The myth of progress is a false myth that really,
really seems true.

Some years ago I escorted a delegation of business and government representatives from Thailand around Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  Lancaster is the heart of Amish country and is about 30 miles from my boyhood home.

I lived and traveled extensively in East Asia at a young age and parts of it I really did not like.  I was a young and fairly materialistic American, unhappy at times with what was too much materialism, even for me.

And yet, every member of the delegation I escorted through Lancaster County that day expressed a fond appreciation of the Amish.  They surmised that their lack of technical progress had rendered them a happier community. Nearly everyone over the age of 25 gets that sense of things when driving through Amish County.

Despite how apparent this seems to most Amish country tourists, nearly all of us moderns still cling to the myth of progress. We look back and thank our lucky stars that we have modern medicine, washing machines (imagine no washing machines!), and the internet.  But modern appliances have little to do with the myth of progress.  I’m inclined to think that confusing this technical progress with the myth of progress is our most deadly modern confusion.

Middlesex school The Myth of Progress

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection [reproduction number, e.g., LC-G612-T-45094]

Whittaker Chambers used to lump Soviet communism, German Nazism, British socialism, New Dealism, Spanish Falangism, etc. together under one banner: communism.   Seen this way, communism is simply man’s belief that he can set the world straight.

It took me a good bit of reading to get my head around how progress created such problems. And I’m not alone in my slow learning.  In The Funeral of a Great Myth, C.S. Lewis pointed out that we couldn’t even conduct a single political campaign without the myth. Both sides must promise “a better future.” And not satisfied selling mere appliances (which is all they are selling), the denizens of Silicon Valley couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without a strong faith in this false myth.  Some are taking it to the wildest of extremes.

For a quick introduction to the myth of progress, you could do no better than the essay The Funeral of a Great Myth in the C.S. Lewis Essay Collection. Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce has some lectures discussing the myth in The Crisis of Modernity. Georges Sorel jumps in deep with his masterpiece The Illusions of Progress (1908), as did Christoper Lasch in The True and Only Heaven (1991).