People argue for progress by citing the inconvenience of life before indoor plumbing or the health risks of unpreserved food or the ignorance and danger of primitive religion or the likelihood of death by unknown causes or the terrible poverty at the low end of the social scale or the stench of irregular bathing. In short, we should be glad to live now. Things are better, undoubtedly.
Yet, while we know what was missing then, no one can know the compensations of life in the past. Their less frenetic lives, as circumscribed as they may have been, probably included fewer desperate aspirations to progress. Certainly, no one then thought, “My goodness, I wish the toilet were inside,” or “When is someone finally going to invent deodorant?” Were they as trained to want as we are? Did they want all the time? If they enjoyed what they had more, perhaps we should envy them.
Emerson described society as a wave, the energy moves and the material does not. What we call progress is often little more than something different, positive because it’s novel, advantageous in ways that, moments before, never occurred to us. We’re prompted to appreciate—usually through purchase—every semi-step forward. Yet, as Havelock Ellis said, “What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another.”
We want to distance ourselves from yesterday, and the thought we might stand still keeps us dancing as if we stood barefoot on a griddle. The greater the expectation of progress, the more relentless and restless life becomes. Time accelerates. Promise crowds each moment and spills into disappointment when we can’t achieve impossible hopes. We are meant to advance, after all, because that’s what humans do.
Did the great historically unbathed—before the Enlightenment, say—expect so much? Perhaps acceptance, acquiescence, and resignation were bigger in their world, and they didn’t know to be unhappy. If the worship of progress is itself something new, should we call that worship progress, the perpetual feeling the present isn’t quite good enough?
It bears remembering that some of the hunger we feed only increases our appetite and that weapons and human depravity progress too. If humans were exclusively rational, we might expect reliably improved lives, but humans’ rationality is hardly dependable, and what we call progress today often proves naïve, ignorant of unanticipated consequences and side effects that sometimes surpass any pessimist’s prediction.
Belief in progress is finally faith, self-assurance today improves yesterday and tomorrow will be better still. The proof waits for a later stretching ever ahead. We will never know or prove things are better, but we may add to our present discontent by thinking things have to be.
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard wrote, “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”
The bridges we meet go only one way and, burning them behind us, we have nothing to show for it but tears. Yet with no clear memory of what caused those tears, we can’t imagine ourselves authors of our own displeasure. We go blindly, ever forward, assuming the future will save us from this strange smoke.
The past is bad, what’s ahead is better, and the present is only good for longing.