Lamp Posts, the Four Winds of Heaven, and the Marching on of “Progress”

Amidst the swirling currents of our cultural discussions, quite a few phrases and words are thrown about. On account of the collective predisposition towards shallowness, much of it is fluff. A great portion of it is legitimate and beneficial as well, but regardless of the quality of content in any given situation, the pace and cadence of the conversations play out at a breakneck speed. There are occasions though, if one is paying attention, when the appearance of specific key words and ideas materialize for a brief moment. They are the manifestations of a deeper ideological bent that has permeated the core of a person’s belief system. Their philosophy begins to unknowingly escape through the cracks the more they are observed in conversing, in ways which are fascinatingly counterintuitive.

Contrary to what one might think, the core of what a person adheres to is not often found in their grand statements or drawn out speeches enunciating their stances on a host of issues. Those instances are merely them thinking out loud – essentially an automatic regurgitation. What they believe has already been established, and is seated far deeper. In truth, it is the quick comments that they think very little of in a conversation which betray their philosophical foundations.  Those statements – made in passing and taken for granted – do far more to illuminate their views than much else is capable of doing. They express the ideas that are so entrenched, it has been deemed unnecessary to have them dragged out in the light and shoved under a microscope. Untouched by constant examination, they are exempt from a rigorous inspection so frequently that it has been forgotten why we might even question them in the first place. “Everyone knows”,  and “Of course, we all agree that” (just a few options) are surefire signs of a deeply embedded opinion shortly to follow which very few people actually share, and would hardly agree on if they heard it.

The notion of “progress” has taken this place deep in the collective consciousness.  In lieu of a commonly shared religious expression, it has become inserted as the dogma of a generation desperately searching for fulfillment and purpose. Cries for the implementation of progressive ideologies, policies and behaviors reverberate from every corner of our culture. More notably, beyond these overt appeals on its behalf, it is most telling to notice that language employed in talking about “progress” is done with an air of assumed security. One might even say casually. It has settled so far into the foundations of our shared thought, that it is presumed we need not offer any reasons for its validity. After all, the inexorable march of progress must not be tampered with; far be it from us to even consider such sacrilege. Lest I sound unnecessarily cynical at this point (and God forbid, regressive!), allow me to clarify. In its purest form, untainted by a relativistic hijacking, I maintain that it is a vital and noble concept.  Unfortunately, the disillusionment begins to set in once one hears of “progress” from dozens of people, without any corresponding definition of what it is exactly.

I have been working my way through some of  G.K. Chesterton’s writing recently, and he provides vivid commentary on this impasse. He addresses it head on in his book Heretics:

The case of the general talk of “progress” is, indeed, an extreme one. As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress—that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible—at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith.

Confusion on the Road

In this case, as is always the case, the wit and clarity of even a few sentences from Chesterton could knock a man over. That may be just the thing which is needed here; while he is still sitting down he should soberly consider the “progressive” path he has been mindlessly plodding along upon. Now that he thinks of it, there were quite a few intersecting roads he had come across on his travels, each one touting signage claiming to be the most direct route to Utopian headquarters. Furthermore, they each seemed to present a differing vision of that which constitutes a Utopian reality. Some spoke of a society free from government, others spoke of a society free from freedom itself. One path only allowed technologically minded pilgrims to traverse it, another excluded even the mention of that dreadful mechanism of the devil. One tour guide at the trailhead of classical thought decried the siren song of his rival across the highway, who was apparently luring in a whole generation with the trappings of all that is “modern”. The modern man in question was too busy turning up his nose at everything he deemed outdated to spend any time defending himself.

The more our friend dwells on the chaos he has trudged through – which he had only recently considered a symphony of progressive advancement – the more he recalls the sporadic rhythm of the drums everyone had been beating, and the sharp dissonance of all the opposing voices. It is entirely reasonable on his part to wonder if he shouldn’t have set off on one of the many paths available to him. Further still, who’s to say he shouldn’t turn on his heels and traipse back the way he came? After all, he may have been traveling the wrong direction the entire time. Better yet, the most appealing option at this juncture would be to bury his head in the sand to shut out the confusion surrounding him – those who incessantly and pessimistically lament the inescapable mortality of man would applaud his move in the right direction. According to them, he only has five and a half more feet to travel towards his ultimate destination; what better progressive action could possibly be taken?

