Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Myth of Progress 2

Myth of Progress 1...
However, it is the more profound sense of the word "myth" that we want to explore in relation to the "myth of progress."  Whether it actually turns out to be literally true, the idea that things will get better and better is real and has had a powerful effect on Western society.  While we saw in the previous section that people in the ancient world were perhaps more likely to see history as a story of deterioration, the idea of progress was also present in the ancient world as a minority report. [1]

In this section, we want to look at some ways in which, in the last five hundred years, many in "the West" have conceptualized history in terms of the idea that European and American peoples in particular have stood at the front of the progress of humanity and civilization.  I put "the West" in quotation marks because it would seem that even the very notion of "Western civilization" is part of this story we have told ourselves, part of the myth.

Again, when we use the word "myth" in this way, we are not saying that these ideas are complete fabrications with no relation to reality whatsoever.  It surely cannot be denied that the scientific revolutions of the last few centuries took place overwhelmingly in Europe and North America in cultures that spoke Indo-European languages.  It surely cannot be denied that the beginnings of these advances took place as the power of the church declined and as intellectuals began to think in terms of natural laws of cause and effect rather than in terms of a spirit-controlled world.

This says nothing about superiority of intelligence, and it certainly says nothing of moral superiority.  And it says nothing about everyone in these places.  It simply says that the conditions of these regions were fertile ground these last few centuries for massive scientific and technological advances.  We have every reason to believe that individuals of the intelligence of Einstein have always lived in every region around the world, from ancient China, Egypt, and Africa to present day Afghanistan. [2]

Whatever the basis in actual fact, the "myth" of Western civilization has gone further to construct its history in such a way as to express its sense of superiority over both the past and others in the present.  Even the language we use demonstrates such value judgments: the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment.  These are not value-neutral terms but impose on the very diverse data of history very simplistic evaluations that exalt ourselves.

An early piece of this historical construct came in 1442 when the Italian historian Leonardo Bruni first called the period from the Fall of the Roman Empire to his day the "Middle" Ages or the medievalperiod. [3]  There is an implicit condescension in this terminology.  It implies that while things were good and “enlightened” during the Roman Empire, the intervening thousand years were the "Dark" Ages, a period of cultural darkness.

The term "Dark Ages" is particularly biased.  Even more, it ignores significant pieces of data, especially when we apply it to Europe as a whole.  For example, several of the great universities of Europe quite possibly were already operating around the year 1200: Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Paris. [4]  The theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), not to mention the Arab Muslim philosophers Avicenna (ca. 980-1037) and Averroes (1126-98), extensively appropriated the philosophy of Aristotle as they presented their understanding of various theological issues.

Bruni built his three part division of Italian history out of some hints from the Italian humanist Petrarch (1304-74).  In a letter Petrarch wrote in 1359, he calls the era in Italy since the Fall of the Roman Empire an "era of darkness." [5] To his credit, he considered himself still part of this darkness.  But what was more or less a passing comment for him became for Bruni a division of history into three parts: ancient, middle, and modern.  Thus we have the idea of the "Renaissance," the supposed "rebirth" of culture from around the time of Petrarch in the 1300's, a return to the living past in contrast to the intervening dead years. [6]

However, to demonstrate the degree to which this way of viewing history is a construct, a story we in part have created, the term "Renaissance" was not actually invented until the 1800's.  Its origins in English derive from Jacob Burckhardt's 1867 book, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. [7]  To be sure, the individuals who lived in the 1400's and 1500's knew that momentous cultural changes were taking place.  There are facts behind the construct.  But it was a later interpretation that labeled these years in ways that evaluatedwhole periods of time.  The Dark Ages are bad.  The Renaissance is rebirth of the good.

The term Enlightenmentis yet another label that places a value judgment on a period of history.  It began as a term that certain French intellectuals used of the ideas they were sharing with each other in public discussions and debates in the mid-1700’s. [8] Doubtless the vast majority of people living in France at the time were not involved in such discussions, and those who disagreed with their ideas did not consider themselves unenlightened.  The identification of those years as a distinct period of history was both a matter of self-promotion by those who participated in the movement and an interpretation that is highly selective.

None of this is to say that there was no concrete reason to say something was developing in the 1700’s among the most influential intellectuals in France, England, and Germany.  There was an almost unprecedented rise of critical examination and reflection on things the vast majority of people previously had simply assumed in one way or another.  But ideological invention was also involved, to where there is also some truth in Roger Chartier’s claim that the Enlightenment was in some ways invented by the French Revolution when it identified a “canon” or definitive list of Enlightenment thinkers, while excluding others. [9]  It is in part an example of how history is told by the winners…

[1] Cf. J. B. Bury, The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origins and Growth (19).  Cf. also Robert A. Nisbet,History of the Idea of Progress, 2nd ed. (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 1994).

[2] This claim follows naturally from Herbert Spencer's critique of the "great man" theory of history we mentioned in a textbox earlier in the chapter.  Great leaders do not emerge simply because they are great but they emerge under certain conditions and situations.  A George Washington would have been another anonymous farmer in another period of history.

[3] History of the Florentine People, sometimes called the first modern history book.  Because Bruni did not divide up history with a clearly Christian view, he is sometimes called the first modern historian.

[4] Cf. Charles H. Haskins, The Rise of Universities (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1923).  In his The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1927), he questioned the stark division Burckhardt made between the “Dark” Ages and the “Renaissance” (see below).

[5] Cf. Theodore E. Mommsen, "Petrarch's Conception of 'The Dark Ages,'" Speculum 17.2 (1942): 226-42.

[6] Although historians debate the precise dates of the beginning and end of the Middle Ages, it will suffice for us to broadly them of them as the years from 500-1500.

[7] And he drew the term from Jules Michelet, who in 1855 used the word Renaissance in his book, Histoire de France.

[8] ***

[9] The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution(1991).

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