The concept of progress was a crucial feature in the ideology of the war state to justify its centralization of power at the expense of intermediate institutions. Citizens voluntarily have sacrificed their privileges and liberties to the state if they believed that the future promises more than the past. The justification of “making the world safe for democracy” — whether it was against the Germans, Japanese, Soviets, or Islamic fundamentalists — only became persuasive if the concept of progress existed; otherwise, there was no compelling reason why citizens should submit themselves to the state. Given this fact, it should come to no surprise that intellectuals were not only the best equipped but also played an active role in presenting the case of progress on behalf of the national government to its democratic citizenry. As Nisbet had noted, the concept of progress in our times “had reached its zenith in the Western mind in popular as well as scholarly circles. From being one of the most important ideas in the West it became the dominant idea.” (HP, 171)
For Nisbet, the concept of progress was neither uniquely modern nor entirely secular in origin and history. Rather than emerging in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the concept of progress was founded in the Greek and Roman attempt to understand their histories. The key to understanding progress to the classical mind was the idea of nature (physis or natura): the nature of any object — animal, plant, a person, or even a civilization — “was simply a pattern of growth and change that was held to be inherent in it, natural to its very structure or being.” (MM, 39-40) The task of classical science was to identify the nature or essence of an object and trace its development and progress sequentially over a period of time. Thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, and other classical thinkers each wrote on human development that occurred over several generations.13 (SC, 15-61; HP, 13-26)
Christian theologians and philosophers fused the classical notion of nature with the Israelite conception of sacred history in order to describe human events as something “that could not have been other than it actually was.” (P, 239) In other words, God directed human progress as it unfolded in history; or as Nisbet wrote, “All of the essential ideas involved in the philosophy of progress — slow, gradual, and continuous advance through time of all mankind, in a pattern of successively higher stages of development, the whole process revealing, necessity, direction, and purpose — are to be found in the Christian philosophy of history.” (P, 239) However, the nature of human history was not in reference to the external events — a series of unintelligible and therefore meaningless events — but to the spiritual development of mankind. The Christian philosophy of history for Nisbet was essentially Augustinian in its belief of temporal historical necessity and ecumenical spiritual unity. (HP, 59-76) The concept of progress was to be discovered not in the city of man but in the city of God. In this sense, the concept of progress as a spiritual experience of the divine available to all humans reached its greatest refinement in the Christian philosophy of history.
The mistake of modern thinkers was to misplace the concept of progress to the realm of historical necessity. Although the “the move from the Christian to the ‘modern’ concept of progress was short and uncomplicated,” this replacement took place sequentially in the works of Turgot, Lessing, and Kant, where human progress was not determined solely by God’s grace but also by natural causes. (P, 240) The Enlightenment philosophers for Nisbet argued that both God and nature — the former accessible by faith, the latter by reason — provided humans the path towards progress. In spite of permitting God’s existence, the Enlightenment thinkers not only had redefined the divine as a distant watchmaker deity, but they have allowed reason an equal, if not superior, epistemological claim to knowledge in nature. This source of knowledge, nature, did not refer to the essence of a human being but to the external causes and relations of man’s environment. Consequently, nature and reason were held to be co-equal to God and faith as epistemological and metaphysical realities. Progress no longer translated into man’s spiritual development to the divine but also to his relation to the external world of nature and its causes.
By the nineteenth century, the concept of progress had degenerated into an article of popular faith with the divine entirely disappeared. Social evolutionary theorists dominated the age with their redefinition of progress as something completely natural, directional, immanent, continuous, and necessary. (SC, 168-88) Progress solely resided in the realm of historical necessity that was accessible only by reason, and more specifically, scientific reason. With the introduction of the comparative method, Western civilization became measured against its own past as well as against other civilizations were evaluated to determine the progress of human development. Unstated and assumed was that contemporary Western civilization — alienated individuals, a centralized state, an ideology of secularism — were the criteria against which other past and present civilizations were to be measured against. This assumption would be exposed and somewhat dismantled in the twentieth century after two world wars and the rise of postmodernism.
