All Commentary
Monday, February 1, 1965

Fallacies in the Current Cult of Progress

Mr. DeArmond, lecturer, writer, and business consultant on personnel training, is a contributor to numerous periodicals and the author of books such as The Executive at Work and How to Sell and Unsell Ideas.

“Human knowledge has doubled in the last 12 years. It will double again in the next five years, and by 1980 it will be doubling itself every three months.” This exag­gerated herald of an onrushing millennium by a well-publicized space navigator has been widely quoted and acclaimed.

Another speaker solemnly de­clared that in the decade 1960-70 more scientific knowledge will be developed than in all the centuries that preceded 1960. Now, a belief exists that if only enough billions are spent on research, cancer and heart disease can be wiped out by scientific blitz. Such speculation is symptomatic of the unbalanced state of mind in the soaring 1960′s. It exhibits a deplorably narrow concept of what human knowledge is and how it is accum­ulated.

This new gospel of technology by the specialists is a result of focusing on the immediate and close-up while blurring the achievements of all the thinkers who preceded our generation. It magnifies the present and minifies the traditional wisdom of the ages. Our contemporary wise men should be reminded that in all they discover they stand on the tall shoulders of Aristotle, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Spencer, and all the others who did the pioneer­ing. If each scientist or inventor had to start from scratch, how far would any have gotten toward such startling innovations as ir­radiated foods, tranquilizing drugs, and guided missiles?

It seems reasonable to ask by what standards is human knowledge bounded by those who see its range being expanded at such fantastic rates. Are modern auto­mation gadgets to weigh heavier in the scales than the centuries-long and laborious study and ex­perimentation by which the phys­ical facts of the universe such as the laws of thermodynamics and the persistence of motion were determined? The question is like asking which is the more im­portant, a child’s early training when he is learning how to per­ceive, to react, to reason, and to communicate, or the later develop­ment when he applies to the re­finements of practical living the basics of what he has learned in childhood and youth.

Rejection of Tested Values

What we are witnessing is the growth of a cult of Progress. “Everything you thought you knew about marketing as long as five years ago is out of date; throw it away and go modern,” a speaker said at a meeting of a Sales and Marketing Executive’s club. This is simply nonsense, of course. If I could have the choice of talking for an hour with Claude Hopkins or John H. Patterson, or of interviewing the present head of a leading New York ad­vertising agency, I would unhes­itatingly choose the former.

People have the same basic desires, aspirations, and frailties that they had five years or 500 years ago. They display the same courage, curiosity, cupidity, gen­erosity, and brutality in some­what changed forms as in the times of Dante and Chaucer. The capacity to learn is as great but no greater than when Plato walked and talked in his Academy. So slow is the process of evolution that the spirit and body have re­mained unchanged through 50 centuries of recorded history. Nietzsche’s Superman has not ap­peared.

In the 1790′s the French Jaco­bins pursued a revolutionary cult to a tragic conclusion. They at­tempted a premature delivery of a perfect society based on liberty, fraternity, equality, plus a worship of the Goddess of Reason. May not the outcome of the present aber­ration be an abortion, also? To anyone who makes the smallest pretense to a sense of the historic values, it is positively frightening to see so many presumably liter­ate leaders hailing the millennium when they are obviously ignorant of the past and the process of societal evolution. The main tra­dition of our Anglo-American race has been to make every advance on the tested foundation of the best in the past.

My friend E. W. Dykes has well said that “evolution is the nearest thing to eternal purpose which man can discover.” But humanity has a way of chasing the recur­ring illusion that progress is a steady march toward perfection. The illusion may be illustrated in a parable out of the experience of Peary, the polar explorer. One whole day he traveled northward, urging his sleigh dogs on at a brisk pace. But when at the close of the day he checked his bear­ings, he was astonished to find that he was much farther South than he had been in the morning. He had been toiling all day toward the North on an immense iceberg being drawn southward by an ocean current.

Some of our vaunted advances in civilization are a counterpart of Peary’s illusion. The sum total of human satisfactions might be as close a criterion as we could establish for genuine progress. In that respect, as Alfred N. White­head said in his Dialogues, “One of the happiest times in the his­tory of mankind was the 30 years roughly from 1880 to 1910.” That was surely about the peak of lib­erty and contentment for Ameri­cans.

