concluding with a quotation that had ominous implications. “Posterity is for the philosopher,” he quoted Diderot, “what the other world is for the religious man.” This later emerged as the theme of his own book. In a deceptively casual tone, with a great show of urbanity and good humor (and without ever mentioning Bury), Becker delivered the coup de grâce to the idea of progress. The philosophes who prided themselves on their modernity and enlightenment, who thought they had discovered the secret of the universe in the happy congruence of nature and reason, who hoped to liberate men from the forces of darkness—religion, superstition, convention, authority—had created a new “age of faith” under the guise of an “age of reason.” Theirs was only another version of Augustine’s Heavenly City.
Becker’s thesis was (and still is, in spite of the criticisms that have been leveled against it) enormously seductive. And not only because it sounds so elegant and sophisticated that any attempt to quarrel with it seems boorish and naive, but also because it is so thoroughly modern in its skepticism and relativism. “Whirl is king,” Becker echoed Aristophanes. All is relative. There is no progress, reason, natural law, or indeed any pattern, meaning, or sense in the universe. The only legitimate questions are “What?” and “How?” “If sometimes, in a moment of absentmindedness or idle diversion, we ask the question ‘Why?’ the answer escapes us. Our supreme object is to measure and master the world rather than to understand it.” The only truth we can be confident of is that today’s truths will be belied tomorrow. There is no higher wisdom than that of Marcus Aurelius: “The man of forty years, if he have a grain of sense, in view of this sameness, has seen all that has been and shall be.”
As Becker does not mention Bury, so Robert Nisbet, in the magisterial work now before us,1 does not mention Becker (perhaps because Nisbet’s temperament disposes him to be more generous in praise than sharp in criticism). Yet every page of this book constitutes a powerful indictment not only of Becker’s ideas but of his manner—cool, skeptical, uncommitted, bemused. This is not to say that Nisbet is returning the argument to where Bury left it. In paying tribute to Bury, Nisbet alludes to his differences with him, but again, so graciously that the gravity of their differences, and therefore the novelty of Nisbet’s own work, may be muted. While Nisbet, like Bury, must be counted among the champions of the idea of progress, his progress is so different that it might almost be another idea.
A clue to the difference lies in the title: Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress compared with Bury’s The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origin and Growth. For Bury, the early manifestations of the idea were significant only for what it was later to become; indeed, he did not find even the germ of the idea until the 16th century. For Nisbet, the idea existed in a complete and mature form in antiquity as well as in the Middle Ages; and so far from seeing the earlier idea as a weak approximation of the later, he interprets the later, Enlightenment idea in terms of the earlier one. Thus where Bury was able to dispose of twenty centuries or so in a brief introductory chapter, Nisbet devotes a considerable portion of his book to that period.
The longest and most provocative section is on Augustine. Whatever reservations one may have about this or that part of Augustine’s philosophy in relation to the idea of progress—the stages of history corresponding to the ages of man and concluding with decay and death; or the “universal conflagration” which was to precede universal redemption—one cannot deny the force of Nisbet’s argument in general. Moreover, it is Nisbet himself who provides us with most of the ammunition that may be used against him; anticipating the objections, he has himself cited the relevant texts. But it is not Nisbet’s exegesis that interests us so much as his thesis—Augustine as the bearer of the “vital, essential elements of the Western idea of progress”:
Mankind or the human race; the unfolding, cumulative advancement of mankind, materially and spiritually through time; a single time frame into which all the civilizations, cultures, and peoples which have ever existed on earth, or now exist, can be compressed; the idea of time as a unilinear flow; the conception of stages and epochs, each reflected by some historic civilization or group of civilizations or a level of cultural development; the conception of social reform rooted in historical awareness; the belief in the necessary character of history and in the inevitability of some future end or objective; the idea of conflict of cities, nations, and classes as the motor spring of the historical process; and finally, the raptured picture of the future, set by Augustine in the psychological, cultural, and economic terms which would remain the essential terms of nearly all utopias in later centuries: affluence, security, equity, freedom, and tranquility. And justice!
