Macaulay’s Idea of Progress – the bifurcation of material and social progress – Some thoughts on David Berlinski

Thomas Babington Macaulay, National Portrait Gallery, London [John Partridge d.1872]

Thomas Babington Macaulay,  National Portrait Gallery, London            [John Partridge d.1872]

David Berlinski begins his, still unacountably unfinished, book The Best of Times with this quote from 19th century British philosopher and Whig politician Thomas Babington Macaulay:

“We rely on the natural tendency of the human intellect to truth, and of the natural tendency of society to improvement.”

The 20th and 21st centuries speak otherwise according to Berlinski.

He goes on to quote Hannah Arendt in reply to Macaulay in a 2014 interview with Peter Robinson:

It is in the very nature of things human, that every act that has once made its appearance and has been recorded in the history of man kind, stays with mankind as a potentiality long after its actuality has become a thing of the past.

David Berlinski continues what Arendt began:

It is in this sense that the twentieth century, having introduced into human history, crimes never before imagined, is immortal.  It is simply there, an obelisk in human history, black, forbidding, immovable, and inexpugnable.

There is much that might said about those particular quotes, but as a first pass it seems to put a coffin nail in Macaulay’s Idea of Progress.

When Macaulay wrote those words in the Newtonian world of 1831 England, he could not appreciate that the seeming natural unity of material and social progress were systems of vastly different levels of complexity and that what he perceived as a continuous progression of transformation was in fact an evolutionary, discontinuous, and chaotic descent into novelty where each step into new novelty attained creates entirely new failure modes for the system involved, and that the system of material understanding feeds more strongly into social progress than social progress feeds into material understanding.

Naturally, there was a bifurcation.

The ideals of the age of enlightenment that Macaulay saw gathering inexorable force in 1831 England have hardly penetrated their 19th century cradles since, beyond a superficial demand for more liberal distribution of material progress and a cry for more freedom for me but not so much for thee. Not only do new solutions for new social failure modes need to be devised, but the enlightenment principles that Macaulay saw as self-evident and self-fulfilling must also be fully extended to the four corners of the globe.  The world is still very unequal in this regard, and it is not inevitable or inexorable that it should become so – or at least any time soon.

Until all of the peoples of the world fully assimilate the idea of liberty and justice for all, global humanity will continue to experience the type of cataclysmic reversals of fortune that it experienced in the last century.   But, even then human evolution may well never return to its Newtonian unity unless it be at a higher, trans-human state of organization completely – or maybe that’s what is coming up next – the Big Surprise that we all anticipate awaits us over the event horizon of History.


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