10.13.2008

humanity without limits

The enlightenment myth of infinite progress has not yet died. This assertion of mine is based largely on ancedotal evidence and the general impression I get from the cultural and political commentariat. It is commonly held that things are getting better or they will get better in the future. Peter Kreeft calls this the religion of progress; or, the belief in change for change's sake. I think it's a fair description of a common mindset of those on both the left and the right.

One reason this mindset is so pervasive is because the of the free economy. The massive creation of wealth gives us the false impression that humanity has no limits. An important part of conservatism, then, is to remind people that mankind does indeed have limits, and that the idea of a limitless humanity is a dangerous cultural poison. (I am using the word free here in a sense that means this: our economic actions are no longer under the control of some state or social organization that limits who we can do business with. They are also generally free from excessive taxation.)

Perhaps no one expresses this danger better than Wendell Berry, especially in his latest essay on this very subject. It is titled "Faustian economics: Hell Hath no limits". I think it gives a great outline of the kind of cultural changes that are going to need to occur in the coming years.

What does he recommend?
To recover from our disease of limitlessness, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent, ready to discover “the secret of the universe.” We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and, for creatures of limited intelligence, the necessity, of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given. If we always have a theoretically better substitute available from somebody or someplace else, we will never make the most of anything. It is hard to make the most of one life. If we each had two lives, we would not make much of either. Or as one of my best teachers said of people in general: “They’ll never be worth a damn as long as they’ve got two choices.”

To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work.
Vague indeed, but it does give us at least a basic orientation.

It is significant to note, I think, that Mr. Berry does not offer a political plan for reorganizing society, that is, a plan that involves the use of the coercive power of the state. The essay is a call for individuals to change their lives. This type of commentary is very important I think, and its importance may be underestimated by certain libertarian-types.

Cross posted at American Catholic

2 comments:

Rob said...

Yes, the idea of a better future may seem naive or unrealistic at first, but there is this: it has always been true.

There is no question that the long term view of humanity, over thusands of years, shows improvements. Example: Few of us supplement our diet with our neighbors body-lice (Though I had a roommate in college...). Yes, just counting on a better future (singing 'Tomorrow' like little orphan Annie) may be silly, but it is a fact that the human situation is better and has always gotten better. There are regressions, sure, but they are small in comparison to the periods of advancement.

Logically, if the trend for humanity were downward, then we would have ceased existing long ago. Our continued existence proves an upward trend.

I am not negating what Mr. Berry says, but I do not think understanding this equates to believing in a religion of progress, as Mr. Kreeft apparently states.

Zach said...

Rob - You are right, the material well-being of many has undoubtedly improved. But not all have seen this improvement. It is also something with an uncertain future. Who knows how long our technology will be around to pamper us? Natural disasters or loss of resources may eventually inhibit our technologically-enhanced lives.

Also, I suppose the important distinction is between material and spiritual progress. I think Mr. Berry and Prof Kreeft are talking about the belief in spiritual progress or spiritual limitness, or the idea that somehow our material things make us better and happier people.

This, I think, is false.