Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Heart of Progress

Published in The University Bookman on March 28, 2021


Review: A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics, by Matthew W. Slaboch. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. Hardcover, 208 pages, $47.50.

My parents marveled at the freeways when we first came to America. As they learned to drive the streets and highways in this new land while navigating their way around Southern California, they were particularly impressed by the material developments. On one such drive I remember my mother saying to my father something like, “If only Attif can see these freeways, roads, and buildings here—oooo!” In other words, he would be impressed to see such engineering.

My maternal uncle Attif was the genius engineer in her family—he had a degree in chemical engineering from the university in Baghdad and had studied some in England. Interested and brilliant in the entire discipline, he would have delighted in such advancement. This was progress! An achievement that aided society, helping man to choose the good and do the good in this life. But there’s a different type of progress, a progress that separates man from man and man from the good.

In his book, A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics, Matthew W. Slaboch tries to find out what the critics mean when they talk about “progress.” His thesis is that continued progress—optimism about man and his unlimited material, political, and intellectual advancement in the world—is not possible. To show it, he moves through history, looking at philosophical pessimists within three different cultures and how they answered questions like: What does progress mean? What is its goal? How is it related to politics?

Slaboch’s primary goal is understanding and relating the historical arguments against the idea of progress, and judging whether or not progress as it has been understood by its proponents and critics has a future. The modern historical overview and inquiry into the minds of the critics of progress is of great value to us today; on this count Slaboch delivers. The young undergrad and those new to the subject would benefit from it. However, I would like to have seen a deeper examination of the relationship between Christian theological principles—the principles that the proponents of progress were reacting to—and the premises of the modern understanding of progress.

The book is divided into four chapters. The first focuses on German philosophers. He takes up Arthur Schopenhauer, an anti-natalist, anti-political thinker. Contra the optimistic German philosophers and historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries like Leibniz and Hegel, Schopenhauer opposed the idea that mankind is on a sustained trajectory of progress, and that the nation-state is the best vehicle to realize it. For Schopenhauer the aimless will is the guiding force in society, and life is like a pendulum swinging “to and fro between pain and boredom.” Slaboch writes, “Schopenhauer … explicitly rejects metaphysical optimism. In its place he proposes a metaphysical pessimism in which an aimless and unquenchable will directs both the natural world and human existence.” For Schopenhauer, nations are abstract whereas the individual is real. Not only is the individual life a suffering aimless journey, but a political life in a nation-state puffed up with the optimistic philosophy of progress will end up crushed under the totalitarianism that will eventually come. “To Arthur Schopenhauer,” Slaboch writes, “history revealed neither advancement nor decline, and new problems would simply replace any that could be fixed in the political arena.” Nietzsche inherited Schopenhauer’s pessimism. Nietzsche, who believed that there was no goal to history, rejected completely the idea of state-led progress.

The second chapter centers on Nicholas I and Leo Tolstoy and the idea of progress as it relates to Russia in particular. The question of progress in Russia was tied to the question of Russia’s future identity: Is Russia Western or Eastern? The discussion was driven by two camps, the Slavophiles and the Westernizers. Both groups believed in progress, but the Westernizers believed that Russia’s future success depended on Russia following the European path, intellectually and materially. Whereas for the Slavophiles, the idea of progress tended to be more spiritual in nature, with the goal of reinforcing Russia’s distinctiveness.

But it is Leo Tolstoy who rises as the true critic of progress in Russia, and it is in the rejection of progress that Tolstoy finds common ground with Tsar Nicholas I. After taking the reader through Tolstoy’s thoughts on history and politics Slaboch writes, “for Leo Tolstoy, ‘progress’ was a cipher, an empty slogan with no agreed-upon meaning that the powerful could bandy about to justify their pet projects and policies.”

Chapter three focuses on the American historians Henry and Brooks Adams and the idea of progress in America, “a country that was founded at the height of the Enlightenment,” whose people are “conditioned” to believe in progress. Slaboch quotes James Wilson, Supreme Court justice and signer of the Declaration of Independence:

A progressive state is necessary to the happiness and perfection of man. Whatever attainments are already reached, attainments still higher should be pursued. Let us, therefore, strive with noble emulation. Let us suppose we have done nothing, while any thing yet remains to be done. Let us, with fervent zeal, press forward, and make unceasing advances in every thing that can support, improve, refine, or embellish society.

