Is Progress Real?
The Roman writer Aulus Gellius relates an amusing story in his book Attic Nights (Noctes Atticae, IX.4). Returning from Greece to Italy and stopping at the port of Brundisium, he decided to visit the local market and see what was available for sale. Finding some bundles of old books by eminent Greek authors, and attracted by “their extraordinary and unexpected cheapness”, he purchased them with relish. His enthusiasm was short-lived. After examining them on two successive nights, he found them to be filled with childish fables, incredibilities, and myths masquerading as fact. The authors assured readers, for example, that the Scythians consumed human flesh; that cyclopses existed in northern Europe; and that a race of men could be found whose feet were turned backward.
Gellius was further chagrined to find an apparently learned writer claiming that some Illyrians possessed two pupils in each eye and could kill a man by glaring at him; and that “in the mountains of the land of India there are men who have the heads of dogs, and bark, and that they feed upon birds and wild animals.” He notes that his own countryman, Pliny the Elder, had occasionally related similar nonsense in his monumental Natual History (Historia Naturalis). Reaching the limit of his endurance, Gellius says: “These and many other stories of the kind I read; but when writing them down, I was seized with disgust for such worthless writings, which contribute nothing to the enrichment or profit of life.”
His contempt was understandable. But perhaps Gellius was a bit too hard on Pliny and the other clueless scribblers. Man’s knowledge of the world was more limited than what we know today. He forgot that those writers did the best they could with the information available to them at the time. It is not that his predecessors were stupid. It was just that they did not have the benefit of reliable travel reports, scientific instruments, and consistent ways to disseminate knowledge. No doubt our remote descendants will laugh at our own pitiful ignorance of the solar system and its mysteries. I hope that, as they smile over our own printed absurdities, they will extend us some measure of sympathy.
Have we progressed in knowledge and understanding since Gellius’s day? There are many faces of knowledge, and progress in all these faces is uneven. In science and technology, of course, we are far ahead of our ancestors. But in morals, the training of character, and virtue, the answer is much less certain. Our instrumentalities have become more advanced and complex, but our purposes and instincts remain the same as they always have been. Seen in this light, “progress” amounts to little else than new ways of achieving old goals. We fly around the world in dazzling times, and communicate with another at an instant; but have we really advanced beyond our ancestors in ethics and morals? We sense, somehow, that ancient and medieval man may have been wiser than we in emphasizing art, spiritual values, and beauty, rather than the vulgar worship of the latest gadgets of science and technology.
Ancient historians, for example, often valued character and moral training over historical precision. They recorded imaginary speeches, portents, and oracles, but there was a purpose behind these rhetorical exercises. History was viewed as a teaching tool for character and moral development. No modern writer can compete with, say, Plutarch, Livy, Quintilian, or Thomas a Kempis in moral training. Contrast this with our own day, where education overemphasizes factual knowledge, but completely neglects training in leadership, character, and morals. The results are obvious, and assault our senses every day.
So is progress real? The French writer Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757), in his Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes, made some important observations in this regard. According to Fontenelle, there had been little or no progress since ancient times in poetry, literature, and art, but there had of course been considerable progress in science. Moreover, each nation goes through stages of development. In its infancy, a nation devote itself to pure survival; later it cultivates the works of imagination, like poetry and art; and in its old age, it devotes itself to science and technology. For Fontenelle, progress was real and tangible. Only a fool would doubt that man had made tremendous strides toward his perfectibility across the centuries.
There is much to be said for this view. But perhaps I am that fool that Fontenelle speaks of. Looking at world history since the beginning of the twentieth century, it is now clear that science is neutral, rather than a gateway to utopia. It can kill us just as quickly as it can save us. Reading the works of ancient and medieval man, and learning about their societies, shows that perhaps imagination truly is more important than knowledge. Somewhere along the line, once the Age of Reason began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Western thought made a conscious decision to place its faith in science and technology, at the expense of its spiritual and imaginative heritage.
In doing so, it forgot the profound power of the imagination in opening the doors of perception. The rejection of our spiritual heritage has cut us off from other ways of perceiving the world, ways that do not involve machines or mechanical intermediaries. The Orientalist scholar Henry Corbin, who authored many books on Sufi mysticism, believed that the “imaginal world” was every bit as real as the physical world. For Corbin, the mystic’s world of imagination was the “isthmus” or bridge that connected the corporeal world with the imaginal world of the Divine. Without a cultivation of the imagination, he held, a man could never hope to achieve true enlightenment. By polishing his soul, a man could achieve unique knowledge of the Divine Essence. The West’s great intellectual mistake since the Age of Reason, he believed, was to place all its faith in technology and turn its back on its Eastern spiritual legacy, which spring from this “imaginal world.”
We cannot be sure Corbin was wrong. All around us, I think, is evidence that the great thinkers of the Age of Reason may have placed too much faith in “reason” as a cure-all for man’s woes. We have access to more and more, but seem to perceive less and less. We are drowning in information, but are more ignorant and unfulfilled than ever. The breakdown in discipline is a direct result of the abandonment of our ancient moral code, which sprang from imaginative religion. Every untried youth of twenty now believes himself fit to pass judgment on the intellectual heritage of millenia.
Reason deceives as much as it enlightens. As man becomes more and more aware of the failures of reason in advancing man’s progress, it may be that the social pendulum will swing back towards a greater emphasis on character, faith, spirituality, and ethical progress. For progress to be real, we will eventually realize, it must take place across a wide spectrum of human knowledge, and this includes the imaginative world. True and lasting progress means harnessing the imagination for creative endeavor, training the character and conduct to cope with the strains of earthly toil, and tapping into that hidden reservoir of potential that every man possesses, but few men use.
Even Gellius would have agreed with that assessment.
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