This is no pallid progressivism. It is the full-blooded variety we have always associated with the Enlightenment. It may also appear to be a highly secularized interpretation of Augustine. And perhaps it is. But if so, it prepares the way for a more religious view of the Enlightenment itself—and of all philosophies which claim to be truly progressive. Nisbet has turned Becker on his head. If the 18th-century philosophes were merely reconstructing Augustine’s City of God, and if Augustine himself derived his “raptured picture of the future” from the dialectical relationship between the City of God and the City of Man, then the idea of progress—the modern idea as much as the ancient—must be infused with an authentic spirit of religiosity, a sense of man’s worth that is predicated upon a transcendent reality. Becker thought that in attributing a religious quality to the Enlightenment, in establishing its similarity to the Heavenly City, he was “exposing” it, revealing its fatal flaw, its unscientific, unhistorical, unmodern character. What Nisbet has done is to make a virtue out of Becker’s vice.
The scholar fixated upon one or another figure in Nisbet’s story may lose sight of the whole, and that would be a great misfortune: On its own, for example, the account of Augustine may seem overly secularized. But if the story is permitted to unfold—“progressively,” one might say—the larger configuration corrects whatever distortions may appear in the separate parts. The shadow of Augustine appears again and again, illuminating, by contrast or comparison, a variety of later figures, and in the process fleshing out Augustine himself. It is his ghostly presence that helps explain some of the other revisionist highlights of the book—most notably the reversal of the conventional interpretations of the Renaissance and Reformation.
Recalling Samuel Johnson’s paraphrase of the whole of one chapter of The Natural History of Iceland—“There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole of Iceland”—Nisbet pronounces a similar unequivocal judgment on the Renaissance: “Nor are there any ideas of progress to be met with throughout the whole Renaissance.” Unlike the author of the history of Iceland, however, he does go on for the length of a chapter to dispose of Machiavelli, Erasmus, More, Bacon, and Descartes. It is with obvious relief that he reaches the Reformation, “The Great Renewal,” as he is pleased to call it—a renewal of the idea of progress and with it, not by accident, of religion.
It is at this point that one can begin to appreciate the larger revisionist enterprise in which Nisbet is engaged—the revision not only of the received wisdom about individual thinkers and movements of thought but of the idea of progress itself. His initial definition of progress sounds innocent enough: “Mankind has advanced in the past, . . . is now advancing, and will continue to advance through the foreseeable future.” Nor is there anything startling in his description of the two lines of advance: the gradual, cumulative improvement in knowledge; and the realization on earth of man’s spiritual, moral, and material aspirations. But as soon as he enters the classical and Christian worlds, the conventional picture begins to vanish and the lineaments of Nisbet’s distinctive idea of progress to emerge. Knowledge, we are told, had an important “practical,” even “technological,” dimension from the beginning; this-worldly concerns were prominent even when the ultimate goal was other-worldly: the spirit of social reform inspired even the attempts to reform the church; and Christian millenarianism, combined with the ancient idea of development, made for a unilinear idea of progress in which past, present, and future were inextricably connected. The Renaissance, in denying its own immediate past, demeaning it as the Dark Ages, broke the chain of progress. Without the commitment to the past there was no warrant for progress in the future; all that remained were cycles of rise and decline. The rejection of tradition, authority, and doctrine led to a subjectivism which could find reality and redemption only in the inner consciousness of man, and to varieties of irrationality manifested in a fascination with the occult, witchcraft, magic, and the Devil. “Fate and fortune” thus replaced “reason and probity” as the forces determining man’s lot on earth.
If the early history of the idea of progress is much altered by this reading, the later history is no less so. Again, there is a deceptive familiarity in Nisbet’s pronouncement that the Enlightenment witnessed the “triumph” of the idea of progress, and that a dominant motif of the idea as it then developed was secularization, the liberation of progress from any reliance upon providence. Even at this point he includes among the leaders of the Enlightenment and the proponents of the idea of progress those who did in fact believe in providence, even those who believed in it in its most orthodox forms. More important is his insistence that even the more secular, scientific creeds were imbued with a religious spirit, an idea of the sacred, that belies the conventional image of rationalism and secularism.
