The Enlightenment idea of moral progress is under siege from all sides. But on the cusp of a new millennium, it is worth hanging on to the battered idea.by Michael Ignatieff / October 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
On 11th august, hundreds of millions of people, from the Caribbean to the Bay of Bengal, stared skywards to watch the sun go dark. It was a moment for large thoughts-about how far we had come since our ancestors ran away in fear at the darkened sky, about how science has changed the way we feel about nature: panic turning into wonder or into that quintessential modern emotion, disenchantment.
A time for still larger thoughts is looming. Come 31st December, most of the human race will be like children in the back seat of the family car, peeking over their parents’ shoulders as all the nines on the speedo suddenly turn to zero and we find ourselves racing along the road of a new millennium. Prompted by these millennial and celestial conjunctions, the BBC is taking the Ascent of Man as the theme of the last Prom of this millennium. The theme allows us to see the lineage which connects, say, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mahler’s Second and Tippett’s The Mask of Time. These are works of grand humanist affirmation; they affirm an idea of human progress, of man becoming master of himself and the world around.
Progress became a theme in European thought in about 1750. The thinkers of the Enlightenment wanted to replace the Biblical account of time (Genesis, Creation, Fall, Redemption) with a myth which put Man, not God, at the centre of the story. The narrative of human progress was understood to be both a material and a moral process; not just changing our technologies, but altering our instincts-and for the better.
We now live in ironic, anti-heroic times. Do we still believe in the story of progress? It sits in the attic of our minds like a glorious Victorian antique, as magnificent as a stuffed moose head and just as useless. Perhaps worse than useless. Modern political correctness has lodged a suspicion in our mind about the Ascent of Man. What do you mean, Man? What about Woman? And which Man? Surely not the European conquerors? And Ascent? Surely you’re not implying that western civilisation is superior to everything that’s gone before? And so on. The Ascent of Man may be an idea we had better do without.
Only 20 years ago, this did not seem so. That great educator and scientist, Jacob Bronowski, made it the title of his famous BBC documentary. For Bronowski,…