Right now progressives are in a funk and a tizzy, because Trump has thrown a yuge monkey wrench into their hopes for more progress. For progressives, hope (and change) is part of their DNA, while conservatives, especially the past decade or so, have feared that the trajectory of the country was better captured by progressive ideas than conservative moderation. Both therefore gave credence to the idea of progress, although with different valences. Actual history, however, has complicated its validity. In times like these, critics of progress gain in relevance and interest: perhaps they’re on to something.
These critics need not be limited to today, since the idea of progress has been around at least since the Enlightenment, if not before. Enter Matthew W. Slaboch’s fine book, to provide just such a broader panorama and set of critics. It has many virtues: it is a short book, well written, easy to follow, with a fine formulation now-and-again (“not just kin, they were kindred spirits”).
Four core chapters are framed by an Introduction and Conclusion. Chapter 1 focuses on the philosophical pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and his critical engagement with various German philosophers of progress in history (Fichte and Hegel, especially). If reality is essentially will, and will is intrinsically purposeless, then agency must ask itself, what is the point? There is zero-reason for hope. As for Schopenhauer himself, he not only talked the pessimistic talk, but walked the walk. He was “antinatalist,” and took the option of suicide with utmost seriousness. He concluded, however, that there was something metaphysically absurd about the will willing the end of itself.
Between the personal and the metaphysical, Schopenhauer articulated a pessimistic philosophy of history and certain political ideas, which Slaboch characterizes as “anti-political” in the context of his day. He especially attacked “philosophies of history that glorify nation or state” and opted for a much more modest view of the state, one reminiscent of Hobbes’. Neither the national community nor the ethical state is worthy of our loyalty, or our hopes. Suffering is the human lot, and human life is led between the poles of want and pain and boredom, passing through temporary satisfaction. It is only the saint, who combines “compassion and asceticism,” who rises, somewhat, above this natural dynamic. While Schopenhauer recognized some improvements in the material conditions of modern peoples, he flatly denied that they solved the essential problems of human life, and the modern solutions to these problems – human equality, democracy, a tutelary state, nationalism – were bound to fail.
The real task of life is intensely individual, involving personal moral development. In a deft move, Slaboch likens Schopenhauer’s teaching to the Turk’s in Candide, who taught the eponymous character the necessity of tending one’s own garden, instead of being concerned with what happens in Constantinople. This would be a lesson learned by the next figure he discusses, Leo Tolstoy, who had a rather large “garden,” his four thousand acre estate, Yasnaya Polyana.
Chapter 2 thus moves from Germany to Russia and locates the great novelist and writer among the Slavophiles, Westernizers, and czars of 19th century Russia. He stood out by his historical fatalism and its political consequences, pacifism and anarchy, which were reinforced by his idiosyncratic version of Christianity.
The chapter is a tour de force, going well beyond its sure consideration of Tolstoy’s life and developing thought. Its account of the main figures and debates constituting Russian self-reflection in the nineteenth century is fascinating, both because of the issues and terms of debate and because of the Leninist revolution just over the horizon. One constantly asks, does this line of thought prepare and feed into communism? Or, conversely, does this line of thought perhaps provide resources for a post-communist Russia? The central issue was Russian identity, and it was most often cast in terms of a comparison and contrast with Europe.
The Westernizers, as their name suggests, took Europe as a model for Russia, but they differed importantly on what aspects or periods of European history should be extolled and emulated. The Slavophiles, on the other hand, set Russia decidedly apart from European forms of Christianity, community, and even reason. Both agreed, though, on the reality of historical progress, with Russia now needing to assume its rightful role at the head of humanity. In his own way, Tolstoy came to share that aim, but he disagreed with both camps on the nature of history and the appropriate basis for human advancement.
A certain view of providence or a fundamental “law of predetermination” was the great predicate of his moral and religious thought. Since history was, sempeternally, the realm of predetermined action — Napoleon was as “determined” as any conscript in his army — but without ultimate meaning or lasting achievement, once one saw this great truth, one would opt out of grand political ambitions and schemes, especially those dictated by false ideas of historical progress. What was left to the knowing-individual was to return to his private estate and join in solidarity with those who, as it were, by nature had no grand ambitions: the peasantry. Add to that an idiosyncratic take on Jesus and Christianity and voilà, one has “Tolstoyism,” with its nonaggression, simplicity of life, and spiritual take on the mystical Russian people.
His two major novels (War and Peace; Anna Karenina) sought to dramatically illustrate the fatalism at work in events great (the Napoleonic Wars) and intimate or individual. Anna Karenina is moved to commit adultery by a force she cannot understand or resist; while her suicide by jumping before an oncoming train takes place under the same dispensation. The railroad was one of the great images of modern progress. Her death at its hands signifies a conjunction of technology, necessity, and humanity radically different from that envisaged by Progress.
To the reader who might detect a contradiction between Tolstoy’s individual fatalism, as exemplified by Anna Karenina, and his call for spiritual asceticism, Tolstoy replies that “the law of progress, or perfectability, is written in the soul of each man, and is transferred to history only through error. As long as it remains personal, this law is fruitful.” Given the strength of fatalistic forces, individual and social, opting out of wider society and adopting the practices of asceticism do seem to be both consequent and de rigueur.
Chapter 3 crosses the Bering Strait to America and considers the American historian, Henry Adams (1838-1918), who, along with his brother, Brooks (1848-1927), did battle, first with romantic and rather jingoistic American historians starting with George Bancroft (1800-1891) and Francis Parkman (1823-1893), and, in a different way, with fellow scientific historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932). At issue was America itself, its character, its course, and its destiny. Adams saw decline and degradation, and foresaw impending dissolution, as he traced American history from Washington to Grant.
