JMC : Jacques Maritain Sampler

III. The Possibilities of Progress in Human Activities

(from Progress and Philosophy)

Man is essentially composite, and in this strange union of a spiritual "form" and a material principle of sheer mutability, the natural tendency of the spirit towards that which is more perfect conflicts inevitably with the natural appetite of matter for whatever is new, for the other as other: so that the idea of Necessary Progress makes no sense, since the law of progress -- that is, change for the better -- and the law of mere change are everywhere intertwined in us. Understand me aright. I do not deny that men are capable of progress or even that they are made for progress: but I say that it is absurd to think that progress is to be achieved necessarily, in virtue of some divine spring or of a metaphysical law of human history. It is absurd precisely because man is a perfectible being -- and hence, being perfectible, necessarily corruptible also. His specific difference -- that in him which constitutes him a species different from others -- is involved in this. Between mere sense intuition and the pure intellection proper to the angels, lies the mind of the animal that reasons -- by nature bound down to logical movement as his body is submitted to movements ruled by the laws of matter: and thus, as he can and should be perfect, he can also deteriorate: a fact clamourously obvious to common sense, yet simply not grasped by the devotees of Progress.

Nowhere does this condition of the human creature appear more strongly marked than in the moral life of the individual. Nowhere does one more clearly see that progress is not necessary -- that is to say that it does not take place necessarily. And nowhere does one see more clearly that progress is a necessity for us, in this sense that we are obliged to make endless progress if we are not to fall. For every activity, if it tends less towards perfection than the virtue from which it emanates, will tend to diminish this virtue.

There is no rest for us: so far the "mobilism" of the Bergsonians is right. Held in the strong grasp of sovereign Mercy, the biting whip of Time scourges us without ceasing. "Go, child of God, go." What her voices said to Joan of Arc, each moment says to the soul. The castle of St. Teresa is a castle of wind and of flame. Doubtless the saints remain most tranquil in their images. But if we would picture to ourselves the soul of the saints, we should have to imagine a sort of great hurricane -- yet a hurricane obedient to, and governed in its movement by, the wings of the eagle of the Spirit, a hurricane whirling upwards unceasingly to God. That is the only progress that can compensate for the trouble of living.

Where the effort of the spirit is least hampered by matter and finds its own success most easily, there also -- and only -- will the law of progress tend to dominate. All we have to do now is to let this principle develop its consequences.

If it is a question of minor victories over inert matter, we are easily more cunning than matter: also in the order of material making, progress will be the rule -- not only progress but indefinite progress, at least within the limits of one continuous period -- for after the great breaches of historical continuity everything, or practically everything, has had to begin again: think of the lost arts of the Hittites or the ancient Egyptians.

It is from this field of material making that popular imagination borrows its notion of progress: and principally it sees it as something like the increasing rapidity of means of transport -- for here also is verified the definition of progress proposed by those learned men who call it "economy of energy." Progress of this order has held the stage for roughly a century with a shower of marvels, and the fascination exercised by it has certainly served more than anything else to create the prestige that the dogma of Progress has among men. It would be waste of time to remind you that of itself it contributes nothing either to the moral perfection of men nor even to their earthly happiness -- since concupiscence is limitless and human needs grow faster than the means of satisfying them. What is more important, this purely material progress -- good of course in its own order, but definitely of a low order -- puts civilisation in presence of a measureless peril since it throws human life off its axis and sets ever more powerful means to the service of a creature feeble and perverse. If it definitively took the preponderance and the directing rôle, it would mean for the West decadence beyond remedy.

In the field of mere making, of production, industry and the practical sciences, progress must be the rule. In the field of the moral life, however, there is no unvarying progress for humanity, but endless vicissitudes: because matter -- our own animated matter -- is hard to control.

If Christianity, by the slow diffusion of its influence amongst the mass of men, has, in fact, brought about general improvements of profound importance -- such as the abolition of slavery -- and has everywhere brought about a new scale of values: and if, till the end of the world, it must of necessity powerfully transfigure the world: yet the true and proper field of activity of its virtues is not the general mass of men but primarily and principally the Mystical Body of Christ. There, and only there, do we find a glorious unbroken progress manifesting the power of the spirit; there, and only there, does humanity -- in the measure in which it lives the life of the Church -- rise above itself. Doubtless, in the historical development of the Church, the ages closer to the Beginning, closer to the Passion and to Pentecost received the more sublime out-pouring -- the epistles of St. Paul, for example, are more divine than the Summa Theologica. Yet only at the end will the Body in its completeness have its perfect differentiation and the totality of its number: and it must grow till then. But there is the other side of the picture: humanity continues to be directed in its movement towards a divine goal unknown to itself; yet if it breaks with the life of the Church it makes its own wounds worse than if Christ had not come. Si non venissem, et locutus fuissem eis, peccatum non haberent. Never forget that the same light that lightens some blinds others. Thus what is of the world descends, while what is of the spirit rises -- a truth that you may compare with M. Bergson's élan créateur energising amidst the downward movement of matter.

So much for the field of human action, or morality, which has its source principally in the will. Consider now what happens in the field of the intellect.

