In Our Scientific Age, Progress is Inevitable even if not Permanent

I have a friend, we’ll call him Sam, who doesn’t care for the term “progress.” It’s odd when you think about it, but in his case it has a lot to do with politics. The term is too close to the term “progressive,” which in Sam’s mind, I suspect, is what describes all that he finds wrong in the world.

Obviously Sam is for progress (the core idea of a progressivism) if it means a better iPhone for him or medication he might need, or some other technological or medical advancement that improves personal utility or happiness. Airplanes are a nice way to travel fast, and vaccines keep Sam from losing half his family to outbreaks of small pox or some other deadly virus. Surely this is “progress” Sam can appreciate?

But this is complicated, I realize. It would be fair to say that those, like Sam, who are against, or uncomfortable with, the term (or idea) of progress are mostly referring to progress on the moral plane, not the technological…or the economical, i.e. getting rich. Because, naturally, we’re not against a concept or idea when it benefits us personally. My dad, a fine father and successful conservative businessman, once told me he was a conservative in every aspect except sex. For that personal policy position, he was “a raging liberal.” But’s it’s hard, if impossible, to separate the natural connection between scientific, economic, and technological progress from its connection to social progress. They go together. It’s a mindset. Something that seems lost on my friend Sam.

With the Age of Enlightenment came the scientific mind—along with an outbreak of the democratic spirit (American and French Revolutions for example) and the idea of human progress in the West. Keep this in mind. The scientific mind is the mind of learning, of analysis, of capturing nature’s power (physical and social) in order to harness it for socially useful ends. The natural state of a scientific mind is agnostic (Greek for “I don’t know”) when it comes to a proposition about understanding (or commenting on) something the scientific mind has not seen valid evidence for. While not perfect, we know that the best knowledge we can have, the most certain, is that derived from scientific experimentation and research. So naturally such a successful frame of mind becomes adopted by people and societies that wish to improve their lives. Because it works!

At the heart of education in Western society is a scientific view of the world. That doesn’t mean science will answer all questions of meaning, it can’t. It does mean, however, that people will feel more empowered by their own observation and experience to question authority in matters across the spectrum of human knowledge…and that naturally includes social matters. And so if you connect the dots, as our scientific knowledge has rapidly advanced in the West, so has social change….or the push for greater social “progress.” As scientific knowledge has advanced rapidly in the modern age, so has the push for social progress. In the West, these two ideas go together…along with our greater living standards, economic wealth, and way of life we cherish. It’s hard to have one, it seems, without encouraging the other.

This resistance to the march of time and the social—progressive—change it brings has much to do with the fear of change and a desire to hang on to the past—the love of old times and ways of doing things and ancestor worship in general. In some ways, those with stiffly conservative minds are certain that our fathers and our Founding Fathers knew better than we—and in some ways they did!

Being a man who knows you can learn a lot from studying history and biography, I can sympathize with this way of thinking. You do learn something very important from history: It’s called wisdom. If you read a lot of history and biography (but most people don’t) you notice general patterns in the march of societies and people’s lives that generally tend to repeat themselves, though not exactly, over and over throughout history and life. Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Well, that nicely sum up what you learn from reading a lot of history: a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement.

So let me say that one of history’s great lessons, one of its central laws, is the inevitability of change. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You can never step in the same river twice.” The river, with its steady flow, is changing constantly. And so it is with the flow of time and human social history. The concept of social progress is indeed a relatively new concept in human history, I’ll give critics of social progress that, but it’s an “inevitable” part of change given the endless flow of time and the yearnings of the human spirit.

I will conclude by saying that while change is inevitable, progress is not. I mean that while progress may come about—and naturally has in America—that doesn’t mean it will continue. History tells us that empires fall and societies collapse. Americans face a serious crisis because of massive levels of inequality and a declining middle-class. It’s not lost on the informed observer of history that the era in-which inequality was at its lowest and the greatest middle-class in the world was created and thriving in America was a period (1945 – 1975) that was largely the result of “progressive era” inspired policies. An era, I remind you, that conservatives are nostalgic about as the good ole days. Funny how short memories are.