Adams pessimistic historical vision was presented in a variety of writings, which can be arranged in three concentric circles: the Grant administration, and post-bellum America in toto, were analyzed and damned in the novel Democracy (published anonymously in 1880), and in articles written at the time for journals such as the Nation and North American Review. The fuller trajectory of American history was recounted in works such as the mammoth 9-volume History of the United States (1801-1817). And, finally, in lectures and essays he reminded his fellow scientific-minded historians (mainly progressives) that modern science included physics as well as biology, and that entropy, rather than evolution, was the final word of Science on the adventures of being and time.
One can thus see in Adams a rather understandable intellectual and moral mixture, the spiritual physiognomy of someone whose family had participated in patrician politics at America’s beginning and who had lost the faith, both religious and political, that had inaugurated the great American experiment in self-government. Modern science had replaced both, and as it evolved, so did the need for new forms of understanding politics and history. Adams opted for physics over biology and, in Tocqueville’s phrase, was a “democratic historian” who subjected humanity to general, and usually material, causes. This precocious scion of American political royalty was, hindsight could reveal, almost destined for disappointment.
Chapter 4 fully enters the twentieth century, the century of hyperbolic wars and ideological tyrannies, and considers an eclectic trio of “Critics of the Idea of Progress in an Age of Extremes,” Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), and Christopher Lasch (1932-1994). The three clearly complement the preceding chapters’ treatments of Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, and Adams, and add to the national histories limned in them. They shared the common misfortune of encountering twentieth-century ideological tyranny in the persons of Hitler, Lenin and Stalin.
Spengler was a follower of Schopenhauer, but we have to add: of a qualified sort, with important departures. He accepted the former’s pessimistic view of history, mankind is fated to rise only to fall, to engage in noble but ultimately meaningless struggles. But he cast this lack of progress in terms of history’s cyclical patterns. He focused upon distinct cultures, and articulated them in terms of an organic metaphor, subject to recurring cycles of growth and decline, of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Religious and aesthetic endeavor characterized the first phases, to be replaced by activities that produced and organized power: civilization.
He, however, thought that the final phase could be forestalled or prolonged, so he counseled looking for strong leaders who could lead cultures-become-civilized into battle with other ascending or descending powers. He himself had the wherewithal to see through Hitler, but he fell for Mussolini. In general, his caesarian prescription, and his partial blindness towards tyrants, because they flow from, tend to discredit his diagnoses and moral-political judgment.
One could not say that about Solzhenitsyn, although many in the west balked at his criticisms of western moral decadence in the Harvard Address, and, especially, at his analysis of its chief cause, modern anthropocentricism, connected with “the idea of Progress.” With respect to his native Russia, his Gulag Archipelago and Red Wheel cycle are vivid depictions and penetrating analyses of the communist catastrophe that befell his native country. As for the West, he presented himself as a friend who had uncomfortable truths to utter, but did so, so that his western friends would not suffer anything like the fate of his country.
These truths were of a topical or contemporary sort and a longer historical-cultural sort. For Slaboch’s purpose, the latter are more important. We have already indicated the targets of Solzhenitsyn’s fundamental critique: modern anthropocentrism miscast man in the role of God, while the Enlightenment notion of Progress was too narrowly focused upon technological progress and material advancement. As such, modernity left out the spiritual realm and its essential contributions to our humanity and our human development: conscience; humility; self-restraint; wells of empathy and compassion. In short, what religion, especially Judaism and Christianity, teach and provide. Slaboch thus presents Solzhenitsyn fundamentally as a Christian, of a Dolstoyevskian sort.
In so doing, however, he perhaps insufficiently appreciates the natural categories through which Solzhenitsyn also thinks the world. While he does note Solzhenitsyn’s advocacy of a measured patriotism, other important moral categories such as magnanimity are absent, as well as his complex view of a Russian culture with its own native resources, but also artistically and philosophically open to the west and beyond. Relevant to his concerns would also be the fact that Solzhenitsyn criticizes Tolstoy for insufficiently appreciating political liberty. In brief, Solzhenitsyn’s conjugation of the spiritual and the natural, including the political, is more complex, more intellectual interesting and humanly demanding, than Slobach tends to present.
However, he does rightly note Solzhenitsyn’s appreciation and advocacy of the democracy of small scales. This is a Tocquevillian aspect to his thought that is too often ignored.
Christopher Lasch too was a democrat with a small “d,” at least at the end of his intellectual career. And like Solzhenitsyn, he was so for moral and spiritual reasons, as well as out of fundamental critiques of modern Progress, with the latter including capitalism, technology, the administrative state, and progressive or secular education.
His chef d’oeuvre in this critical vein was the ironically entitled The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (1991). Heaven was not to be found on this earth, least of all by human efforts. What was needed was a return to the awareness of human limits and imperfection that had characterized earlier communal America. Lasch called for a new appreciation of populism, together with the religious traditions that embodied and conveyed these much needed lessons.
Both he and Solzhenitsyn were quite worried about environmental degradation and looming ecological catastrophe. The two premises of Progress, that unfettered human desire leads to social advancement and that the finite earth could yield infinite goods were, on one hand, moral madness, and, on the other, demonstrably false.
For Solzhenitsyn, “there can be only one true Progress: the sum total of the spiritual progresses of individuals; the degree of self-perfection in the course of their lives.”
And it is in this context that we must see technical and other material developments:
“It is time to stop seeing Progress … as a stream of unlimited blessings, and to view it rather as a gift from on high, set down for an extremely intricate trial of our free will.” Like Lasch, he calls for “a politics of limits” and a revival of the distinction between optimism and hope. With that last note, Solzhentisyn and Lasch indicate that not all criticisms of Progress need be born of despair or fatalism. Quite the contrary.