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The Daily Logos XII

“This is one of the main tasks in front of the social sciences, for while, thanks to the school of Le Play and to the anthropologists, great progress has already been made in the study of the evolution of regional life, little has been done to study, in the method of Science, the problem of the formation of the higher social unities.  Hitherto historical science has concerned itself not with the spiritual unities, i.e., the Civilizations, but with the political unities, the States and the Empire, and these moreover it has sought to interpret in terms either of race or of politics instead of terms of world culture or of regional life.  If once we begin to consider Race apart from Region and Civilization, it becomes a pernicious abstraction which falsifies the whole view of history.  Witness the false generalizations of the mid-nineteenth century historians of England and Germany, and still more the curious race-mysticism of such writers as Houston Stewart Chamberlain.  And even commoner and more dangerous than this is the political or imperialist misreading of history, which justifies whatever is successful and measures social values in terms of material power.  This is the error that lies at the root of most of our current misconceptions of progress, by substituting a false idea of social unification for the true one.  Unlike civilization which is a spiritual co-operation of regional societies, Imperialism is an external forced unification, which may injure or destroy the delicate organisms of local life.  It can only be of real value to culture, if it acts as the servant of a cultural unity or a spiritual force which is already existent, as the Roman empire was the servant of Hellenism, the Byzantine of Christianity, and the Chinese of Confucianism.  During the last fifty years Imperialism, whether military or economic, has tended to predominate over the spiritual element in the European world-society.  The economic organization of the world has far out-stripped its spiritual unity and the natural development of regional life has been repressed or forced away by a less vital, but mechanically stronger world-power.  Thus it is that the great modern city, instead of fulfilling the true vocation of the city, which is to be the meeting and marriage of region and civilization, is neither regional nor cultural, but is merely the misshapen product of world industry and economic imperialism.

“These forces are in fact part of a movement of degeneration as well as of growth, yet they have been hailed all over the world as the bringers of civilization and progress.  True progress, however, does not consist in a quantitative advance in wealth and numbers, nor even in a qualitative advance in technology and the control of matter, though all these play their subsidiary parts in the movement.  The essential fact of Progress is a process of integration, an increasingly close union between the spirit of the whole civilization and the personality of the local society.  This evolution of a richer and fuller group-consciousness we can trace through the history of all the ages that are known to us.  Partial lines of progress, continuous improvement in the arts for instance, are obscure and often impossible to trace, but this great movement of integration which has proceeded almost without a break from the dawn of civilization in the river valleys down to the present day is real and incontestable.  Nor can we set aside as merely Utopian the idea that this process is likely to continue until humanity as a whole finds social expression—not necessarily in one state—but in a common civilization and a common consciousness—a synthesis in which every region can bring its contribution to the whole, without losing its own social under the pressure of the dead hand of world imperialism.”

-Christopher Dawson, “Sociology and the Theory of Progress,” (1921) Dynamics of World History

At times, the early 20th century feels terribly distant and alien; at other times, it feels like time has not moved forward at all.  While everyone might drive his own car in 2009, be plugged into the wireless world at all times—while the surface of the world might look very different in every nook and corner of living—bad ideas are nonetheless persistent.  The idea of Progress, in the sense of a spiritual force which inevitably moves man, or the spirit of man, the contemporary Geistesgeschichte, forward through time, through history, towards a more highly developed Geistesgeschichte, the idea has been as unfounded and indeed degenerative to true social progress for well over a hundred years.  The technological, mechanical society may advance, that which enables man to dominate material being; and man’s dependence and relationship with the technological may proceed relatively unimpeded, confusing the non-circumspective observers into believe that the spirit of man is simultaneously progressing.  As Dawson observes, however, this obsession with control over matter leads to a disunity of spirit and a dissolution of genuine culture and civilization.

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