But, whereas Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn challenge the dominant belief in historical advancement, they both believe in the possibility of individual self-improvement. Tolstoy writes that “the law of progress, or perfectibility, is written in the soul of each man, and is transferred to history only through error. As long as it remains personal, this law is fruitful.” Solzhenitsyn echoes this sentiment, claiming that “there can be only one true Progress: the sum total of the spiritual progresses of individuals; the degree of self-perfection in the course of their lives.”
…Schopenhauer writes that “the State and the Kingdom of God, or the Moral Law, are so entirely different in their character that the former is a parody of the latter, a bitter mockery at the absence of it. Compared with the Moral Law the State is a crutch instead of a limb, an automaton instead of a man.” On this point, [Tolstoy] assuredly agrees. Indeed, this is the unifying position of thinkers who find no rhyme or reason in history, antipolitical thinkers who seek refuge in art, religion, or intellectual pursuits. Thinkers of this sort recommend that individuals work out their own salvation rather than trust in the state to bring about national or universal progress.
— Matthew Slaboch, A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and its Critics
Here we are at the beginning of a new year, a time when the belief in willpower and self-improvement is at its zenith, at least rhetorically. Over the next couple weeks, most people will rediscover the fact that agency is an uncomfortable burden entailing much hard work, and they will gradually return it, in the original wrapping paper, to the various impersonal forces that “prevent” them from fulfilling their resolutions.
In Dave Chappelle’s two new Netflix shows, he muses about perhaps being done with comedy, partially due to our hypersensitive age where everything that used to be funny is now po-faced problematic. No doubt his observations about the “brittle spirits” of the #MeToo movement who allow themselves to be traumatized and defeated by the simplest obstacles will launch a thousand hot takes in the coming days encouraging him to hurry up and go away already. But numerous commentators have also noted this about the recent spectacles involving safe-space snowflakes — however sympathetic one might be to their grievances in theory, it’s impossible to avoid the intuitive sense of them as a bunch of whiny weaklings who have never had to deal with any serious adversity. For all their buzzword-laden jargon about “systemic” this and “structural” that, they come across as, uh, well, privileged brats who expect customized treatment, who feel entitled to bubble-wrapped comfort. People, in other words, who seem to naïvely, unquestioningly believe in the inherent fairness of life, including the inexhaustible goodwill of strangers, and are proportionally furious at being denied. It’s the narcissistic tantrum you’d expect of people who take progress utterly for granted, who expect to be praised and rewarded for simply showing up.
Steven Pinker has a new book coming out, following up on the themes of his previous one. I was never interested in reading Better Angels…, and I have no interest in this one either. Judging by the commentary surrounding them, it seems like one of those rorschach things where people read into it whatever they intended to see all along. The rationalist/atheist/humanist crowd sees him as confirming their Whiggish beliefs about the teleological betterment of civilization, and the pessimistic crowd attacks him for his questionable metrics, or for turning a blind eye to all the horrible events that would disprove his thesis. I don’t know if Pinker has ever endorsed the idea that these improvements are cumulative or guaranteed, though I hope not, since I’d hate to have to think less of him. Sure, many things, from medicine to personal entertainment, are clearly better than they were at various points in the past. Sure, being reasonable, rational and scientific are generally good things. But all the charts and statistics you can present don’t change the fact that as long as countless variables in life are beyond our control, as long as unintended consequences exist, there’s always the chance that what’s been gained can be lost. We may even find that in the process of taming the world to suit our desires, we ourselves have been subtly changed as well, leaving us with the familiar feeling of existential dissonance.
Like Schopenhauer, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, only without the philosophical depth or literary talent, I’m one of those who doesn’t think history is going anywhere in particular for any reason. I don’t expect anyone to finally discover an undeniable preordained pattern, whether scientific, philosophical, or religious, that finally tells us how to live or why, and I don’t feel that as a loss. Even the Buddha’s parting advice on his deathbed was a simple “appamadena sampadetha” — strive diligently. It’s unceasing hard work to be good and wise. The world will constantly tempt you with shortcuts — technological and theoretical “hacks” that promise to do the heavy lifting for you. Sociopolitical movements will provide easy answers, the security of superficial consensus, a sense of harnessing the power of a combustion engine or a river to effortlessly take you to your destination. But when you’re done distracting yourself with fantasies, agency will still be waiting, right where you left it, to be shouldered and carried once again.