The perplexing impression one gets when considering this quandary our imaginary traveler is confronted with is the underlying lack of acknowledgement by the proponents of “progress” of their own fundamental differences. When all gathered together, the overwhelming pressure to simply unify under the banner of “advancement” suppresses any substantial discussion aiming to construct a compass which would enable confident forward motion.  It is far too easy to envision them all gathered in one room, grunting with approval and muttering vague supportive statements in response to a comment about the need for progress. Yet none would dare press the issue further, for fear of igniting any truly interesting and productive conversation. As long as all are in general agreement on the necessity of a progressive mindset, that is quite enough. The outspoken dissidence so palpably felt on the highway has been tamed to accommodate the niceties of close social proximity. The very real and incompatible differences that lie just beneath the surface have been ignored for the sake of sensitivity; what is left are a few skeleton platitudes agreed on by all present. After all, the cultural narrative prescribing progressive ideas and behavior must be adhered to. God forbid that the thin ice we have been tiptoeing along on should shatter and plunge us into any real attempts at settling what “progress” actually entails. It is amusing to note that if the ice should break, and a brave soul ventures to press the issue and inquire as to what type of progress is needed exactly, the consensus in the room – and therefore our conception of progress along with it – would evaporate immediately into thin air.

Proud of What, Precisely?

Beyond this crisis of definition – marked by a collective clamoring for something vague and formless – an even more curious ingredient is tossed into the mix which is undeniably puzzling. Rather than being somewhat dejected at having been unable to settle on a direction, we seem to be immensely proud of the “progress” we have made up to this point. Of course, this is necessitated by the desire to feel like we have accomplished something of merit. When viewed through the lens we have been constructing here though, it is difficult not to find this gratification amusing. We can hardly decide on what progress might mean, how then can we pat ourselves on the back and commend each other for having implemented it?

Unfortunately, there is also an inevitable arrogance and degradation which goes hand in hand with this beating of our chests. In order to feel properly proud of our current situation, we must simultaneously disparage those who have gone before us for their backwardness or lack of insight. They did not understand as we do. They lacked our moral fortitude and capacity to stand up for what is right.

As it happens, this feeling of pride contains an ironically self defeating element. Seeing how easy it is to dismiss previous generations for their archaic ideas and behaviors, how can we claim with any certainty that future generations will not denounce us as we do our own predecessors? From some point in the future looking back on this very moment in time, we might actually feel shame and embarrassment about our present condition rather than smug satisfaction. To borrow that oft repeated phrase so commonly used as a club to bludgeon supposedly “regressive” sentiments and their adherents, we ourselves might currently reside on the “wrong side of history.” We may just be a bumbling assortment of regressive fools, who have not yet ascertained their own simplicity.

Of course, this entire perspective is a warped one, based on an unbalanced view of the treasures our ancestors can offer to us for safekeeping. It will continue to pervade how we look back over our shoulder until we have returned to a healthy appreciation for history’s contributions and reoriented how we view the elusive ideal of progress.

Attention: Proper Interpretation Required

To be fair, we have indeed made great strides in a variety of arenas.  It is naturally part of the human experience; setbacks and subsequent leaps forward have been a core piece of the human puzzle. I would be the last person to dispute this very real fact. The difficulty comes when we endeavor to explain – in the realm of any particular topic – precisely why we are better off now than we were in the past. What type of progress has been effected, and for what reason should we be satisfied with it? Once the multiplicity of responses generated begin flying about, one begins to see the need for a “definite creed and a caste-iron code of morals” Chesterton has prescribed for our ailment of aimless motion (otherwise referred to as progress). Possessing a coherent structure by which to sift through this jumble of accounts is the only way to emerge from the chaos of opinions with our sanity fully intact, and a solid idea of where we should be heading next.

A few relatable examples may aid in clarifying my meaning. We might all agree on the invaluable strides taken in the field of medical and scientific knowledge, yet determining what to do with that knowledge is another matter altogether. Stalwart advocates of cloning, and other relatively new medical practices, might wish to commandeer this wealth of research and accumulated information towards efforts that would turn the stomachs of many of their colleagues. Likewise, the usage of drones, particularly for militaristic applications, is a hotly disputed question. None of the participants in this discussion would fail to acknowledge the astounding feat of unmanned aerial flight, which would have been unthinkable a mere century ago. Instead, the debate pivots around our utilization of this technology, and the ethical dilemmas which inevitably accompany a machine capable of disposing of an entire village with a few keystrokes on a distant keyboard. Progress has indeed transpired in both of these cases; the essential question is precisely in what way have they progressed, and how should they continue to do so? Coherent interpretation is everything in determining trajectory.