Nisbet himself doubted the assumptions of nineteenth-century evolutionary theories: “Change is not natural, not normal, much less ubiquitous and constant. Fixity is. . . . If we look at actual social behavior, in place and in time, we find over and over that persistence in time is the far more common condition of things.” (SC, 270) Furthermore, change is not directional: “Patterns, rhythms, trends are inescapably subjective. There is no inherent relation to the data. However persuasive a given ‘direction’ may be to our acquired interests or values, it has no independent or objective validity.” (SC, 285) Consequently, theories that claim progress or directional change in the realm of historical necessity were fundamentally flawed. According to Nisbet, there was no inherent progress or direction in history because events were in the state of continual flux. By contrast, human nature was a constant. (SC, 298) If we resorted to the classical understanding of nature as discovering the essential aspect of human beings, we discover that progress occurred only in sacred and not temporal history. The claims of social evolutionary theorists therefore were misplaced not only metaphysically in the realm of historical necessity but also epistemologically in the denial of the divine.
In spite of its falsity, the concept of progress remained “a powerful intellectual force behind Western civilization’s spectacular achievements” that cemented people to the past, present, and future. (P, 241) But the transformation of the concept has created a condition of crisis in contemporary society: “[societies] are destroyed by all the forces which constitute their essence.” The result was a society that “steadily [is] losing the minimal requirements for a society — such requirements being the very opposite of the egoistic and hedonistic elements that dominate Western culture today?” (HP, 356) With the disappearance of the spiritual dimensions of man’s existence, society can conceive of progress only in temporal and material terms. This modern conception of progress has become emptied of any transcending significance for citizens and as a result can bind people together only in a false ideology of individualism, secularism, and state.
From the social scientist’s perspective, the modern conception of progress has no utility. The concept of progress was originally born in the “classical world, sustained by religion from the third century on, and now threatens to die from the loss of religious sustenance.” (P, 242) Nonetheless, Nisbet believed that recovery of the religious sustenance behind the concept of progress was possible, for there was a “faint, possibly illusory, signs of the beginning of a religious renewal in Western Civilization, notably in America.” (HP, 356) If this renewal was possible, then we were likely to regain “a true culture in which the core is a deep and wide sense of the sacred” and “the vital conditions of progress itself and of faith in progress—past, present, and future.” (HP, 357) Progress in this sense was not a matter of historical necessity but one that transcended human hedonistic egoism for community and removed a utopian belief in politics as a means of salvation.
The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom by Robert A. Nisbet (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1953; San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1990). (QC)
“Foreward” to The American Family and the State, edited by Joseph R. Peden and Fred Glahe (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, 1986). (AS)
“Conservatism and Sociology,” The American Journal of Sociology 48 (September 1952), 167-175. (CS)
The Degradation of Academic Dogma: The University in America, 1945-1970 (New York: Basic Books, 1971). (DA)
“The French Revolution and the Rise of Sociology in France,” The American Journal of Sociology 49 (November 1943), 156-64. (FS)
History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980). (HP)
The Making of Modern Society (New York: NYU Press, 1986). (MM)
The Present Age: Progress and Authority in Modern America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988). (PA)
Sociology as an Art Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). (SA)
The Social Bond: An Introduction to the Study of Society (New York: Knopf, 1970). (SB)
Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969). (SC)
The Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought (New York: Washington Square Press, 1982). (SP)
The Sociological Tradition (New York: Basic Books, 1966). (ST)
Twilight of Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975). (TA)
Tradition and Revolt: Historical and Sociological Essays (New York: Random House, 1968). (TR)
13. It was Lucretius who was the first one to introduce the term “progress” (pedetemtin progedientes) to describe the nature of human development over time (HP, 37-46).
This article was originally entitled, “War, Progress, and Sociology in the Age of Ideology,” in The Political Science Reviewer 36:1 (2007): 311-43.