Saturday, May 09, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - the concept of progress

I have just brought up the post that I began last night, Personal confusions with a bill of rights. Reading it, I haven't got the argument quite right, although it took some time to write.

I don't know. Some of the research that I have been doing just at present brought me in contact with the Master and Servants Act in NSW during the 1840s. I knew of the Act, of course, but I was looking at the way it worked in practice in terms of the relationships between people.

From the perspective of 2009, the Act has many bad features. However, in writing about it from an historical perspective where my focus is on what happened and why, it becomes another piece of legislation set in the context of its time whose adverse effects were gradually removed.

It may well be that some of the things I complain about now are like this Act and will simply be remedied with time. After all, the current orthodoxy in politics, public policy and administration is in fact less than forty years old - the roots were much earlier of course - and is already bending under the strain.

In all this, I suppose that there are two things that worry me.

The first is our loss of the sense of progress outside the purely economic, although even this is under strain at present. The concept of progress is inseparable from the world we have known over the last two hundred years. Because we believe that things can get better, we try to make them so. It seems to me that our present sense of modernity is very strained because many in fact no longer believe that things will get better.

The second is our loss of wonder, of the existence of an unknown still to be discovered over the horizon. 

I am not sure when the concept of progress first emerged. We can find it expressed in different ways at different times and in different places. What we can say, I think, is that it has been central to a lot of European thought for over three hundred years. 

Some might argue that progress is an illusion, that its pursuit has done damage. I do not share this view. To my mind, progress is a liberating concept because it implies that change for the better is possible. If you don't believe that progress is possible, then what's the point in trying?

The emergence of post-modernism with its very denial of the concept of progress was in some ways a sign of the ennui that began to envelop life in many western countries. Sylvia Plath wrote around 1955:

Jeopardy is jejune now: naïve knight
finds ogres out of date and dragons unheard
of, while blasé princesses indict
tilts at terror as downright absurd.

This poem may be more than fifty years old now, but it really does capture what has happened. Gone is the sense of wonder, replaced instead by a modern approach to risk management. Or, more precisely, risk avoidance.

As always, one has to be careful about generalisations. However, the Australian material that I have been reading recently published between 1922 and the early nineteen seventies has in it a belief in progress that actually seems strange in the context of Australia today. Knowing what we know now, one might classify these beliefs as naive. Yet they also fed into individual positive action in ways that have begun to diminish in modern Australia.  

Despite all, I remain an optimist. But then, I still believe in progress! 


Winton Bates said...

Some interesting thoughts, Jim.

I think you are right that the concept of progress has been central to thinking in a large part of the world over the last 300 years. Perhaps it has its origins in Enlightenment thinking that happiness is something that humans can aspire to in this life.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that it's not just happiness, Winton, although this is bound up in the same process.

I think, too, that its a shift in thinking about this life versus the next.