Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Progressively Yours

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So, give me a few moments here.

First, I think I definitely agree with Robert–Rome fell, as a government, but  Rome did not fall, as a civilization. 

And, for that matter, Greece didn’t really fall as a civilization, either, although other and odder things happened to it.  A Greek of the Classical period would not be able to find people to talk to, but he would be able to find things to read.  A Greek of the Byzantine period would be able to find people to talk to, although pronunciation and vocabulary would probably make the conversation a little rough at first.

And, of course, both the Greek and the Roman would recognize a lot of the world as it has come to be.  We’re still debating a lot of the same ideas.  Hell, Christianity even goes through cycles of indulging the same heresies.

What I think would end up being a problem is the entire idea of “progress.”  Or, at least, “progress” as we understand it.

Let me start by saying that I think there are definitely events that constitute  unambiguous evidence of progress.  Antibiotics, for instance, and vaccines, are enormous advances over what we had before.  So are modern agricultural techniques.  So is central heating. 

There is always the Faustian dilemma–there are always downsides to material progress–but in general, we did the right thing in choosing to wipe out smallpox and grow enough food for everybody toe eat.  The advantages dwarf the consequences.

With other things, though, I think the evidence of “progress” is less clear, and in some cases I think it’s nonexistent.  I also think somebody like Aristotle, or Cicero, would be mystified by the very idea of it.

Let’s start with sculpture.  The Greeks and the Romans were light years ahead of anybody else in the West in sculpture until you hit Michaelangelo and the Renaissance, and they’ve been light years ahead of almost everybody since.  The Greeks were idealists in what they portrayed and the Romans were realists, but both of them produced work so startlingly, concretely real, so present-in-the-moment,  that it’s possible to sit next to one of those nymphs, or one of those senators, and think you can start a conversation with it.

I am not one of those people who holds a cold compress to my head and moans that modern art is all nonsense that can be done by any five year old.  Some of it is, and some of it is very complex and interesting.

But the fact is that taking a piece of marble and turning it into the Winged Victory is an extraordinary example of human intelligence, talent and ingenuity, and a gigantic revolving cube in less so.

Yes, okay, I know.  There’s no reason why we should judge the worth of art by whether ot not it displays evidence of human intelligence, talent and ingenuity, but I always thought that was a good place to start.

It’s not just sculpture, however, where the idea of progress doesn’t seem to fit, or at least not to fit well.

There is a lot about social attitudes and social behavior at the fall of Rome, and later in the Middle Ages, that we have passed, and good riddance.  Steven Pinker famously gave the example of a prime Medieval street game–find a stray cat, string it up over a fire, and laugh at the funny noises it made while it burned to death.

We can go too far with personalizing our pets, but that we now understand that we are obliged to be decent to them is a good thing, and definitely evidence of moral (or social) progress.  So is the fact that we no longer find it acceptable for anybody to own slaves.

But I think both Aristotle and Augustine would have found the idea of moral progress not just wrongheaded by mystifying.  They’d have said that we could come to a clearer understanding of what the moral law required of us, but not that we could ‘advance'” that law. 

Augustine would have looked on “moral progress” as akin to “benzine progress”–that we are saying that because we have a better understanding of the moral law, we have somehow changed the moral law.

And Augustine would have had a lot less trouble with some aspects of modern social morality than his successors in the Reformation would have, never mind his sucessors in the  American evangelical Protestant churches.

The Christians disapproved of abortion in the age of Augustine, but the Roman government did not, and the practice was widespread, if dangerous to the woman.  Homosexual relations between men were widespread, too, although there was no concept of “homosexuality” as we understand it now, as a sexual orientation in which some men seek to have sex only with other men.

To the Greeks and the Romans and the Augustine-ero Christians, men were simply incapable of not wanting to nail anything that moved, women if they were available, other men, sheep, knotholes in trees.  They didn’t have the same shock-horror, that’s unthinkable response that many of us have even now, and that was certainly prevalent a couple of decades ago.

Of course, Augustine wouldn’t have thought it sensible to conceive of homosexual relations between men as a disease.  The only disease involved, he would have said, was original sin.

Then we have the concept of government, and that gets trickier the longer you look at it.  Certainly some kinds of governments are more dysfunctional than others.  Some are so dysfunctional that they amount to disasters waiting to happen.

I think that is true of all forms of the totalitarian state.  Fascism eats its young, and Communism is nothing but Fascism with better rhetoric.  It is just not possible to build and run a government based on the premise that you can control every aspect of the life of the people without bringing about death, starvation, disease and decay.  North Korea is a lot of things, but it is not a worker’s paradise.  China is doing better to the extent that it lets loose on the reins–and I’ll start worrying about it taking over the world when it starts freaking every time its people respond to that loosening by behaving like…well…people.

But short of the great totalitarianism, what happens in government is not really as easy to sort out as we think it should be.  In spite of all the rhetoric on the right and on the left, I don’t think there’s one ideal form of government that is the repository of all moral goodness.

What there is instead is a continuum.  At one end, it threatens to fall over the cliff into anarchy.  At the other end, it threatens to fall off into tyranny.  All along the continuum in the middle, people have and do form successful societies.

Whether any of this constitutes “progress,” though, is less clear.  The Greeks and Romans certainly had successful societies, and they are the basis for the most successful civilization ever to appear on this planet. 

(And civilizaions appear to be like anything else–Babe Ruth held the record in both the most home runs scored and the most times a player struck out for many years, and Western Civilization can lay plausible claim to some of the best and all of the absolutely worst societies that we know about.)

In some ways, though, we seem to me to be behind Greco-Roman and early Christian society:  we have lost the sense that to be human is to have an obligation to live up to our human-ness. 