One who thinks of 1964 as a pinnacle of achievement might profit in perspective by looking back just over a century, to the year 1859. During that twelve­month period these literary clas­sits were published: Darwin’s Origin of Species, George Mere­dith’s Ordeal of Richard Feverel, Thackeray’s The Virginians, Ten­nyson’s Idylls of the King, Dick­ens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Fitz­gerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khay­yam. Also Wagner’s opera, Tris­tan and Isolde. In that year, too, the first oil well, “Drake’s Folly,” was brought in at Titusville, Pennsylvania. Could we match this score in ’64?

All this moved Emerson to note in his Journal that “the only prog­ress ever known was of the in­dividual, not the race.”

Overspecialized Scientists

Today the scientists are erect­ing a dazzling utopia on man’s increasing mastery over the forces of nature. Everything is to be done by machine, and soon man will not even have to raise his hands to clothe and feed himself. Their supremacy in the world in­spires Jacques Barzun to ask, “What do they know of science who only science know?” He goes on to add, “… if college boys and girls think that science stead­ily and automatically makes for a better world—then they have wasted their time in the science lecture room.”

A narrowly specialized scientist is surely the most gullible babe­in-the-woods for plausible economic, political, and ethical fal­lacies. In his own field the scien­tist is inclined to be dogmatic, doctrinaire, scornful of “laymen’s” opinions. In any other field, but especially the nonscientific, he is prone to accept almost any pro­nouncement that carries authority. He will follow slavishly any line promulgated by another specialist of status.

The enormous branching out of scientific specialties moved Will Durant to a comparison of our age with that of the great Greek philosophers, when science limped so far behind theory. “Our mod­ern danger,” he wrote, “is pre­cisely opposite; industrial data fall upon us from all sides like the lava from Vesuvius; we suffo­cate with uncoordinated facts; our minds are overwhelmed with sciences breeding and multiplying into specialistic chaos for want of synthetic thought and a unifying philosophy. We are all mere frag­ments of what a man might be.”

Conventional Wisdom Ridiculed

The two magic words in adver­tising are “free” and “new.” Both are attached like barnacles to the mores of our century. Adults with college degrees, no less than the unsophisticated, fondly swallow those all-purpose pills that prom­ise something for nothing from the hucksters. “New” has become the very embodiment of the “good” word, taking precedence over such favorite adjectives as “sacred,” “true,” and “sound.”

This passion for novelty, cou­pled with an admiring worship of our time as vastly ahead of any that went before it, has given the present generation a distorted sense of values. We are being ex­horted by tremendous forces of conformity to judge everything by its newness. A leading spokes­man of the prevailing pragmatism is John K. Galbraith, professor of economics at Harvard and mentor of New Frontier presidents. In his The Affluent Society, Gal­braith reserves his most withering irony for what he repeatedly calls “the conventional wisdom” in an economic society. His admired predecessor, John Maynard Keynes, likewise discarded in toto the wisdom of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and others. Thus, the Western world suffers from having embraced an economic philosophy that sneers at the past.

It seems that the ultimate reach of ridicule heaped upon a con­servative statesman or politician is to relegate him to oblivion as an anachronism who belongs in the nineteenth or the eighteenth century. Then there is the pecu­liar assumption that a political leader who is “ahead of his time” is per se a very great man. All the political leaders who have achieved greatly have been abreast of their times and aware of the past. That is where Abraham Lincoln always stood. William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Horace Greeley marched on ahead and found themselves alone in the great slavery-secession struggle. Because Lincoln didn’t isolate himself from the slowly developing public opinion in the North, he saved the Union. Lin­coln knew that to turn the clock forward is quite as bad as to turn it back.

And so I rest on the wise epi­gram of the great Spanish think­er, Jose Ortega y Gasset, “We know so much that we do not understand!”



Do Our Best

Some of us are sensitive and hate to see any man compelled to work for less than he needs for a decent standard of living. Many claim they have a way out—socialism, single tax, communism, birth control, prohibition, the golden rule, co-operation. All have been tried somewhere or other. Not one has equaled the expecta­tions of its advocates.

In the meantime, we have made a good deal of progress under our present system of private ownership, with individual initi­ative and responsibility. The trouble is that no degree of pros­perity seems to disturb the relative distinctions. The poor men of today are probably as well off as the well-to-do of a century ago. But that is no consolation to the man who is low in the scale. So we shall probably always have complaining. I don’t know what we can do about it except to do our best to improve conditions, and be philosophic.

William Feather, The William Feather Magazine, October, 1964.