I’ve thought many times that speech about progress assumes that society can get better, that we know what better is, and that history guides us in that direction if we don’t fight it. And I think progress can assume those things sometimes, but it just occurred to me that maybe there’s a more basic version.
Progress might just start out by assuming the impossibility of moving backwards; someone like Chesterton represents the conservative/romantic/classicist approach when he says something about how actually you literally can turn a clock back, and when the clock is wrong that’s the only sensible thing to do. The progressive instead holds the really plausible view that who we are now precludes us from living entirely like people of past ages. We can’t forget, unlearn, rehabilitate to that degree, not as individuals and certainly not as societies.
Given that we can’t go backward, attempts to do so are misguided, pointless, and possibly dangerous. Thus regression is bad, not because progress is good but because anything else is impossible. If we try to do what’s impossible, we only harm ourselves and those around us. Better to limit ourselves to seeking to act within the realm of the possible.
That makes a lot of sense to me. It leaves me wondering though, about how often movement forward has been influenced by or even stimulated by failed attempts to return to a past glory. Maybe there’s room for a progressive case for regressive thinking.
And even without such a case, there are cracks. There are people like Chesterton who don’t agree that return is impossible.
Maybe others are agnostic about the possibility of return, but also lack faith the beneficence of the tendency of history and so feel it’s worth it to attempt a return.
Maybe others think that a return is positively impossible but still think that fighting for a return is preferable to passively accepting the direction things are headed.