Aristotle understood that.  Augustine understood it, too, although he would have phrased it differently.  He would have said that we had an obligation to live up to our heritage as sons of God.

(And he would have said “sons,” not sons and daughters, because he would have seen even women in the Church as “sons,” that is, a children who could inherit the kingdom.)

(Okay, never mind.  That’s something from Saint Paul that gets persistently misunderstood, and it drives me crazy.)

I don’t think the Greeks and the Romans lived up to their obligation to be human any better than we do, but they actively encouraged the attempt, where we seem to work at denying the necessity.  When people do things that are self destructive and wrong, we tell them they can’t help it, they’re only human, and besides, this is an addiction, it’s a disease, we have treatment.

The treatments don’t work any better than the old stress on guilt and shame and sin, but they make us feel smaller.

And that doesn’t seem to me to be progress at all.

Written by janeh

February 6th, 2010 at 7:02 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Progressively Yours'

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  1. I strongly agree with most of this, but let me see if I can help refine it a bit. “Progress” is a perfectly valid concept applied to science and technology–which is why my Hyundai Accent, currently buried under a ton of snow, is vastly more reliable and fuel-efficient than anything millionaires could purchase pre-WWII–and why no one sucks milkshakes through paper straws any more.
    Progress applied to matters of taste is highly debateable. Look–not at the best of classical sculpture–but at good Hellenistic commercial art, and compare it with the aircraft wreck the Smithsonian keeps on its lawn. On the other hand, sculpture didn’t start with Praxitiles. It’s just that by then we knew how to do it right. I’m inclined to think that in that sense we didn’t have the novel figured out until Victorian times or orchestral music until about Beethoven. Film might be DW Griffith and painting the Quatrocento. Which doesn’t keep me from enjoying Austen, Scott and Bach. I’m saying they didn’t have an adequate toolchest. Once you reach that point you stop having progress, and have fashion.

    Fukuyama thinks government has about reached the Praxitiles point–that nothing works as well for the strength of the state or the well-being of its citizenry as the fairly narrow range–considering all the possibilities–between about Sweden as the most intrusive, and Singapore as the least regulated. He does not say all nations must or shall adopt governments within that range, but that if they don’t it will be for other reasons than the strength f the nation or the material well-being of the citizenry. In a century or so, we may know whether or not he is right.

    But a lot of what Jane covers as “progress as we understand it” is not how “we” understand it at all–it’s moral progress of the liberal/progressive sort, which argues not for a constant moral standard, but a changing one, continually redefined by The People. (Understand The People in this sense are a cadre of “intellectuals” you could put in a decent auditorium.)
    It is one thing to have a moral standard–say Matthew 12: 29 & 30–and need centuries to work out the implications. It is a very different thing to say, as Matthew Arnold Does, that “some day we will be more moral than Jesus” and establish one’s own standard for morality–with, of course, the implication that the next person may adopt an entirely different moral standard.
    It is this sense of progress which lets the dedicated progressive go from believing that it is wrong to treat people differently according to their race in 1967, to saying it is right to do so in 1969, or which lets the APA go from treating a patient for being homosexual to treating a patient for being ashamed of being homosexual in a matter of weeks. Jane is quite right to say that neither Aristotle nor Augustine would be much impressed by this notion of progress. She is somewhat misleading to say “we” believe in it.
    In the words of Sammy Goldwyn, include me out.


    6 Feb 10 at 8:24 am

  2. I also agree with a lot of the things that have been said recently – I’m not sure about the music, but that’s because I don’t know if we could know a lot more about the ancients if we knew their music, because we wouldn’t know how they responded to it, but on the other hand, I suspect someone who knows more about music than I do might make a fairly good stab at the job.

    I think today’s individual moral standards are based on one supreme moral statement – that the individual is the supreme arbitrator of every moral issue. For that individual, of course. I think the roots go back thousands of years, of course, but the recent flowering, if you can call it that, has a lot to do with, among other things, the expansion of ‘human rights’, with vast numbers being added to the earlier ‘freedom from’ ones.

    Of course, ‘no man is an island’, and a morality based on the primacy of the individual’s rights isn’t easily adapted to constructing a society or even a family. I had a debate recently with people who claimed that some variation of the Golden Rule would serve as a non-religious basis for morality, but alone it won’t, if only because the way I want to be treated might actually not be the way others want to be treated. It might not even be the way I should be treated, for my ultimate benefit.

    And that brings me to one of the more infuriating aspects of modern society. The people who are the most adamant about the rights of the individual often seem to be extremely reluctant to allow other individuals the same rights of self-determination. It’s not enough that they can choose to commit suicide without social or legal stigma; they must change the laws that protect others, who might not agree with them, from being manipulated or forced into suicide. I could go down a laundry list of contentious social issues – the more contentious it is, the more likely that the people arguing loudest for the rights of the individual to self-determination will want the force of law behind their views on the matter.

    I could go on to the way in which a lot of philosophizing and study of society in our individualistic culture focusses on groups, and their interactions, rather than on individuals. To dig up an idea from another discussion, it’s like the difference between social workers and community development workers. Social workers, originally, anyway, worked to help individuals. Now, we also have workers devoted to helping entire communities – which sounds nice, I suppose, but there’s a profound and indigestible split in a society that on the one hand has a conviction that every individual should have and live by a very personal and individual moral code, and on the other that individuals are only important as members of groups, and it’s the power relationships among the groups that we really have to work at.

    I’ve also come to the conviction over the last few years that to be truly human, we can’t be entirely individualistic. We have to look outwards from ourselves towards others. We can’t do that if we’re busy trying to remake the laws to reflect our personal morality, or looking at another individual and seeing only a member of a group.


    7 Feb 10 at 6:51 am

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