The Economist: The idea of progress: Onwards and upwards


Here is a simply brilliant look at the flaws that humans bring to our efforts to perfect the world.

An essay that opens with an account of an epic Hungarian poem that has Adam, after deciding to recreate Eden by the strength of his own efforts, realizing that society is ultimately built upon violence, then continues with a close analysis of the arc of recent human history:

“Other sources of progress are clothed in tragedy. The Germanic thought that individual progress should be subsumed into the shared destiny of a nation, or volk, is fatally associated with Hitler. Whenever nationalism becomes the chief organising principle of society, state violence is not far behind. Likewise, in Soviet Russia and Communist China unspeakable crimes were committed by the ruling elite in the pursuit of progress, rather as they had been in the name of God in earlier centuries. As John Passmore, an Australian philosopher, wrote: ‘men have sought to demonstrate their love of God by loving nothing at all and their love for humanity by loving nobody whatsoever.’

The 20th century was seduced by the idea that humans will advance as part of a collective and that the enlightened few have the right—the duty even—to impose progress on the benighted masses whether they choose it or not. The blood of millions and the fall of the Berlin Wall, 20 years ago this year, showed how much the people beg to differ. Coercion will always have its attractions for those able to do the coercing, but, as a source of enlightened progress, the subjugation of the individual in the interests of the community has lost much of its appeal.

Instead the modern age has belonged to material progress and its predominant source has been science. Yet nestling amid the quarks and transistors and the nucleic acids and nanotubes, there is a question. Science confers huge power to change the world. Can people be trusted to harness it for good?

The ancients thought not. Warnings that curiosity can be destructive stretch back to the very beginning of civilisation. As Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, so inquisitive Pandora, the first woman in Greek mythology, peered into the jar and released all the world’s evils”

Read the full article here.

The point at the end of the essay is that progress is a laudable human goal – but rather than expecting humans to transform the world, God only asks us to transform ourselves.

And as Christians know, this transformation is only ultimately possible by God’s gracious gift.

Do read the whole article. It’s worth pondering in your heart as we prepare to enter the solemn silence of the Twelve Day feast.

Thanks to Kendall Harmon for pointing me to this essay.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...