Slaboch writes, “Out of colonial origins the United States came into being, and the United States would come to serve as a model for the rest of the world: ‘progress and liberty are identical,’ and the United States represented the paradigmatic free society,” and therefore the paradigmatic progressive society. But Henry and Brooks Adams—critics of progress, and pessimists of democracy and American politics—stand out as exceptions in a country whose lifeblood is progress, whose restive spirit strains for the next thing.

The Adams brothers agreed that American society had declined and will continue to do so. Slaboch writes, “the Adams brothers shared fundamental agreement in their diagnoses of society’s ailments, but parted ways when it came to acting on their findings. Brooks became an apologist for American imperialism, arguing that the United States could stave off its ultimate collapse so long as it kept expanding its territory to incorporate new energies.” Henry, however, believed this country was irreparable; he ended up withdrawing completely from political life, from Washington D.C., and from most society. At the time, this kind of pessimism in America—especially from a leading family that can count several presidents in its lineage—was unheard of. “[Henry] Adams stands alone for his total rejection of the idea of progress,” writes Slaboch.

In chapter four Slaboch turns to the twentieth century. He considers three twentieth-century critics—Oswald Spengler, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (whom he calls a modern-day Cassandra), and Christopher Lasch. Spengler focuses on the progress of cultures rather than civilizations; his claim is not only that “cultures are born, grow, and die just as all organisms must, but that all cultures are born, grow, and die according to particular and discernible patterns.” For Spengler—and as we saw earlier for Brooks Adams—the West needed to become an empire in order to survive.

Slaboch ends his book with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Christopher Lasch. For Solzhenitsyn the terror of the twentieth century was the “‘chilling culmination of that Progress about which so many dreamed in the eighteenth century.’” Solzhenitsyn—like Tolstoy—rejects the West’s pursuit of material progress and its idea that history is on an ever-progressive course. Like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche he rejects the idea that the state should be the vehicle of mankind’s progress; but unlike them he does not reject God, rather he leans into his Christianity.

Slaboch mentions an interesting quote from Solzhenitsyn—a countercultural idea for Americans whose country is built on the principle of high political involvement. “Solzhenitsyn,” writes Slaboch, “argues that there is an inverse relationship for political participation and spiritual development: ‘the more energetic the political activity in a country, the greater is the loss to spiritual life.’” Solzhenitsyn emphasizes the personal: “there can be only one true Progress: the sum total of the spiritual progresses of individuals; the degree of self-perfection in the course of their lives.” In the end, Solzhenitsyn lands on a cautious hope, “surely, we have not experienced the trials of the twentieth century in vain. Let us hope.”

Lasch shares this cautious hope. Lasch is deep and wide, and in this work Slaboch could only give him limited treatment. Two things stand out: Lasch’s vehement rejection of and his determination to work against material progress (which included unbridled capitalism); and his solution to the degradation and decadence that have resulted from it. Slaboch writes, “What he found worthwhile in the history of American ideas, and what he defended to his audience, was populism. Populism, to Lasch, meant localism, as opposed to centralization. And populists preached the two things Lasch claimed were the core of his argument: hope and a ‘sense of limits.’”

* * *

When Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Alexandria and Cairo he was not only after territory, he was on a civilizing mission. Along with the newest technology from the West he brought an optimistic vision of unlimited progress, especially of man’s limitless material progress—Enlightenment values and ideas. The French showcased their science and technology as proof. The attempt backfired. The theologian and intellectual ’Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti (1754–1824) wrote this:

You see that they are materialists, who deny all God’s attributes. The creed they follow is to make human reason supreme and what people will approve in accordance with their whims.

One cleric wrote that the French were “full of contradictions,” that they were “Christian only in name.” What the Egyptians saw, what all the Middle East eventually saw and believed, is that the idea of progress equals the belief that human reason reigns supreme. That is, progress means human reason over revealed religion; in order for man to advance, God must retreat. Like all such visions about the glory of man, it presupposes a univocal conception of being, where God and the world compete on a shared ontological grid. This is the link that I wish Slaboch had spent more time on; if the book is to be used for undergraduates, it is imperative to discuss this connection because these students come in with an anemic understanding of the history of these ideas.

This premise is how you get Feuerbach saying, “In order for God to be enriched, man would have to be impoverished.” Or Dietrich Heinrich Kerler, “Even if it could be proved by mathematics that God exists, I do not want him to exist, because he would set limits to my greatness.” And then Bakunin in God and the State:

The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice … we may not, must not make the slightest concession either to the God of theology or to the God of metaphysics … If God is, man is a slave; now, man can and must be free; then, God does not exist … God appears, man is reduced to nothing; and the greater Divinity becomes, the more miserable becomes humanity.