It is a perilous path Nisbet treads in this modern period. He has no difficulty in establishing the idea of progress as the common denominator among a wide variety of thinkers: materialists and idealists, romantics and positivists, evolutionists and revolutionists, reformers and millenarians, individualists and socialists, economists and anthropologists, poets and scientists. The difficulty lies in respecting their differences, differences which vitally affected their ideas of progress, while preserving the identity of the idea itself. He copes with this problem by distinguishing between two major groups: those who saw progress as the means for the achievement of freedom, and those who saw it as the means for the attainment of power (not, to be sure, power for its own sake, but power nonetheless). The first includes Turgot, Condorcet, Smith, Malthus, the Founding Fathers, Godwin, Kant, Mill, Spencer; the second, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, Saint-Simon, Comte, Marx, Gobineau. Nisbet makes no secret of his preference for the first group and his wariness, in some cases abhorrence, of the second. But in both he finds much to praise as well as to criticize, so that the two categories do not correspond to an honor roll and a blacklist. The typology is useful, allowing for great latitude and subtlety, which in a complicated subject of this sort is all to the good. But in some instances it is so latitudinarian that it obscures differences one might want to emphasize—the difference, for example, between utopianism and progressivism.
As it stands, there are utopians on both sides of the great divide: Condorcet and Godwin on the one side, Saint-Simon, Comte, and Marx on the other. Condorcet and Godwin are assigned to the first group because they looked to progress for the emancipation of individuals qua individuals; they remained libertarian to the end—the end of history. Saint-Simon, Comte, and Marx, on the other hand, had as their end the emergence of a community in which individuals would find fulfillment, but only at the sacrifice of their liberty and individuality. One can argue, however, that even in the case of Godwin and Condorcet, the utopian impulse, radically individualistic and anarchic as it may seem, ultimately succumbs to the same failings that bedevil the power-obsessed utopians. And for the very reason that Nisbet is so sensitive to: the break in the continuum of history, not only between past and present but between the all-too-real, all-too-imperfect present and the utopian future, the final state of perfection.
At one point Nisbet cites Leszek Kolakowski on the utopian mentality: “Utopia is a desperate desire to attain absolute perfection; this desire is a degraded remnant of the religious legacy in nonreligious minds.” In the service of that ideal end and in defiance of the real desires of real people, the utopian is ready to use the most violent and despotic means. He is all the more ready to do so, Kolakowski says, because he sees nothing in the past or present that is worth salvaging: “There is a radical discontinuity between the world as it is and as it will be; a violent leap is needed to do away with the past; a new time will start.” Nisbet agrees with the first part of this critique but not the second. The utopian, he insists, has always been able to combine a philosophy of cumulative progress with a belief in catastrophic violence as a necessary prelude to the golden age. If one accepts Nisbet’s view, this would be a damning indictment of the idea of progress. If the idea of progress can coexist so readily with the disposition to violence, the former is evidently no protection against the latter. It is Kolakowski who, by denying to the utopians the idea of progress, by emphasizing the radical discontinuity in their view of history, redeems progress from the violence and despotism that have all too often accompanied utopianism.
One can take this case further by applying it to the libertarian utopians. While Nisbet is well-disposed to Condorcet and Godwin, he does not shy away from the fact that they were genuine utopians. They were not merely liberals who carried their liberalism somewhat further than conventional liberals did. They did not simply look forward to a time when things would be better, even very much better. Their progress was nothing less than progress toward “perfectibility.” Anything short of that they regarded as radically imperfect, hence evil. The future they anticipated was one in which all disease would be conquered and decay overcome, the result being an “indefinite,” “infinite” prolongation of life tantamount to immortality. The only thing that would keep that world of the future from being intolerably overcrowded by all those immortal beings was the simultaneous and equally infinite progress in rationality, a rationality which would liberate men from all selfish interests and irrational passions, including sexuality. Eventually, Godwin predicted, these totally rational people would “probably cease to propagate”: “The whole will be a people of men, and not of children. Generation will not succeed generation, nor truth have, in a certain degree, to recommence her career every thirty years.” This triumph of rationality would also bring with it a triumph of liberty. The individual would be liberated from all social, legal, political, domestic, even cultural bonds—from the law (“an institution of the most pernicious tendency”), government, family, any kind of work involving cooperation or division of labor, and any form of cooperative activity (musical concerts, theatrical performances, and the like).