Once again, I will appeal to Chesterton’s piercing insight on this question:

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

The Guidance of Sunlight

If I might be allowed to take liberty with this remarkable analogy, I would further point out that our “philosophy of Light” is not only important in the darkness of the night, but also greatly influences how we turn to face the appearance of sunlight on the horizon at dawn. There has indeed been “war in the night” amongst the competing factions still congregated in the general vicinity of the lamppost, while some have formed parties and set off towards the four winds of heaven previously mentioned, stumbling helter-skelter through the pitch black. Immersed in and totally consumed by the confusion, the only element of commonality present is that almost all have lost track of the passage of time and are left with the impression of perpetual darkness. Eventually, some begin proclaiming that the sun has died and will never return, while still others go about disputing whether or not it existed in the first place. Perhaps the memories of bright sunshine on a clear afternoon was simply all a dream? Indeed, most have forgotten what sunlight feels like on their face; many have resigned themselves to a lifetime spent grappling in the dark; all have become completely removed from an objectively accurate perception of the world surrounding them. They may be able to correctly identify the fact that there are cobblestones under their feet, but cannot tell with any certainty which street those cobblestones belong to. After all, they have torn down the one instrument which would have aided them in this determination.

The only resolution to this utter chaos happens to be the one thing they had written off – that powerful, brilliant, blazing ball of gas which will eventually ascend calmly to take its place as the lamp post of the world. With the return of its illuminating rays comes the remembrance of the world as it really is, with all its specific features and particularities. The objective qualities of the surrounding landscape begin to melt away the laughable relativism of the previous night, and repaint a picture of a solid world which is immune to our efforts at subjecting it to our own whims. With this clarity of vision also comes a revelation of the destruction wrought in the dark, with shattered glass from windows strewn about, smashed “municipal machinery”, and doors thrown off their hinges.  Furthermore, in attempts to gather those who had wandered off, we soon discover that the party which set off for the countryside ended up in the subway, and those intending to raid the bank have locked themselves in the jailhouse.

In the wake of this hectic scenario we can begin to piece together a valuable lesson which will aid us in our aspirations of progress. The sun, in all its blinding glory, serves as a reminder of the need to acknowledge the existence of a truth and reality which is distinctly objective. By its very nature, it lays bare all that is in its range, revealing that which was previously unknown. Our efforts in describing the world around us are either verified or falsified at the first rays of morning.  If we firmly believed that the cobblestones in question had the feeling of belonging to Main Street, we will be immensely surprised to find ourselves in a dilapidated back alley at the outskirts of town when the sunlight begins streaming between the buildings.

Essentially, the sun in this illustration teaches us that objective truth is the primary building block upon which progress can subsist. We cannot begin to make this world a better place if we fail to understand the very real ways which it is desperately in need of repair. To this end, the very problem Chesterton was addressing is not that we as humans cannot agree on things, for he himself loved disagreement and considered it a useful process. Rather, he saw the impossibility of progress when we all agree too much on the validity of that awful notion of complete subjectivity.

The last – and I would claim most important – realization to be gleaned from the figure of the sun blazing in the morning sky is a simple one. Once we have comprehended that there is a particular way the world is, aside from our often petty and incomplete interpretations of it, we will next be struck by how distinctly separate the sun is from us. Our beloved lamp post (now a charming pile of scrap metal) was made by human hands, therefore human hands were easily able to dismantle it. Not so with the celestial lamp post. We can hardly look at it for fear of blinding our eyes, let alone approach near enough to tear it down from the heavens if we are still caught up in our demolishing frenzy. In fact, it would dismantle us if we were foolish enough to set our mortal hands to this task.

Essentially, there exists in this world an immeasurably powerful source of illuminating truth, which is undeniably not made or sustained by the human will and mind. Once we have grasped this, we can begin to search out a pre-existent path with the aid of a guiding light from an external point. As it turns out, this very origin of the light happens to be the person who crafted the world and designed light itself.

Perhaps if we acknowledge this, we will actually begin to make real progress.


(Note: Both links which directly precede each Chesterton excerpt provide access to a full online e-text of Heretics)



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