|"The Drunkard's Progress," by Nathaniel Currier (ca. 1846)|
The original connotation of physical movement is nowadays rarely used in connection with progress. Instead, the word is applied to continuous "evolution" in morals or ethics. Thus, certain changes in human practices, e.g, the abolition of slavery or the extension of the suffrage to all citizens, including women, are always regarded as advances in our thinking: we correct our earlier mental errors. I am certainly not one to object to emancipation. After all, I have been a beneficiary of it.
What I object to is the self-congratulatory attitude of moderns and postmoderns, our belief that we are more enlightened than people in the past. My objection derives from our failure to recognize that all of our so-called moral achievements have been made possible by material progress, by the development of commerce and of capitalism. It has been the accumulating material enrichment of the West, beginning after the discovery of the New World, that has made us "open-minded." A world of paucity and scarcity made past generations less generous than we are in an age of affluence.
The one thing our tolerance does not extend to is the past, which also reflects the effects of capitalism: the market demands that we constantly abandon what we loved yesterday in favor of the "new" and "advanced." Our demand for novelty keeps the economy going and spreading "emancipation," but it also erodes our allegiance to what, from the point of view of a divine observer, might be considered truly worthwhile in human life. Joseph Schumpeter termed this process "the creative destruction of capitalism."
|Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781),|
by Houdon (MFA, Boston)
Here is where I get to my point about the blind spot of modern "progressive" thinkers. Turgot himself, the mentor of Condorcet, was a proponent of free trade and free commerce among men and nations. As Louis XVI's finance minister, he tried, but in vain, to eliminate traditional economic restrictions (guilds, royal protections of industries, monopolies, and so on), because they were barriers to the free movement of people into new occupations, and they also had the effect of determining prices of goods artificially. Economic freedom would lead to freedom as such. But people were already becoming free via commerce. As I mentioned in my last post, ordinary Dutch and the Englishmen were already enjoying new products.
|Robe a la francaise, 1780,|
by Isabelle de Borchgrave
The more interesting part for me concerns the effect of this trade on "progress": after all, the constant demand for novelty in the fashion market, at first on the part of noble patrons, led to a "steady expansion geographically outward and socially downward." In other words, people of the lower orders began wearing silks. "What was new in the late 17th and 18th century was the pronounced taste for novelty itself and the gradual democratization of status competition through consumption." People no longer wore what their parents and grandparents wore. "By the mid 18th century it was becoming difficult to read position in the social hierarchy from public bodily adornment." In the course of the 18th century cotton displaced linen among the poor, and consumption of silk increased among Frenchmen of all classes.
|Detail of dress of Marie Antoinette,|
paper creation by Isabelle de Borchgrave
Turgot, so it seems to me, was correct in believing that the constant desire for novelty was a basic human passion. His mistake, however, was to believe that this was a mental or intellectual attitude that, absent the dead weight of the past, would continuously lead to the transformation of the human mind. While the acquisition of new scientific information has indeed led to a body of knowledge that is unlikely to be destroyed, this inheritance is not preserved in our genes or laid down in our arteries like cholesterol. As Turgot pointed out, and as Iran and North Korea today prove, even dictatorships (the Nazis perhaps excepted) are happy to make use of advances in technology and science.
As Manuel writes, Turgot the apostle of progress believed that mankind acquired knowledge in the same way as a newborn child. Each of us is aware of progress in one's individual life. It involves the accumulation of knowledge and experience, a process that is often halting and occasionally reversed. Doing well in school, saving money for later pleasures or retirement, and so on. Can such progress, however, be applied to the entire species? Isn't such progress something that has be re-created by each person and that is dependent to a great extent on how willing we are to avoid novelty (avoid getting tattoos) and, instead, to make use of the lessons of the past.
Well, I see I have gone on too long and have not yet got to Goethe and world literature. That is coming, however: there is a connection. Stay tuned.
Picture credits: Ludwig von Mises Institute; Penniless Press;