Once or twice on this blog I have written on the concept of progress. I was reminded of this by Legal Eagle's post The Hunger Games.
Back in July 2007 in New Barbarians? I said in part:
In all this, when I look at the history of European civilisation, I can see just that, the progressive development of a civilisation. I say European civilisation because I do not know enough of other streams to exactly follow the same process there, although I am sure that it exists.
The civilising process was never uniform nor exact. There were major retreats from time to time, but the progress was there.
Alfred North Whitehead's Adventure of Ideas traced this process through in a European context showing how different threads came together to create European civilisation. Whitehead published this book in 1933 and did not see the uniquely European barbarism that was to come with Hitler and the Nazis.
But even here, when we look at the outcomes, the Second World War introduced the concept of war crimes. Further, the German people were not punished, as Rome punished Carthage, through extermination down to ploughing the fields with salt. Instead, Germany was rebuilt, while Europe itself moved to put put previous civil wars behind it by creating the EU.
Whitehead had an enormous influence on my thinking because he seemed to me show a process of change, of the way in which combination of ideas could, with time, create what I thought of as civilisation. Later, I did ethics as part of my Philosophy I course.
I actually found the ethics component depressing because it challenged my idea that there was a "right", showing that different ethical systems all depended on different forms of rationalisation. However, it gave me greater tolerance for different views, while also reinforcing my belief in the importance of civilisation and the concept of progress as a process. Some of the alternatives were just so sterile. Empty of hope or even choice, they offered nothing but despair.
In May 2009 in Saturday Morning Musings - the concept of progress, I worried about the loss of our belief in progress. "Some might argue that progress is an illusion, that its pursuit has done damage", I suggested. I went on:
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?
To my mind, 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.
I seem to have chewed away at this many times.
Moral Courage, Fear, Technology and the Decline of the West (August 2007) looked at the impact of terrorism. There my concern was, in part, the impact on liberty and life of Government's desire to control and protect:
While all Governments have authoritarian tendencies, the last three decades have seen to my mind a remarkable rise in state authoritarianism in Australia. Governments do less for their people, but attempt to control more. This control permeates every activity and every level of society.
As I saw it, the rise of state authoritarianism was a denial of some of the central tenets in my own view of civilisation.
I am not a libertarian. However I do believe, as Thomas Jefferson may or may not have said, that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.
In November 2008 in Why I remain an optimist - and why I still believe in progress I restated my belief in progress. There I wrote in part: "if you look at the evolution of human society and thought, you will see that the need to control our human weaknesses, the desire to find a better way, is a constant thread."
This is only a smattering of the things that I have written, but it gives a taste of my personal views.
I am no longer a Christian in the way I once was. I do not miss the anguish created by conflicts between stated views of moral right as prescribed or defined, the very real fear of rotting in hell, and my natural inclinations. I do miss the certainty that that my beliefs also created.
The King James bible is one of the most wonderful books in the English language. The grandeur of its language permeates much of English writing and indeed conversation at so many levels over so many years.
In the midst of the decline in my own religious views came a focus on certain things expressed with simplicity and clarity and indeed a certain grandeur in that book. These were things that I heard in church, chapel or Sunday school.
It is hard to believe now that during term time I went to school chapel five days a week, was part of a school bible study group, went to the Methodist Church on Sunday and was a member first of the Junior Order of Knights and then the Methodist Youth Fellowship. This broad pattern continued into university.
As the broad superstructure of my beliefs dropped way, I came to focus on a small number of key things.
"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" was the first. Such a simple idea, but so powerful, for it can be applied in all aspects of human life.
"Go the extra mile" is more complicated because the concept that has now become enshrined was originally a little different as expressed in the bible: "and whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain."
This is an example of the long historical reach of some of our concepts. At the time these words were recorded, the law allowed a Roman soldier to make a person carry his back pack for a Roman mile, or a thousand paces. In making his reported statement, Jesus was saying that if you are required to carry that pack for one mile, do it also for the second. Now the "extra mile" is deeply enshrined in our thinking.
The combination of do unto others with the extra mile is not a bad base for a moral philosophy. But then there is 1 Corinthians 13, my old school lesson. This begins:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
Charity or love is a pretty important concept. The idea that without this our lives become little more than a sounding brass or tinkling symbol provides a useful corrective. The section finishes:
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
I have quoted these words from Paul before. I heard them once a term for for six years. they became very familiar.
Overall, they are important ideas. But listening in the school chapel, it was the words "For now we see through a glass, darkly" that grabbed.
Then it was just the sounds of the words. Now it has become so much more.
As what we now call a teenager with very strong sex drives and teenage confusion, I heard the words in terms of the comparison with my childhood. Now when the dark clouds sometimes gather, when things seem confused and difficult, when clarity or certainty seems distant, they become something that I can focus on.
This is not meant to be a sermon, simply a Saturday Morning Muse. So to finish, let me return to Legal Eagle's post.
In that post, she quotes Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I haven't read the book, but Pinker outlines the ‘inner demons’ which cause us to be violent and the ‘better angels’ which cause us to refrain from being violent. The four better angels listed are:
- Empathy – particularly the sense of sympathetic concern leads us to feel the pain of others and align our interests with theirs;
- Self-control – this allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses and to moderate them;
- Moral sense – a set of norms and taboos which may decrease violence (although sometimes they increase it too);
- Reason – this allows us to extricate ourselves from parochial vantage points and to deduce ways in which we could be better off.
Of these four, I think that Legal Eagle believes (as I do) that empathy is central. If you cannot feel others pain and joy then you are, at the end, a limited human being.