I just listened to George Kenney’s Electric Politics podcast interview with historian George William Van Cleve. It got me to thinking about the idea of progress which, when I was a kid, was like a condition of existence. It was part of the air you breathed. No one questioned it. It was always on and up. Forward and up. Up and up.
I hadn’t heard of Dr. Van Cleve’s book Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic and was unprepared and unexpectedly riveted by his thesis and by the gift he has for presenting difficult material in concise and (reasonably) easy to understand terms.
What particularly caught my interest, although it’s not his main theme, was Dr. Van Cleve’s understanding that the idea of progress is man made, an artifact, a product, of the mid-17th century enlightenment faith that, given enough time, people will do the right thing because it’s in human nature to do the right thing, and things will get better and better. There’s a very strong tendency in western countries to see things in this way. And a very strong resistance to not see things that way.
Dr. Van Cleve also points out the unpleasant outcomes that have resulted in part from this groundless optimism. We may now be at the beginning of a swing in the pendulum and belief in endless progress will, given enough time, become an antiquarian’s view, seen as a way of thinking from another time.
The writer Walter Benjamin described our planet’s movement through time in quite a different way. In 1940, on the eve of World War II, he wrote a brief essay on the angel of history. It’s the diametric opposite of the up-till-now dominant way of progress-thinking. And it sure packs a wallop.
“The angel of history does not move forward into the future, but has his face turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appear to us, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed to pieces. But a storm is blowing from Paradise. It has got caught in his wings with such violence that he can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned. All the while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”