I’ve just been reading one of Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries. Why is this relevant? I’ll explain in a moment. Van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat who wrote a series of detective novels describing the cases confronting a magistrate in China during the Tang Dynasty (7th century AD).
What’s interesting is that Van Gulik’s knowledge of Chinese history, culture and jurisprudence was profound. And in his stories there is not the faintest hint of the cult of progress. He describes a society that valued stability and order to an extreme degree. This reflects the view that historians have always taken about Imperial China, although western historians have mostly seen this as a weakness. The Chinese developed a very advanced civilisation and then stopped. No further progress was considered to be necessary and in fact further progress would lead to instability and was therefore a bad thing.
While it might be an over-simplistic view of Chinese civilisation there’s undoubtedly a lot of truth in this view of a society committed to preserving what it already had rather than pursuing the phantom of progress.
Looking at the world today it’s easy to believe that the Chinese had the right idea. This is especially so when you consider the misery and chaos that followed the overthrow of the last Imperial government in the early part of the 20th century.
The cult of progress is always tied up with utopianism. If we just keep progressing then sooner or later we’ll have a perfect society composed of perfect people leading amazingly happy and fulfilling lives. This is the philosophical view that started to emerge in Europe in the 16th century and it has taken a firmer and firmer hold with every year that has passed since then. By the beginning of the 20th century it was the one unchallenged dogma of our civilisation. Imperial China was dominated by Confucian thought and Confucian thought most certainly did not see things in this light. Medieval Europe was dominated by Christianity and medieval Christianity did not see things that way either.
The point is that it is possible to have a fully functional and quite advanced civilisation based on the cult of stability rather than the cult of progress.
The cult of progress is, by it very nature, destructive. To build a new society we must first destroy the old one. Everything that has happened has been an inevitable consequence of this. Whenever utopia fails to materialise it just means that more destruction is needed.
Should we abandon the idea of progress altogether? Surely the cult of progress has brought us many benefits? There is a genuine dilemma here. The answer is perhaps that the cult of progress needs to be balanced by an equally strong force advocating stability and order. Perhaps if progress could be slowed and controlled it might not be so socially destructive? It’s possible, but progress has a way of continually getting out of control.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves exactly what kind of progress is actually useful? Technological progress has on the whole been pretty useful. Social progress on the other hand has brought us to the brink of ruin. We might need to accept the harsh reality that there is no such thing as social progress. We probably should ask ourselves also exactly what kind of scientific and technological progress we need. Do we need ever more advanced weaponry? Do we need faster and faster personal computers? Do we need smarter and smarter smartphones?
One conclusion that logically follows from this is likely to be unpalatable to many people who consider themselves to be right-wing. Taking control of progress would require a very strong government. Almost certainly not a democratic one. Imperial China survived for millennia because mostly it had a strong government. It also survived because those who ran the government, the countless bureaucrats that characterised Chinese government, were educated to believe in stability and order and the tenets of Confucianism. It seems to follow inexorably from this that rigid control of education is necessary for the preservation of civilisation and that dangerous and destructive ideas need to be suppressed. Perhaps that is the price that has to be paid if you want a successful stable culture.