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PERENNIAL PROBLEMS IN POLITICAL THEORY: The Idea of Progress / Vol. 41, No. 1 (Spring 1974)

Arien Mack, Editor

Leo Strauss died on October 18, 1973. Strauss was a member of the University in Exile and Professor of Political Science in the Graduate Faculty, 1938-1948. He was also Associate Editor of Social Research during the greater part of this period.

The origin of the idea of progress is a theme that has already spawned competing genealogies. and this competition cannot be attributed solely to different methods and sources. When we are dealing with the parentage of a conception that involves strong value judgments. sidelights fall not only on the possibilities of its extraction but on all the disciplines concerned.

Belief that progress is somehow inherent in organic evolution has long served as rationale and exemplar for ideas of progress in general. That belief is old; indeed, its basis was historically preevolutionary. Nevertheless it is still influential today. For example, a well known psychologist, Raymond Cattell, has recently proposed that evolutionary progress be used as a basis not only for ethics but also for planning both the biological and the social future of mankind. I will here outline the origins of this concept and its present status from the point of view of an evolutionary biologist.

There is something disturbing in our assessment of the value of our civilization. The more perspective we gain in judging our intellectual heritage, and particularly the role of science in this heritage, the more bewildered and perplexed we seem to become. The old certainties that science is the beacon of light and the torch of truth are fading away. Instead, we cherish profound doubts about the value of science, and the value of the entire intellectual enterprise. How did it happen that the enterprise which seemed to be thriving and prospering in the early phases of its development appears ambiguous and tottering in its mature and developed stages?

The faith in progress, sorely battered in this traumatic century, still holds its allure for mankind. This generation, which more than most has looked destruction in the face, has no shortage of reformers, manipulators, and utopians who are confident that they know 'the secret of progress. If the human race goes to destruction, whether by sudden cataclysm or by slower ecological strangulation, we may expect the last words of many to assert the claim, irrefutable if not always persuasive: If our advice had been taken, we would be entering a golden age.

The rise of the idea of progress from the late seventeenth century provoked an extensive reaction on the part of literary intellectuals. This reaction was complex, but two main aspects stand out--a reaction against rationalism in the sphere of ideas and against bourgeois democracy in the social sphere.

The public and even many scholars see the appeal of Marxism in its grandiose view of history. Concurrent with this progression of economic stages, there marches a parade of political and ideological revolutions. Thus economic, political, and intellectual freedom will come, not because the grievances of the vast majority are just, but because their victory is necessary.

At first glance, power and justice appear—at least to our individualistic society—to be antagonistic to the point of being mutually exclusive. If one takes the integrity of the individual as the ultimate standard of justice, power appears to be the very denial of justice. Yet, that very denial puts into motion the dynamic dialectic between power and justice. The object of somebody's power opposes that status in the name of justice, and the holder of power justifies it, also in the name of justice. What, then, is justice? These contradictory claims cannot all be legitimate in the light of justice; it could be that they all are unjust, or that some of them are just and others are not, or that some are just under certain circumstances and not under others. Where do we find an objective standard by which to judge the respective justice of these claims?

The strong contemporary interest in policy theory gains depth by examining history. Part of the present discussion is intended to draw attention to issues that deserve more protracted study and analysis. It is noteworthy that when political thinkers formulate theories to explain the decision process the exercise is typically exempt from the exigent pressures of active politics. In contrast, when theory is an instrument of power the thinker and his thought promptly become targets in the public domain. The career plans of political theorists are complicated when they recognize the advantages of being close to the process of decision if they are to understand or to influence what happens in the short run.

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