The Gifts of Humility

Civilization is weak and precarious, and life, ever stronger and more savage, always comes out on top. Self-assertion is natural, gratifying, erotically charged, whereas self-denial is anything but. Of all the animals, the human variety may be the most difficult to tame. And this is precisely why humility is so important. Through it we can learn how to tolerate ourselves and others, and make ourselves a touch less abominable. For good or ill, it is the best tool we have to tame the beasts that we are.

There is nothing shocking about this. If anything, it is one of the most banal — or should I say humble? — philosophical ideas. From the Buddha to the Sufi masters to Schopenhauer to Bergson and Weil, mystics and philosophers, East and West, have not in essence said anything else. If hearing it again does shock us, it is only because we have, perhaps like never before, become so blindly, erotically entangled in the race of life that we have even forgotten that we have eyes to see.

—Costica Bradatan, The Gifts of Humility

“All history is the history of longing”

All history is the history of longing. The details of policy; the migration of peoples; the abstractions that nations kill and die for, including the abstraction of “the nation” itself—all can be ultimately traced to the viscera of human desire. Human beings have wanted innumerable, often contradictory things—security and dignity, power and domination, sheer excitement and mere survival, unconditional love and eternal salvation—and those desires have animated public life. The political has always been the personal. 

Yet circumstances alter cases. At crucial historical moments, personal longings become particularly influential in political life; private emotions and public policy resonate with special force, creating seismic changes. This is what happened in the United States between the Civil War and World War I. During those decades, widespread yearnings for regeneration—for rebirth that was variously spiritual, moral, and physical—penetrated public life, inspiring movements and policies that formed the foundation for American society in the twentieth century. 

— Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920

George H.W. Bush, 1924 – 2018

“America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle. We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.” — George H.W. Bush

Former President George H.W. Bush photographed on August 23, 2001 in Houston, TX. (Photo by Pam Francis/Getty Images)

I arrived to work on Capitol Hill in late February of 1991, just as the First Iraq War (Operation Desert Storm) was coming to an end. George H.W. Bush was our President and the titular leader of the free world. 

By any account, President Bush was known as a kind, gracious, and decent man who’d dedicated his life to public service. For me, I’ve always felt, and I think history confirms, that our nation has been best served by those Presidents who’s life has been an extensive history of serving others.

I’ve always asked when sizing up a candidate for high office, What has he or she done with their life up to this point? Has their life been about serving others? Has their life been mostly about advancing their own personal interests or has it been about their community’s and their nation’s interests? George H.W. Bush spend most of his life in faithful and dedicated service to our nation. 

The only personal (and brief) memory I have of President Bush involved a visit he made to the U.S. Capitol Building in the summer (I believe) of 1992. I was standing near the House Door of the U.S. Capitol and President Bush and his entourage were about to leave the building and head back to the White House. The President was slowly making his way, talking and shaking hands, when he suddenly broke from his group and headed straight for me. I hadn’t been paying close attention to him, but to the group in general as it was moving toward the exit. I noticed the crowd all starting to look at me and I turned to see President Bush walking toward me with his right hand extended to shake my hand. I can still distinctly remember the genuine look in his eyes and the sincerity in his voice as he strongly shook my hand and thanked me for my service “to our great nation.”  

At this particular time in our nation’s history, I’m sure, many Americans miss that genuine decency, dignity, graciousness, intelligence, and nobility that President George H.W. Bush brought to the Office of the Presidency and to the reputation and leadership status of this great nation. 

Farewell Mr. President. You leave behind a grateful nation. Thank you for your service. 

(President George H.W. Bush passed away yesterday, November 30, 2018, in Houston, Texas. He was 94.)

The 155th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

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Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1, 1863

For 3 days (July 1-3, 1863) the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, hunkered down in their homes and cellars, waiting for the violent storm to pass. Outside the air was filled with bullets, exploding artillery shells, the pounding of horse hooves, and “rebel shrieks” that “permeated their homes, their cellars, their souls” with the “unearthly yells of the exultant and defiant enemy.”

And then finally, it was over. The morning of July 4th was quiet. The guns were silent. During the night the confederate army had pulled out. In his book, The Gettysburg Gospel, the historian Gabor Boritt describes what the residents of Gettysburg found as they emerged from their homes and cellars.

