by Matty Manotti
It is easy to read history as a giant arc from ignorance to knowledge, from barbarism to civilization. From some perspectives, this view is viable. Both mathematics and the sciences have noticeably moved from darkness towards light. We now know more about the natural world than our ancestors did, and we have produced more technology which can save us time and energy. However, when President Obama, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” he was not referring to the arc of science. President Obama was expressing a belief that the natural process of human civilization moves towards what is good and right. Not only are our cars improved, but our civilization and our fellow citizens are better than before.
Though there is something to this idea, it is inherently destructive. If we are to find truth, we must first be skeptical of those untruths that we have so long accepted according to tradition. It is this situation that drove French philosopher René Descartes to doubt his teachers at the beginning of his Discourse on Method. In order to make progress in discovering clear and certain truth, Descartes had to reduce traditionally held beliefs to only what is certain. Only then could he establish a better structure and a better system of knowledge than he possessed beforehand. Many of the advances of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment were built on this principle. In helping found modern political thought, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes constructed his political theory brick by logical brick. His magnum opus of political theory, Leviathan, does not begin by talking about larger political theory, but simply by giving strict accounts and definitions of speech, imagination, and the senses. From this certain foundation, he begins to construct a larger political philosophy. Like Descartes, he doubted the ancient idea that man is a political animal, and forms his account of human politics from the definitions just mentioned. This political state is a creation of human rationality, not of human instinct. According to both Hobbes and Descartes, to move towards truth we must carefully reexamine that which we think is true, for fear that it may be false.
The question at hand is whether human nature can change and advance in the same way that science progresses. Can men and women be remade–via a carefully applied process of rationality–into creatures that are more just? How one answers this question probably depends on how one reads history. Within the last two hundred years, have we successfully applied this method in America: have we become a more rational nation? Some would say “yes”–we no longer needlessly limit people’s freedom based on race, gender, or sexuality, though we still have quite a ways to go. I would argue that while we have improved as a nation in those ways, we have yet to make mankind more wholly just.
In the past century, we have fought two world wars and have come close to destroying ourselves on several occasions with nuclear weapons. We are no better than our ancestors, and just as capable of good and evil as they were. While we have fought against tyrants of other nations, we ignore the fact that any troubled father or mother can be a tyrant to their own personal kingdom. Wars abroad are simply wars fought between brothers or neighbors writ large. Until there is peace in every human heart, there can be no peace on earth. While it is true that some societies are better and more just than others, no society is eternal. All societies end and whatever justice they promote ends with them. History has no knowable, inherent arc; there is no end towards which man slowly progresses. Our technological advances are merely a progression of more efficient tools, and because our nature is independent of our environment, no change that those tools make in our environment can fully define the line between good and evil that runs through all of our souls.
Not only am I skeptical of history’s arc, I am also skeptical of the place towards which mankind is to progress. A progression implies an end. Yet if a man were to run a race not knowing where the finish line was, he may very well be running away from it. If his end was an infinite distance away from his current position, then he could never say that he progressed–only that he moved or changed from his original position. It is unclear to me what the end goal of mankind might be. There are many utopias, dreamt by many thinkers. For some, that utopia may be a society in which all people are equal–for others, a society in which all people are free. Two hundred years ago, colonialism was a progressive idea: the West considered itself to be raising people out of barbarism and into civilization. Today, that is out of style. Colonialism is now regressive. Today, even the claim that our end is Truth is unacceptable. In the postmodern world, transcendent Truth itself has become a regressive idea and has been replaced with a conception of merely relative truths.
Until there is an end to progress that defies all fleeting social whims and fashions, all that progressivism can do is destroy. Traditions are torn down and painfully scrutinized in the name of a radical skepticism which no set of criteria can permanently satisfy. Those people and institutions that attempt to stand against the tide of history will drown in its wake. Good things are destroyed in order that better things may be built upon their ruins. Yet those better things are themselves destroyed by the next wave of progress. Progress for its own sake is amoral: it merely values the new because it is new, not because it is better. As the English author and poet G.K. Chesterton once wrote: to be progressive is to “prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.”
If there is an alternative to progressivism, it is one of careful change. We cannot know what is knowable, so it is prudent to keep things the way they are until radical change outside of our control forces us to change. Our society should always move towards justice, but it ought not let “progress” become an empty phrase and an excuse for undoing institutions whose social effects cannot be wholly known for many years to come. Rather, we should walk cautiously, and with reverence for the path already trodden by our forefathers.
Matthew Manotti is a graduating senior at St John’s College in Annapolis, where he studies Liberal Arts.
- Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award acceptance speech, JFK Library, Boston, MA, May 7, 2017.
- René Descartes, Discourse on Method, trans. Richard Kennington, eds. Pamela Kraus and Frank Hunt (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing / R. Pullins Co., 2007).
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
- Richard Holbrooke, “Real W.M.D.’s,” The New York Times, June 22, 2008.
- G.K. Chesterton, New York Times Magazine, November 11, 1923.