Thoreau on progress

People familiar with John Gray’s writing will know Gray thinks human progress is less a fact than a myth.

He means specifically progress in human affairs, rather than in technology or medicine, for example, and it’s a view I suspect Henry David Thoreau would also subscribe to now.

Here is Thoreau writing on what I take to be the myth of progress in Walden:

While civilization has been improving our homes, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.


Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at.

To me it seems Thoreau is picking up on two separate things here: one is the quality of men who have risen to lead, and the second is the quality and type of institutions through which such men govern and to what end. In both points, Thoreau reaches a Gray-like conclusion on the myth of progress.

In Civil Disobedience, his famous ‘political’ essay, Thoreau takes things further: he advocates nonviolent means as the most effective way of creating social change, especially against the law and political institutions.

Though at the heart of Thoreau’s writings is the individual rather than the collective, there is something in what he has to say about ‘the machine’ which is relevant if we are to understand the myth of progress and to proceed anyway:

All machines have their friction; and possibly this does enough to counterbalance the evil. But when the friction comes to have its machine, I say, let us not have such a machine any longer.


The Silence of Sisyphus

John Gray’s writing is challenging. It makes difficult points about doctrines we as humans hold of humankind – our progress, our religion, our place in the universe – and does so in a straightforward way.

For example, in his latest book, The Silence of Animals, we have:

Allowing the majority of humankind to imagine they are flying fish even as they pass their lives under the waves, liberal civilization rests on a dream.

Gray’s main point in this and his other books is that we are bound by our nature to repeat mistakes of the past. What’s worse, we think we have the capacity to get better, to improve, to progress, when history shows we have no such capacity.

Human progress is no such thing.

His argument has developed a little since Straw Dogs, in recognising that some forms of progress have indeed happened – in science and technology, for example. But he notes that the knowledge we gain from the recurring dilemmas of ethics and politics is not cumulative in the way it is in science. Instead, we are not capable of learning from past experiences of previously attempted solutions.

Gray concludes that we will not be different in future from how we have always been. Further, he argues that to think of progress as leading towards a future, attainable goal is wrong:

History shows history to have no goal.

But in this there is the possibility of freedom – a freedom that comes from the world having, in fact, no meaning. Thus, if there is nothing it “opens to us the world that exists beyond ourselves”, and that we can be “liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made”.

This is a similar point to the one made by Albert Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus. He concludes we must find Sisyphus, a man “condemned to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight”, happy. Camus says:

Sisyphus’s passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing… I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.

Many find John Gray’s writing pessimistic. I find it redemptive, and recommend to you his work.