The contemporary British philosopher, Roger Scruton, writes in Why I Became a Conservative:
“Edmund Burke persuaded me that societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal, that there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress.”
I think he and Burke are wrong about the first, partially right about the second, and completely right about the third.
Societies are forever being organized according to a plan or a goal, even if not always successfully. For it is true that the best laid plans (witness the totalitarian fascist and communist states of the past century) often come to naught, the goals of the planners abandoned.
But the U.S. Constitution was a “plan” and this plan, after more than 200 years, is still very much a plan we can live with. Also, in regard to a “goal,” the goal of securing for all certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is no less our goal today than it was in 1787.
I’m not sure I know what Scruton means when he says there’s no direction to history. Perhaps this is just another way of saying there is no goal, that history is not going anywhere?
But this country’s history is the history of our reaching, or still trying to reach, one end point after another, be it civil rights for African Americans, equality for women, health care and education for all. So given all that has been accomplished of what we set out to do, isn’t there plenty of direction to our history?
But if Scruton means by direction to history, progress, well then things are no longer so simple or straightforward. The word progress itself, or the idea of progress, has not yet been defined to everyone’s satisfaction.
If by progress we mean a greater understanding of our biological nature as well as of the physical world we have certainly made enormous progress. For doesn’t the undeniable progress of knowledge, of science, and the technologies resulting therefrom, give a direction to history, even if we can’t yet envision an end to which all this progress is taking us?
But Scruton is clearly right where he says there has been no moral or spiritual progress, no progress in our view of man. This conclusion is supported by the fact that we read the oldest literary texts today as if they were no less relevant now than they were in their ow time, hundreds or thousands of years ago.
Progress in science is demonstrated by the fact that our science texts, while not ever being completely discarded, are constantly being replaced by new works reflecting our greater knowledge of man and nature. Literary texts, on the other hand, those of Sophocles, Shakespeare, and innumerable other writers, have not yet been set aside and replaced.
Our conclusion that we have not yet experienced moral progress, that know very little of what we really are, and even less of what we ought to be, should teach us humility. Yes we can go to the moon, but we are no more in control of our individual lives and destinies that was the biblical Job.
Yes, Roger, there is, so far anyway, no such thing as moral and spiritual progress. Is this conclusion enough to make conservatives of us all?