A doctrine of perfectibility which regards interest and passion as irrational and immoral, law and government (not this or that law or government, but law and government in principle) as illegitimate and tryannical, the family as repressive, and even voluntary institutions as intolerable infringements upon the freedom of the individual, has political consequences that are not very different from those attending the “progress-as-power” utopias. It was Tocqueville who taught us that liberty depends on the vitality and multiplicity of institutions which mediate between the individual and the state. And it was Nisbet, I recall, who once proposed, as the crucial test of a social philosophy, its attitude to the family; if there were only one criterion, he said, by which to distinguish between liberal and authoritarian philosophies, it would be the degree to which they supported or subverted the family. By that test, “progress-as-freedom” utopias are as noxious as the “progress-as-power” ones. For it is utopianism itself that, finally, militates against freedom. The ideal of a utopia not only belittles any kind of progress that can be achieved short of utopia, making anything short of perfection seem radically evil, but the pursuit of that idea—whether absolute reason, absolute liberty, absolute virtue, or any combination of these—makes it all too easy to justify the use of absolute power.
The only kind of utopia which escapes this fatal perversion is the religious millennium which is avowedly other-worldly. It is not utopianism itself that is dangerous; what is dangerous is a utopianism that locates its ultimate ideal, its dream of perfection, in this world. It is the glory of the religious imagination that it can retain the spark of divinity, the transcendent vision of perfection, without having to realize it on earth. Those who deplore the absence of absolute ideals in the modern world, who find it spiritually debilitating not to have such ideals, are testifying to an important truth about human nature. But in belittling those ideals when they are located in the realm of spirit, in insisting that the ideals are not real unless they infuse and transform the temporal world, they are belying the reality of that spiritual aspect of human nature which they profess to believe in—to say nothing of lending themselves to a grotesque perversion of those ideals by trying to make them a reality in the here-and-now. It is the genius of religion to encompass in the same imagination the idea of progress in this world and the millennium in the other.
There is much else in Nisbet’s idea of progress, apart from the religious theme, to distinguish it from the conventional idea. His schema emphasizes the “remembered past” which is not superseded by the present or negated by the future but which continues to inform both the present and the future; the “invariability of human nature” which provides a common denominator for past, present, and future (and which, presumably, precludes any radical transformation of human nature); the slow, gradual, and cumulative quality of progress; the practical as well as theoretical character of knowledge; the material progress that is reflected in improved conditions and prospects for an ever-increasing number of people; and a moral progress concomitant with that material progress.
The idea of material progress brings Adam Smith to the center of this history. Some years ago Joseph Cropsey developed the interesting thesis that Smith advocated capitalism “because it makes freedom possible—not because it is freedom.” That thesis suggests another: that Smith advocated capitalism—“the natural system of liberty,” as he called it—because it makes possible the expansion and distribution of wealth and thus freedom itself. Only a “progressive state,” Smith said (by which he meant an expanding economy) could insure the “natural progress of opulence,” an opulence which would inevitably affect—not equally, to be sure, but in some measure—all classes of the population.
We are so accustomed to think of classical political economy as a “dismal science” governed by “iron laws” beyond human control, an amoral, asocial, apolitical ideology, that the real Adam Smith may come as a surprise. Nisbet properly restores Smith to the status he had in his own time, as a moral philosopher for whom wealth was a precondition of the well-being of society as well as of the individual. And by society Smith meant all people. “Servants, laborers, and workmen of different kinds make up the far greater part of every great political society,” he wrote in the Wealth of Nations. “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.” Moreover, that “far greater part” of society, he insisted, had essentially the same nature, needs, and aspirations as the smaller part, the rich and well-born. Nisbet quotes Smith’s assertion of the basic equality of all men: “The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of,” the difference arising “not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education.” The rest of that passage is even more striking: “By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter as a mastiff is from a greyhound.”
