“The Amazing Kreskin” used to keep late-night television audiences in stitches with his fearless predictions of the absurd future. He always began with the windy declaration, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.” With all due respect for a great entertainer, we only spend our lives in the present, which is what the future turns into when we get there. Modern man is absolutely entranced with the future, which is one of the explanations for the popularity of science fiction, but the word (from Latin futurum) means nothing more exciting than “what is to be” or “what is likely to be.” Instead of being content to repeat Scarlett O’Hara’s optimistic but truthful “Tomorrow is another day,” we look forward to an infinitely improving set of future prospects, though experience should teach us that tomorrow is unlikely to be much better than today; indeed, it will probably be worse.
American advertising is studded with meaningless phrases like “the car of the future” and “the kitchen of the future.” Since there is really no such thing as “the future,” such talk is pure shinola peddled to suckers on street corners in the expectation that they will be parted from their money more easily. The mystical faith in the future has a name, and it is Progress, our sense of infinitely expanding opportunities and brighter prospects. But progress (from Latin progredior, “step forward”) really means a motion forward in space, and it is used metaphorically to express the parallel concept in time. (Most expressions of time seem to be derived from concepts of space.) We can still refer to an army’s progress through a country or to a royal progress and, in matters of time, of the progress of an action, meaning no more than the fact that one thing happened after another.
Typically, however, we use Progress to mean some mystical power that ensures that the change from A to B is inevitably an improvement. This is a modern concept, as the ancient historian J.B. Bury pointed out in an important little book. My late friend Robert Nisbet, a better political theorist but no classicist, tried to refute Bury but failed. Of course, Greeks and Romans were aware that with hard work and discipline men could improve their lives, that it was better to live well under the empire than to lurk in the forest, wearing skins and eating acorns. But they also knew that if they quit working or were unlucky enough to be conquered, it might be back to the woods, which is more or less what happened after the barbarian invasions.
The ancients were more practical in understanding that what goes up usually goes down. If Sophocles represents an improvement on the dramaturgy of Aeschylus (as Aristotle seems to believe), Euripides is a step in the wrong direction, and after Euripides tragedy fell into ruins. Is Pope really a greater poet than Dryden or Dryden greater than Shakespeare? We almost always confuse the signs of technical progress—electricity, telephones, computers—with moral and cultural progress, and we are always wrong. Even in the case of techniques or technical arts (technology, strictly speaking, should mean the study of techniques and not their reality), we confuse the improvement of the thing itself with improvements in our lives. I suppose there are people who think laptops and iPhones have made their lives better, but I am lucky enough not to know any of them.
Since Progress is a god, the highest praise we can bestow on some change is to call it progressive. Minority rights are progressive, and so is the graduated income tax, while chastity, marital fidelity, and minding your own business are decidedly retrograde. Since it is convenient to have a word to describe the progressive improvement of a thing or institution, we might stick to advancement, which carries less mystical baggage.
“When I have learned what progress has been made in modern gunnery” is one of the famous lines uttered by W.S. Gilbert’s Modern Major General, and nothing so sums up the imbecile and dishonest mentality of modern man as the word modern. Latin modernus (coined from modus, “manner” or “fashion”) means, both literally and originally, “fashionable” or “stylish.” A person who wants to be “modern,” then, wants to be in style or up to date. Such a man or woman has no standard of good and bad except fashion. “Adultery? Oh, definitely. It’s what they’re wearing this season.” Modern literature (like modern thought, modern music, etc.) is just a cultural soupe du jour.
Like Progress, Modernity is a set of infinitely improving tomorrows that make all our yesterdays as dull as a black-and-white TV show. If we could once understand that every “age” is modern in respect to every previous age, but not necessarily better or worse, then we could forget the word entirely, though modernization still has its uses. Modernization is the process of destroying some ancient and significant custom or institution by forever updating it, much in the way that Mr. Gates is forever disturbing my work by updating his software, often by making it worse. Aggiornamento is a very evocative Italian equivalent used to describe the vast work of destruction wrought by the Second Vatican Council, a truly progressive and future-oriented council that created what used to be called the modern Church and is rapidly becoming yesterday’s Osservatore Romano.
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