Against these, Henri de Lubac observed, “Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness that, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom.”

With God the obstacle gone, man’s progress is unlimited.

It is this idea of progress that the Egyptians and all those in the Middle East feared after coming in contact with the progressive West. For some in the Middle East, material progress and rejection of God (atheism or anti-theism) are inseparable, they go hand-in-hand. And so they rejected and still reject progress because of that link. Others in the Middle East hoped to gain the technological knowledge while keeping their faith. But how could they hope for it when what they saw playing out in the “Christian” West was the one-to-one correlation between progress and apostasy? This is why I’ve written often that the best way to help this conflicted region is for the West to regain its predominately Christian identity; to model for these regions a society that can live by both faith and reason, showing them that progress can and should have limits, that part of a progress that seeks the good includes a healthy, true, and just tolerance.

What the British and the French did in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was to work toward the dissemination of secular ideas. “The West fed the East by teaspoons,” my father told me as we discussed the trajectory of progress he lived through as a man growing up in Iraq.

For a while Middle Eastern nations attempted material progress without its anti-God, anti-metaphysical nature; it worked for a short time under the kings the British and French helped bring to power during the colonial period where the hand of the West was more evident. Eventually socialism crept in, and with it came dictatorships, but even then development continued: roads and bridges, buildings, imported goods, nationalization of the oil industry, and so on. Progress inched forward, the Western hand was still there, but hidden, indirect (as with consulting companies). The Middle East adapted and began imitating the West. Some of this was mediated by the rich who could afford to holiday in the West, send their sons abroad to study and return home with Western tastes and mindset. Merchants traveling abroad also brought ideas and products back home. Even wearing a bathing suit became a sign of progress.

During this stage the dictators were unreligious for the most part, or were culturally religious; they allowed religion but tempered all extremism (see for example Gamal Abdel Nasser and his suppression of the religiopolitical Muslim Brotherhood) because extremism would have overthrown them and their modernization project. But the religious were always there, those men and women for whom almost any form of material progress equalled the rejection of God. Between the two extremes was the average person—like my parents, their families, and so many others—who wanted to keep their family and faith and use technological progress appropriately.

The irony is this: by removing the dictators—like Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah, in the case of Iran—to usher in “democracy, freedom, progress,” the West—America in particular with her “national interest”—opened up the space for all the anti-progressives to come to power. This regression began with Khoumani. Other nations too have seen this reversal. Slaboch writes, “In a 2013 adress before the Federal Assembly, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that ‘attempts to push supposedly more progressive development models onto other nations actually resulted in regression, barbarity, and extensive bloodshed.’” The Islamist-secular national dialectic in the Middle East has been raging since then. Today the region is unstable and the idea of progress and its relationship to religion is in many ways the underlying issue. The Gulf, for example, continues to pursue progress materially and technologically, little by little, but they also want to hold on to their religion. Nobody knows how long this will last or how it will end up.

“Everyone looks on progress as being, in the first place, a transition to a state of human society in which people will not suffer from hunger,” wrote Simone Weil. For Weil hunger meant more than bodily sustenance. Progress can humanize and dehumanize; our generation in the midst of a dehumanized world has one task: seek the progress that humanizes.

I believe that the heart of progress is man’s desire to ameliorate his suffering. Tracing the history of the human condition we see three theories. In one, the fear of suffering drives man to escape his condition at all cost, to control and conquer it—this is the narrative of limitless progress. The second theory is its opposite. It believes that man is doomed to suffer and the best we can hope for is survival—this is the narrative of degeneration ad infinitum. The third is a synthesis of the two—it holds the promise of development while accepting that there is suffering, that there are limits and responsibilities that come with progress, and that there is something that transcends man. This is the narrative of hope, of cultivating the earth—humanizing it—suffering that leads to restoration. This is Lasch, Solzhenitsyn, and others like them. “Suffering is neither fortuitous nor meaningless,” wrote Elizabeth Jennings, “it is part of the pattern not simply of the life prayer but of life itself.” 


Luma Simms, a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies the life and thought of immigrants. Mrs. Simms’s essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in a variety of publications including National Affairs, The Wall Street Journal, The Point, Public Discourse, Law and Liberty, the Institute for Family Studies, and others.

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