Yet there was a “dismal science,” even if Smith had no part of it. Nisbet cites me as one of those who converted him to the view that Malthus was not the father of that dismal science. I hereby recant that revisionist theory. As I now read Malthus, he bears the main responsibility for the transformation of political economy from the expansive, optimistic, melioristic, humane creed of Adam Smith into a profoundly pessimistic doctrine. Nisbet is right to say, as I once did, that the second edition of Malthus’s Essay on Population was not as fatalistic as the first. The original version of the law of population had posited a discrepancy between population and food supply—population tending to increase geometrically while the food supply increased only arithmetically—which was corrected or kept in balance by a series of “checks” (famine, disease, and various immoral means of preventing procreation), all of which, in one way or another, contributed to “misery and vice.” The second edition introduced an additional check on population which did not issue in misery and vice: “moral restraint,” a voluntary delay of marriage and hence of procreation. This new check opened the possibility which had been earlier foreclosed, that at some future time there might be some real improvement in the condition of the lower classes.
This is not the place to revise my revisionist interpretation of Malthus, except to point out that the second edition of the Essay on Population, like the first, attacked Smith for supposing that industrialism would benefit the working classes; it equivocated on the degree of improvement which might realistically be expected from moral restraint; and that the thrust of its argument, its dramatic and memorable message, continued to be the inexorability of the law of population and the misery and vice resulting from that law. But even conceding the large change in the text itself, one has to take into account the way contemporaries read it, or, more often (because fewer read it than cited it), the way it penetrated the Zeitgeist by osmosis, so to speak. And here there can be little doubt of its effect. There was surely much else in early industrial England to trouble and unsettle contemporaries. But the Malthusian doctrine, which seemed so inexorable and plausible (as irrefutable, someone said at the time, as the addition and multiplication tables), must carry a large responsibility for altering the consciousness and hence the social reality of an entire generation. The benign vision of Smith, in which an “invisible hand” made the self-interest of individuals conducive to the best interests of all, was replaced by the image of a society engaged in a desperate struggle for existence, with each individual pitted against every other, and where even the fortunate survivors in this “lottery of life” were doomed to misery and vice. It was this Hobbesian scene—“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”—that haunted England for at least half a century, and made industrialism a terror to the very people who were to be, as Smith had predicted, its main beneficiaries.
If Malthusianism confirms the importance of ideas in history, it confirms even more the importance of the idea of progress. In his introduction Nisbet explains why this particular idea is so important: “The history of all that is greatest in the West—religion, science, reason, freedom, equality, justice, philosophy, the arts, and so on—is grounded deeply in the belief that what one does in one’s own time is at once tribute to the greatness and indispensability of the past, and confidence in an ever more golden future.” It might be argued, he continues, that all that is required for progress lies in the individual alone, in his will, aspirations, and actions. But that view Nisbet rejects: “The springs of human action, will, and ambition lie for the most part in beliefs about universe, world, society, and man which defy rational expectations”—in “dogmas,” in short. The idea of progress is such a dogma. It is this dogma, Nisbet claims, which has permitted the West to attain the heights it has, and it is the waning of this dogma that is one of the most ominous facts of the present and a tragic portent of the future.
At this point one has to confront what may seem an anomaly in this work, one which Nisbet, perhaps out of modesty, does not allude to. And that is its place in his own intellectual history. It is surely worthy of note that this great tribute to the idea of progress should have been written by the author of such other memorable books as The Quest for Community, Community and Power, The Social Bond, Tradition and Revolt, The Degradation of the Academic Dogma, Twilight of Authority. The last two titles hardly signify an overweening faith in progress, and the others suggest a mode of thought that is not usually associated with that idea. Nor are the heroes of those books the heroes of this. Tocqueville and Weber appear here as critics of the idea of progress—anti-heroes, so to speak. Durkheim, the subject of another of Nisbet’s books, makes only one fleeting appearance, and Simmel and Tönnies are not present at all; if they were, it could only have been as witnesses for the prosecution. And so too with Nisbet’s lesser heroes—Burke, Lamennais, Burckhardt, LePlay—who are either conspicuously absent here or in the opposition.
