Because of my stance on consumption, I get accused sometimes of being anti-progress. This is interesting to me, because I am very pro-progress. I want so much progress. It’s just that I’m not sure that the societally accepted definition of progress is correct.
Heading in the same direction we’ve been heading for the past 100 years does not seem like progress to me. It seems like more of the same. Cell phones that are even better for watching television on seem like more of the same to me. Getting good, safe drinking water to the billion people on the planet who don’t have it–now that seems like progress.
Anyway, there is a book by Tolstoy which was apparently one of three by him that were of great inspiration to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among others. The book–A Confession–is Tolstoy’s autobiographical account of the crisis of meaning he had in his forties, his contemplations of suicide, and the ultimate resolution of the crisis.
I found it interesting that, in this book, Tolstoy himself questioned progress. In fact, he discusses “progress” as a kind of religion in which people blindly put their faith because they are too scared to deal with life’s larger questions. We dedicate ourselves to so-called progress, he implies, because we don’t know in service of what we should really dedicate our lives.
He makes a particular example of the guillotine, which at the time was thought to be the height of progress because it performed executions without the potential torturous errors of the executioner’s axe.
Life in Europe and my acquaintance with leading and learned Europeans confirmed me yet more in the faith of striving after perfection in which I believed, for I found the same faith among them. That faith took with me the common form it assumes with the majority of educated people of our day. It was expressed by the word “progress.” It then appeared to me that this word meant something. I did not as yet understand that, being tormented (like every vital man) by the question how it is best for me to live, in my answer, “Live in conformity with progress,” I was like a man in a boat who when carried along by wind and waves should reply to what for him is the chief and only question. “whither to steer,” by saying, “We are being carried somewhere.”
I did not then notice this. Only occasionally–not by reason but by instinct–I revolted against this superstition so common in our day, by which people hide from themselves their lack of understanding of life. . . . So, for instance, during my stay in Paris, the sight of an execution [by guillotine] revealed to me the instability of my superstitious belief in progress. When I saw the head part from the body and how they thumped separately into the box, I understood, not with my mind but with my whole being, that no theory of the reasonableness of our present progress could justify this deed; and that though everybody from the creation of the world had held it to be necessary, on whatever theory, I knew it to be unnecessary and bad; and therefore the arbiter of what is good and evil is not what people say and do, nor is it progress, but it is my heart and I. Another instance of a realization that the superstitious belief in progress is insufficient as a guide to life, was my brother’s death. Wise, good, serious, he fell ill while still a young man, suffered for more than a year, and died painfully, not understanding why he had lived and still less why he had to die. No theories could give me, or him, any reply to these questions during his slow and painful dying. But these were only rare instances of doubt, and I actually continued to live professing a faith only in progress.
I love best this line: “therefore the arbiter of what is good and evil is not what people say and do, nor is it progress, but it is my heart and I.” In other words, it is not technological advance that determines progress.
It is our hearts. And us.
And so I find myself asking: What is true progress?