In the fine arts, which are the most purely intellectual fruits of the operative intelligence, it is not progress that reigns, but change -- I mean a certain law of renewal and innovation. Why? Because the artist's special task is to incarnate beauty in a determinate piece of matter, and because matter is immeasurably poverty-stricken by comparison with beauty: so that every form of art, however noble it be, is destined ultimately to wear out and yield place to another. I know that on the side of technique art involves a certain progress, just in so far as technique supposes tradition, teaching, human collaboration, across the ages. But as the progressive establishment of traditions of technique demands only the simplest conditions of intellectual and social life these traditions may very well be quite adequately constituted in the very earliest ages of civilisations; and therefore, the passage of time may in this order bring changes, but not necessarily progress -- nay, it may even bring regress as, for example, happened to us at the end of the eighteenth century, with its totally retrograde abandonment of those same traditions.

And there is this further point: if technique -- and with it all that mass of secondary matter of which art has need -- demands that the artist should have a master and take his place in a tradition, yet art itself, most formally as art, in the conception of its product as creation, belongs to the via inventionis -- in other words, it arises primarily and essentially from the gift and the effort of the individual. From this formal point of view, art can be as perfect in its earliest creators as in those who are to come, and further it unceasingly demands fundamental renewal.

It is quite otherwise with the speculative order, the order of knowledge: here there is no question of operating in a matter, but of bringing truth into the soul: here matter, clothed by knowledge with an immaterial mode of being, is subjected to the conditions of the spirit. And as the amplitude of the spirit is boundless, so that one truth does not push out another but is joined to it, it is the law of growth which, in knowledge as such, will always tend to predominate.

Likewise knowledge, because it requires essentially the right ordination of concepts, and because the via disciplinae, the intellectual transmission of the good that is acquired, plays the principal part -- knowledge, then, human knowledge in its most formal aspect, demands tradition and teaching as a necessary condition of its growth. Therefore it is not to change, to the law of the other as other, that it is primarily submitted: but to progress, to the law of augmentation and movement towards perfection.

Thus we may understand why, despite accidental failings, the mathematical sciences -- which of all sciences are best proportioned to the human mind -- present an admirable example of progressive development: but we must note that even their progress normally involves revolution -- though not destructive, but fertile, such as the invention of the infinitesimal method: their progress involves revolution because their object, the ens quantum, remains necessarily bound up with material things as perceived by the imagination, is in consequence not a pure intelligible, and so admits a certain multiplicity: this involves a possibility of renewal, as regards the primary conditions under which it comes under the grasp of the intelligence. And better than any other, it allows discoveries by the genius of the individual precisely because it is placed mid-way between the being as changeable of the natural philosopher -- too closely bound up with matter -- and the being as being of the metaphysician -- too much abstracted from matter -- and it is therefore most within the grasp of our mind and most within the power of our reason to handle.

We see the same history of progress -- even, may be, more strikingly -- since the time of Galileo in the physico-mathematical sciences -- that is to say in the art of translating sensible phenomena into quantitative symbols: and this is precisely because those studies are in truth the poorest of all in intelligibility, the least exacting in intellectuality, hence the easiest. And in them there are the same revolutions, only more frequent still, because the theories proposed to the mind are not measured in the mind directly by the real, but only by their aptitude to support the network of mathematical formulations verified by experiment. What now of metaphysics? As it is the noblest science and has the most purely intelligible object -- being as such -- it is in metaphysics that the part played by the accidental is most restricted. Therefore it follows, with a minimum of upheavals and crises, what we have just seen to be the law of science as such -- the law of continuous progress. In it, better than in any other, is realised the absolutely essential condition of this progress, namely, fixity of principles and stability of tradition: it does not require, for the discovery of its principles, extraordinary instruments and extraordinary conditions of research, but only the simplest evidence of the senses -- used, it is true, by the purest intelligence. Consequently its foundations might well have been laid very early and, in fact, they were so laid. To repeat, then, in it is realised the absolutely essential condition of continuous progress, and therefore more than all other sciences it resembles, by the constancy of direction of its movement, the motionlessness of angelic knowledge.

Such, in fact, in spite of the enormous deficiencies of the human subject, is the eternal movement of metaphysics. In certain ages it experiences a slowing down, and even long intervals of stagnation, but it always resumes its flight in a direction that does not vary. You may say that, after all, its progress, save at a few luminous points of history, does not seem very rapid: I reply that by its imperceptible additions of new things to old, it has built up a treasury of wisdom not to be exhausted, in which the modern mind, formed and tempered by the progress of the individual sciences and so many painful experiences, may find a source of universal renewal.

Remember, too, that metaphysics is supremely difficult, by reason of its object which, being purely immaterial, is, to our reason, "as light to the eye of an owl." It follows that it must be the part of a very small number, and that there are moments when the deposit of wisdom could be transmitted only by the very slenderest spiritual thread. It follows also that philosophy is something other than the immense mass of the notions of philosophers, and that if all mathematicians co-operate in the growth of mathematics, and all scientists in the growth of science, all philosophers do not co-operate -- at any rate directly -- in the growth of philosophy. When they go wrong on principles, the direct effect of their work is towards the deterioration of philosophy; and thus, while the law of progress dominates the eternal metaphysics of the human intellect, the law of pure change, of alteration and corruption, the tyranny of the other as such, the appetite for change proper to matter, constantly intervenes to frustrate philosophical effort outside the spiritual organism of philosophy scientifically formed.

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