Nor is there much room for the concepts which figured so prominently in his other influential work, The Sociological Tradition: community, authority, status, the sacred, alienation. By an effort of imagination they might be made consonant with the idea of progress; they are, after all, part of the past which Nisbet insists upon as an essential aspect of progress. Yet there is clearly a tension between them and the idea of progress. Indeed, in that constellation, progress itself appeared as the “antithesis” of alienation. Other ideas antithetical to the sociological tradition celebrated in that book include liberty, individuality, reason, nature; these, the typical products of the Enlightenment, promised the “release of the individual from ancient social ties and of the mind from fettering traditions.” But Nisbet himself, and the thinkers with whom he then identified himself, took a benign view of those “social ties” and “fettering traditions,” for the sake of the individual as well as society.
More than The Sociological Tradition the book that invites comparison with the present one is Social Change and History. Here Nisbet traced the idea of change in the various forms it assumed over the ages—growth, development, evolution, progress. In the foreword to the present volume, Nisbet speaks of going over some of the same “intellectual ground” he had covered in the earlier book, although with a “different objective.” That qualification hardly prepares us for the extent of the difference, a difference that is all the more striking in view of the similarities in the accounts of some individual thinkers (Augustine, for example). A significant token of the difference is the use of the word “metaphor” in the earlier book to describe the idea of development or progress. The metaphor was useful, Nisbet said, in characterizing a “totality” that was an intellectual construct rather than an empirical fact—a totality of knowledge, or culture, or civilization. But if the metaphor had its uses, it had still more abuses, and it was these that most occupied him.
Dedicated to his teacher, Frederick Teggart (“whose book it is”), Social Change and History reflected Teggart’s own suspicion of any overriding idea—the idea of progress was the most egregious example—which tried to impose an artificial unity upon either history or society, thus violating the particularity of historical events and the multiplicity and complexity of social institutions. Expanding upon this view, Nisbet suggested that the true premises of social behavior were the “very opposite” of those posited by developmental theories. “Fixity,” not change, was the natural, normal condition; and the “event,” rather than any law, generalization, or theory, was the crucial concept in the understanding of change, the event itself being resistant to generalization since it was, as often as not, external, adventitious, intrusive, intermittent, mutational. Whatever “linear directionality” might be found in history was in the “beholder’s eye, not in the materials themselves.” The quest for such a “unified theory of change” had been going on for twenty-five hundred years and was “as vain as the quest for perpetual youth or for the means of transmuting base metals into gold.”
History of the Idea of Progress (perhaps so titled to distinguish it as much from Teggart’s The Idea of Progress as from Bury’s book) would seem to be doing exactly what Social Change and History had decried: seeking a “unified theory of change”—and finding it, moreover, in the twenty-five-hundred-year history of the idea of progress. Yet in an important sense the two books are complementary rather than contradictory. In Social Change and History, Nisbet was addressing himself to history and society, the attempt to understand historical events and social facts, and for that purpose the idea of progress was obfuscatory and misleading; it substituted metaphor for explanation, saw some kind of determinism or necessity at work where there was more often chance and contingency, and made light of concrete events and circumstances. But even in that book, Nisbet had allowed for the use of the metaphor to illuminate patterns on the largest scale, so long as it was confined to that level of generality—to “metahistory,” one might say, as distinct from history. “It is as inevitable in modern Western consciousness (perhaps in all human consciousness) to ask the question, ‘Whither Civilization?’ . . . as it is to ask the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ Not the most resolutely empirical or pragmatic mind, surely, can resist the occasional allure of such questions.”
If Nisbet has now succumbed to the allure of those large questions, he has done so without falling into the fallacies he had earlier cautioned against. His new book is a pure, classical exercise in metahistory. At no point is the idea of progress used to explain any particular historical event or even any complex or sequence of events. Nor does it pretend to be empirically demonstrable or verifiable. It is exactly as he had earlier described it: an idea, a dogma. It is not, however, a metaphor. And here lies the great difference between the books. They are entirely consistent—and entirely different in intent and “affect.” In the earlier book, the idea of progress was something to be wary of, to use, if at all, with great circumspection, to keep at a safe distance, as history itself had to be distanced from it—hence, “metaphor,” a literary term to emphasize its divorce from reality (and also, perhaps, to belittle and trivialize it). In the present book, the idea has been restored to its status as an idea and invested with the power of a dogma—a dogma essential to the well-being of society.
