Breathe In, Breathe Out

I have very fond feelings for Will Durant. His multi-volume series The Story of Civilization was an absolute lifeline for me in my early years of teaching, and reading those volumes propelled me to some wonderful primary sources. His insights were not as profound as those of his contemporary AJ Toynbee, but he wrote with a more whimsical touch.

In Durant’s The Lessons of History (co-authored by his wife Ariel) he includes as essay on the question of whether or not progress is real. In grand Thomistic fashion Durant begins by proposing a negative answer. Philosophy will never eclipse Plato, literature will not move beyond Shakespeare. Science heals but also has created new forms of death and accelerated our means to destroy each other.

But Durant then pivots, and affirms that we have progressed–not in happiness (we will always find ways to be unhappy)–but in command over the environment. Famine and other natural disasters no longer decimate millions each year, and Durant asks,

“Are we ready to scuttle the science that has so diminished superstition, obscurantism, and religious intolerance, or the technology that has spread food, home ownership, comfort, education, and leisure beyond any precedent?”

He continues and admires the expansion of education, stating that

“If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing … our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all … we have raised the level and average level of knowledge beyond any age in history.”

It is a fine argument, and as always, wonderfully written.

In 1845 Thomas Macaulay wrote eloquently in favor of the Progress narrative:

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana.

We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man

But even Macaulay, amidst his rhapsody, at least gives a quick nod to the counter argument:

And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.

Most ancient historians claim that things have gotten worse, that we progress from golden ages, to silver, to bronze and iron, a descent from heaven to earth. A middle position exists that I want to explore, one that questions the main arguments of the progress and decline narratives–though obviously certain kinds of progress and decline happen–and instead focus on the idea that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and be guided by St. Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise, On the Making of Man.*

Consider what follows speculative . . .

Humanity may progress in certain ways, and decline in others, but will always be limited by the circumstances of his creation. We are meant both to reflect God to world and to mediate the world to God. As such we have elements both of movement and stability in our nature. St. Gregory writes,

It may be, by a providential dispensation, so that the property of nature which constitutes its immutability and immobility might not, when viewed in any created object, cause the creature to be accounted as God; for that which may happen to move or change would cease to admit the conception of the Godhead.

Hence the earth is stable without being immutable, while the heavens, on the contrary, as it has no mutability, so has not stability either, that the Divine power, by weaving change in the stable nature and motion with that which is not subject to change, might by the interchange of attributes, at once join them both closely to each other, and make them alien from the conception of Deity.

That is, God makes us in such a way so that we can neither have the presumption to be God, but also see that we are more than the beasts. We have this duality within us, meant to exist in harmony.

St. Gregory makes many such connections between the rhythms and operations of nature and our own flourishing as human beings made by God. He comments that many creatures are larger, stronger, and faster than us, yet we have dominion over them–a seeming puzzle. He answers this disarmingly by stating that if we were to be the largest, fastest, and strongest of the creatures we would surely look rather funny–misshapen and unbalanced, “wild looking.” But as he stresses our dominion over creation, he does so again by establishing our connection with it.

. . . moreover, he would have neglected his rule over the other creatures if he had no need of the co-operation of his subjects.

St. Gregory establishes (so it seems to me) an irrevocable connection between God, man, and nature, writing elsewhere that,

The creation of man is related as coming last, as of one who took up into himself every single form of life, both that of plants and that which is seen in brutes.

So, although we are all always in a state of flux, we also have stable elements, just as creation itself is both stable and fluid. We never step into the same river twice, and yet it is still the same river. And while some may see hints of evolutionary ideas in St. Gregory’s above comment, I think that he would say that creation reflects man more so than man reflects creation.

Given this, we can ask in regards to the question of progress–can creation “progress?” Certainly dirty water can become clean, but we might call this a “return” more than an “advance.”

We should think similarly in terms of human progress.

What I mean is that what we often call progress may be simply a reflection of how we breathe. We inhale, that is:

  • We draw things into ourselves
  • We concentrate our being, we focus, or in other words,
  • We centralize our being

And we exhale, meaning

  • We disperse things from our being
  • We separate the good and bad, the proper and improper
  • We get looser physically and mentally, we de-centralize**

We shouldn’t call inhalation or exhalation progress, but we often do. So, for example, many heralded the changes we made in the area of national intelligence in the wake of 9/11. We centralized our intelligence gathering–we inhaled. Surely this was correct? But in the wake of our intelligence failure after Pearl Harbor we determined that we needed to exhale and de-centralize intelligence agencies so we could have multiple views to consider. Both seemed like exactly the right thing to do given their respective contexts, and maybe both were correct actions to take, but neither can be termed “progress,” though it may feel like it at the time. What we might instead be doing is returning to a proper balance, or recalibrating temporarily.

Of course we usually want avoid dramatic inhalation and exhalation, which we only do as humans exerting ourselves or trying to de-escalate an emotional situation. We cannot continue for long in such a state.

We can take the state of education, so lauded by Durant, among others. Democratic education “inhales” a great deal by taking in everyone it can. But this has led to a kind of hyper-concentration in education, which can only lead to more centralization and standardization. So, naturally we see the rise of importance in standardized tests, which have the effect of getting teachers to “teach to the test.” In what sense has education truly improved in the last 100 years? What we can say for sure is that it has done some things at the expense of others.

As democracies we possibly overvalue the “fluid” elements of our created selves, and trust in the free flow of people, goods, and information. The New York Times recently announced, for example, that it would “open up” its process of how it endorses presidential candidates and make it more transparent. Surely transparency is progress in any democracy? But as Alex Tabbarok pointed out, this will likely make all of the candidates far less candid than they might have otherwise been when talking with the Times. Certain stances they might have explained as a kind of horse-trading off the record they would never reveal in a more public forum. When the scale tips too far in the “fluid” direction, the natural reaction is to revert to solidity. “Progress,” so called, seems impossible in either direction–by design. The very design of creation makes utopias impossible.

Perhaps the most striking form of progress surely is the application of science to food production and the eradication of disease. We live healthier and longer than in the past. Infant mortality has decreased dramatically. Unquestionably, the argument goes, this is progress that all can champion without qualification.

This certainly strongly challenges my argument–and most every argument has its limits. Still, perhaps these significant improvements do have a hidden cost of separation from the very creation that nurtures us and with whom our identity is inextricably linked. Here, I will admit, however, that it is hard to argue against progress of this kind.

Maybe . . . certain kinds of progress are possible.

But I think the larger point still remains, one that we do well to consider as we head towards another election cycle. Some may feel that Trump has lurched us too far in one direction, so that the solution is go hard in the opposite direction. This will exhaust us quickly. Rather, as St. Gregory taught us, we need to be a nation that takes calm and measured breaths.


*I should state at the outset that I do not find St. Gregory an easy read, and I make no certain claim to interpreting him correctly, though hopefully I have at least applied his words in the right spirit.

**This process of gathering in and pushing out is reflected in almost every icon of Christ, as He blesses with His right hand (drawing in) and separates with his left (in the form of a scroll, the Book of Life, which makes distinctions between people, etc.), further testimony to this pattern at the very Head of Humanity itself.

In the Byzantine icon below, the blessing/”drawing in” motif is more explicit, as His right hand almost seems to draw one towards Him:

A more modern icon, “Christ of the Isles” (Celtic style), that abides by the traditional pattern . . .

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