The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16, No. 3 (Fall 2014)
The Great War and the Future of Progress
Wilfred M. McClay
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.3 (Fall 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
Americans have so far been paying relatively little attention to this year’s centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. But it has been quite another matter in Europe. I happened to be in England during the first days of August this year, and there one could sense how palpably the weight of the past still lingers, and how heavy it hangs upon the consciousness of so many people, albeit in ways difficult for them to sort out or articulate, let alone agree about. Britons were asked to dim their lights—an allusion to the famous premonitory words attributed to Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey on the eve of war, that “the lamps are going out all over Europe”—and to display a candle for the hour before the British declaration of war took effect at 11 p.m. on August 4, 1914. If one can judge from the little town just outside Oxford where I was staying, a great many people did so, and the gesture was repeated in public venues, most notably at Westminster Abbey. One could not help but be touched by this poignant example of the extraordinary British gift for the unifying ceremonial act.
But ceremony can conceal as well as reveal. Beyond such mute gestures, it seemed hard to know how one was to remember this occasion, and what conclusions one was to draw from it. Out of curiosity, I bought copies of all the major British daily papers on the morning of August 5 to see how they had covered the events of the previous day. Each offered a noticeably different slant on the day’s events, having in common mainly an appropriately somber mood and a notable unwillingness to celebrate. In a service at C.S. Lewis’s former church in Headington Quarry, I heard the names of all the parishioners who died in the war read aloud, but as part of a sermon that treated the poems of Wilfred Owen as all-ye-need-know of the war, and was smugly dismissive of the reasons why these men fought. Lewis himself would have disapproved.
Yet it is not hard to understand why such a sermon would be delivered. It is a cliché, but one that endures for good reason, that the Great War’s chief accomplishment was its wanton destruction of an entire political and social order and, with it of a certain blithe European optimism about the future. With its unprecedented and horrifying scale of destruction, its unfathomably obscure origins, and its seemingly unstoppable momentum, the War seemed to put paid to the greater progressive assumption that the growth of knowledge, social organization, and human control over forces of nature was leading the human race steadily and inevitably to ever more harmony, prosperity, rationality, and well-being.
It has not done that entirely. But one of its lasting consequences has been to make us uneasy with the very concept of progress. We are not prepared to give up that concept entirely. That would be nearly inconceivable. Peel away the ironic surface of even the most insouciant postmodern pose, and you find some brightly colored and long-forgotten fresco, a gaudy metanarrative of progress shaping our choices of ends and means and norms, and painted into the very structure of things. There are many such hidden frescoes still invisibly at work today. The West is still committed to purposive action and resistant to the lure of fatalism, perhaps because rebellion against the binding power of necessity forms the very core of Western identity, and remains as much an article of faith to freewheeling postmodernists as to hidebound traditionalists.
In other words, our culture is borne along by the flow of enormous progressive inertia. It does not necessarily have to affirm its earlier commitments, or even be aware of them, in order to be propelled or guided by them for a very long time. We teach our children that it is good, nay imperative, that they should want “to make a difference.” But there is no doubt that we do not feel quite as ready as we once were to endorse explicitly the idea of progress, without always employing the protective mechanisms of qualifiers or quotation marks. We live with a certain split-mindedness in that regard.
A case in point: Several years ago, I took part in a conference of historians in London, addressing the question of whether there is such a thing as moral progress in history. Since the conference was timed to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, I had assumed that the other participants would take an affirmative view. But I was surprised to find that I was the only one in the room willing to say that there had been such a thing, and indeed that there could be such a thing.
That said, the opposition to the idea of progress that I saw in my colleagues did not seem to me to go very deep. It seemed almost entirely professional and notional, without any echo in the conduct of their busy, well-organized, ambitious, and purposeful lives. No such thing as progress? Seriously? Who actually lives with such an assumption? Even our occasional efforts to sound fatalistic in our speech betray all the things that such speech silently presumes: that, as free and purposeful beings, we cannot help projecting certain ideals or goals, if even only short-range or proximate ones, into the inchoate future. This is particularly so in the United States, where every lamentation has a way of turning into a jeremiad, and thereby into a form of moral exhortation and a call to improvement, and thus to become the polar opposite of fatalism. The language of true fatalism would be stony and resigned silence, and that is not what we see or hear. There is a difference between what we think, and what we think we think.
Still, the idea of progress in history—the liberating song of the Enlightenment, the grand choral ode of the nineteenth century, the marching music central to the rise and dominance of the modern West—has gradually become problematic to us. Not only is it our faith in the inevitability of progress that we question, but also the very idea that we would have any sure means of judging what progress is, if indeed it does occur.
Some of this can be attributable to intellectual fashion, or cultural boredom, or the occasional metastasizing of the Western self-critical impulse into a raging self-hatred, what Pascal Bruckner has called “the tyranny of guilt.” But the nub of the problem arises not out of psychology, but out of history. The idea of progress received a rude and unforgettable shock from the First World War, and we have not yet found a way to incorporate fully what we learned about ourselves from that cataclysm.
Dimming lights is a wonderful beginning, so long as it does not become a way of drawing a decorous curtain around things we would rather not contemplate, and about which we would prefer to make simple and categorical moral judgments, for or (more likely) against. That is far too easy. Serious remembrance requires more than the reading of a list of names. It is a moral discipline all its own. We need to cultivate it, rather than succumb to the temptation to render smug and conclusive verdicts, as we reconsider the First World War and the hundred years that we have lived in its wake.
—Wilfred M. McClay