However metahistorical the idea may be, it now comes to us with all the urgency of a specific, highly charged, indeed explosive historical situation. Nisbet has not succumbed to the allure of metahistory. History itself has done so, has called metahistory on to the stage of history. A decade or so ago when Social Change and History was published, the clear and present danger was the prevailing contempt for the specific and the concrete—for particular events which could properly be explained only in particularistic terms, for social problems which could be alleviated only by small, pragmatic, incremental reforms. Today the danger is a lack of faith so monumental that it can be met only by invoking an idea on the same grand scale. It is precisely the “totality” of history, society, culture, civilization, that is at stake. And it is at stake, Nisbet believes, because the idea that once gave meaning to it—and with meaning, a sense of dignity, confidence, pride, power—has been fatally undermined.
Toward the end of the book, Nisbet quotes Friedrich Hayek: “Progress is movement for movement’s sake, for it is in the process of learning, and in the effects of having learned something new, that man enjoys the gifts of his intelligence.” One hears the echo of Mill’s theory of liberty for its own sake and individuality for its own sake. Nisbet does not explicitly take issue with Hayek, but his own idea of progress is more substantive and concrete. For him “movement” is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the idea of progress. Indeed, he posits five “crucial premises” of the idea: “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 in 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.” It is because each of these premises is now being widely denied—not, as in the past, by a few historians, philosophers, and artists, but by a large and extremely influential body of opinion—that the situation has become so critical. “Progress at Bay” is the title of the penultimate chapter. But it could as well have been “Western Civilization at Bay.”
It is not so much that Nisbet has changed his views as that history has given them an ironic twist. In The Sociological Tradition he explained how the ideals of the Enlightenment had become perverted, democracy issuing in a “tyranny imposed by the mass,” liberty in a “morbid isolation” of the individual, reason in a “rationalization of spirit,” secularism in “sterile disenchantment.” It was this perversion which Burke, Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Weber, Durkheim, and the others in the great tradition were responding to and which made them impatient with any theory of progress.
What we see, beginning with the conservatives in their general distrust of modernism, is the tragic view of life set in time perspective. It is a view that draws its melancholy forecast of the future, not from extraneous or fortuitous factors, but from the very substance of history, from the very forces that the rationalists had hailed as promising liberation and the new empire of reason. In this view history is conceived as being periodically seized by deep moral crises which do not—as the thinkers of inexorable progress argued—automatically resolve themselves but remain instead to haunt and mock man’s hopes of secular salvation.
We are now witnessing one of those “deep moral crises” that has periodically assailed us, only this time so deep that it may signal the end of Western civilization. (As a small symptom of this, Nisbet cites the reversal of the roles of the Western and non-Western worlds. Where once it was assumed that the West would serve as a model for the developing nations, ours being the condition toward which they were developing, we are being increasingly confronted with the claim that the Third World, with its peculiar, and peculiarly despotic, varieties of socialism, is the model for the future.) It is in this situation of “disbelief, doubt, disillusionment, and despair” (one can go on with those negatives—a distrust of ourselves, a discontent with what we have achieved, a disrespect for our principles and institutions, a debasement of our culture . . .) that Nisbet calls for a return to the idea of progress, perhaps not so much to signify our faith in the future as to reaffirm our faith in ourselves—which is to say, in our own past and present. Only by reestablishing that continuity can we prevent ourselves from being engulfed by a new “wave of the future” that is not our future at all.
There is scarcely anyone else who could make so powerful a case for the idea of progress. If Nisbet now commends that idea to us, it is from the vantage point of one who knows everything that can be said against it. It is as a “twice-born,” temperamentally and philosophically committed to a tragic view of life, that he is proposing to rehabilitate an idea which we had consigned, perhaps too glibly, to the dust bin of history. He does not pretend to be sanguine about our prospects. History itself, he reminds us, provides us with few examples of cultures as debilitated as ours which were not destroyed by the very forces they set in motion. The only optimistic sign he can point to is the “faint, possibly illusory,” beginnings of a religious revival. There is, however, another heartening sign. This book, and the favorable reception it has had, may itself be symptomatic of a new sensibility, one which is post-Enlightenment, postmodernist—but not post-Western.
1 History of the Idea of Progress, Basic Books, 370 pp., $16.95.