The Idea of Progress forms the Backdrop to a society. In the Extreme, without the possibility of progress of any sort, your gain is someone else’s loss. If human behaviour is unreformable, social policy can only ever be about trying to cage the ape within.
THE best modern parable of progress was, aptly, ahead of its time. In 1861 Imre Madach published “The Tragedy of Man”, a “Paradise Lost” for the industrial age. The verse drama, still a cornerstone of Hungarian literature, describes how Adam is cast out of the Garden with Eve, renounces God and determines to recreate Eden through his own efforts. “My God is me,” he boasts, “whatever I regain is mine by right. This is the source of all my strength and pride.”
Adam gets the chance to see how much of Eden he will “regain”. He starts in Ancient Egypt and travels in time through 11 tableaux, ending in the icebound twilight of humanity. It is a cautionary tale. Adam glories in the Egyptian pyramids, but he discovers that they are built on the misery of slaves. So he rejects slavery and instead advances to Greek democracy. But when the Athenians condemn a hero, much as they condemned Socrates, Adam forsakes democracy and moves on to harmless, worldly pleasure. Sated and miserable in hedonistic Rome, he looks to the chivalry of the knights crusader. Yet each new reforming principle crumbles before him. Adam replaces 17th-century Prague’s courtly hypocrisy with the rights of man. When equality curdles into Terror under Robespierre, he embraces individual liberty—which is in turn corrupted on the money-grabbing streets of Georgian London. In the future a scientific Utopia has Michelangelo making chair-legs and Plato herding cows, because art and philosophy have no utility. At the end of time, having encountered the savage man who has no guiding principle except violence, Adam is downcast—and understandably so. Suicidal, he pleads with Lucifer: “Let me see no more of my harsh fate: this useless struggle.”
Things today are not quite that bad. But Madach’s 19th-century verse contains an insight that belongs slap bang in the 21st. In the rich world the idea of progress has become impoverished. Through complacency and bitter experience, the scope of progress has narrowed. The popular view is that, although technology and GDP advance, morals and society are treading water or, depending on your choice of newspaper, sinking back into decadence and barbarism. On the left of politics these days, “progress” comes with a pair of ironic quotation marks attached; on the right, “progressive” is a term of abuse.