Stench fills the air. Excrement from perhaps 180,000 men and more than 70,000 horses has been left behind in the area. There are thousands of flies, millions. Dead men barely covered in shallow graves. Seven thousand dead men? More likely close to 10,000. How many dead horses and mules? Three thousand, five? None buried. A nurse writes of carcasses “steaming in the sun.” The smell of putrid animal flesh mingles with the odor of human decay. It extends into the spirit of the people. War had come to them. Then it had gone and left the horror behind.

But this initial scene portended another horrific scene that would quickly follow. Amongst all the death and destruction around Gettysburg, the fields and hills and woods were filled with the moans and wails of wounded and dying men. There were 21,000 of them between the Union and Confederate armies. That July 4th morning, Gettysburg woke to find the greatest man-made catastrophe in American history. 

Eliza Farnham, a volunteer nurse from Philadelphia, tell much the same story. “The whole town . . . is one vast hospital. . . . The road, for long distances, is in many places strewn with dead horses . . . the earth in the roads and fields is ploughed to a mire by the army wheels and horses . . . avenues of white tents. . . . But, good God! What those quiet-looking tents contained! What spectacles awaited us on the rolling hills around us! It is absolutely inconceivable. . . . Dead and dying, and wounded . . . torn to pieces in every way.” Moans, shrieks, weeping, and prayer fill the houses, the barns, the tents, the fields and woods, the whole area. The land itself seems to wail. Nothing but suffering. Sights, sounds, smells unbearable. Horror. The piles of limbs dripping blood, the dying, the dead. Hell on earth.

You can’t read Boritt’s narrative of the horrific scene in Gettysburg after the great battle and not be thankful beyond words for the care and compassion and sacrifices made by so many women who came from all over to volunteer as nurses. “Angels” is the only word to describe them. For many of the dying soldiers, the last face or voice they saw or heard would have been one of these nurses providing them with as much comfort—and oftentimes prayers—as possible as they slipped from this world.

At the time of the battle, it was generally felt the outcome of it would decide the fate of the nation. A lot was hanging on what happened during Lee’s invasion of the North. Lee’s invasion plan was to draw the Union army out into the open and destroy it. He came close at Gettysburg. But it just wasn’t meant to be. The significance of the Union army’s victory, the fact that the rebel army was repulsed, badly mauled, and had to retreat, saved the nation, and brought about the planning for the November 19, 1863, ceremony to dedicate a portion of the battlefield as a cemetery for Union army soldiers killed in the battle. Today is the 155th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. 

President Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg by train on the evening of November 18th. He stayed at the home of David Wills, a local Gettysburg attorney and the man selected by the governor of Pennsylvania to plan the event. There’s been much debate, and Boritt covers much of it in his book, over when Lincoln wrote his Gettysburg Address. But we have strong evidence to believe Lincoln wrote the first part of it at the White House in ink on White House stationary, before he left Washington, and then finished his speech, in pencil on lined paper, at the Wills home the night of the 18th, possibly during the morning of the 19th. 

Lincoln’s original handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address (Photo by Jeff Wills, November 19, 2018)

Lincoln’s primary goal for his short speech was to justify the continuance of the war and to give meaning to the tremendous suffering and sacrifices—“that these dead shall not have died in vain”—being made by Union soldiers and their families so that “the nation might live.” For Lincoln, the war was a test of whether “a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure.” The war would be the trial-by-fire of this test, from which “a new birth of freedom” would emerge and set America on a new path. Lincoln called upon his listeners to take from this battlefield an increased determination to preserve the national government, to continue the fight for democracy, because in doing so Lincoln believed the American people, in winning this struggle, would be confirming to the world that democratically elected governments—here and where-ever they may take root—-can and will survive. Must survive. “…that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” 

I must admit that I can rarely hear Lincoln’s address all the way through and not feel a tinge of emotion welling up. Those 265 words, written using the rhythms and phrases of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, are beautiful and so meaningful. I’ve searched the internet for a good reading and the best one I’ve found was one done by former President Barack Obama. So take a few moments on this 155th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and reflect on Lincoln’s words, their meaning, and how incredibly timeless they really are. To hear these words and feel the force of their meaning is to understand that “the proposition” is still being tested and that it is for us, “the living,” to demonstrate its truth.  

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

— President Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863