A Consideration of the First Principle of Progressivism
Progressivism is the belief that human perfection continually increases- i.e. the men of former times were not as perfect as we are. There is some truth to this: the word “primitive” for example, means both “historically first” and “undeveloped” or “unrefined”. Progressivism even seems to admit of a strict proof: all men seek the good, but the good is only attained by a process of learning andexperiment which can often take several ages or generations. The clearest examples for progressivism in history are taken from the mechanical arts- we can observe how tools and weapons gradually progressed from sharpened stones to chainsaws and cruise missiles; we can observe even more clearly- even visually- the progression from the Wright flyer to the Space shuttle.
Certain other arts are clearly not progressive: Cicero’s prose is every bit as polished as Thackeray or Cardinal Newman; the insights into human nature are just as shrewd in Solomon or in Shakespeare or in Dostoyevsky; the epics or Homer and Virgil- or Greek and Roman poetry in general- has not been improved upon, nor will it be; and the L.A. Cathedral did not develop any primitive notions of beauty in, say, the Parthenon, the Temple at Delphi or the Gardens of Babylon.
In general, those arts are not progressive if their product is something valuable in itself, because of its own intrinsic goodness or beauty; and they are progressive if they aim at a certain power or control over something. The clearest example of the progressive arts are the tool making arts, and a tool clearly has its whole good in a power it gives us. Medicine is a sort of middle case, for it is clearly progressive and it is ordered to something good in itself- but inasmuch as we see medicine as a progressive discovery of medicines and techniques, then we can see it as a sort of tool making art.
Certain progressive arts are also necessary for philosophy. Man comes to know nature both though an analogy to art, and through an awareness of his own inner life, which makes it fitting that he needs to understand nature through an art that treats of his own life as such- the art of medicine. This is what happened historically- Socrates based much of his moral philosophy on various analogies to the medical art; Aristotle famously claimed that the clearest example of what nature is is a doctor healing himself; and the fundamental doctrine of analogy is best understood through the word “healthy” as it is said of a healthy body, a healthy color, and a healthy diet.
There is another sense in which philosophy can be seen as progressive, as St. Thomas displays here.
In another sense, since man learns by experience, his learning is always progressive.
But there is more to the idea of progressivism than the sort of progressive learning that the above examples speak of. Were there not, there would be no opposition between progressivism and conservatism. The difference between the two seems to be a matter not of absolute exclusion, but of emphasis. The progressive mind is the one that places the greatest emphasis on the sorts of things that progress, whereas the conservative places less emphasis on these things. The Conservative tends to emphasize the ways in which past ideas measure present ones, and the progressive tends to draw out the ways in which present things measure or judge past ones.