Jules de Gaultier 1910

A Critique of the Idea of Progress

Source: Mercure de France. August 1, 1910;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org.

It’s a quite remarkable fact of our time that the spirits that manipulate the most precise sciences, those richest in certainties, are also those who, with the sharpest critical sense, set themselves to making clear the relative character of the principles on which they base their theorems. On this point the case of M. Poincaré is both typical and singularly to the honor of that high philosophic mentality that engenders science’s disinterested point of view. But on the contrary, and quite often, sociologists, historians, moralists, and philosophers underline the axiomatic character of hypotheses and utterances which are far from having been agreed upon, and about which the evidence, invoked by all camps, accommodates itself to the most varied viewpoints. There are nevertheless a few happy exceptions to this presumption, this partiality, which always hide a desire for practical use and application. We must include among these latter the point of view expressed in M. Max Nordau’s new work, “The Meaning of History,” which Dr Jankelevitch recently translated from the German.

On all sides it is asked, with nuances in the questioning and in varied intonations, “Does history have a scientific value?” No,” M. Nordau answers, without any hesitation. And to support this “no” he brings a group of arguments, developments, and illustrations that make of his work both the most categorical one on this subject and a precious mine of general ideas and concrete points of view; a book to which one must render the homage that a rich, substantial and clear thinking animates all its chapters, and that it is exempt from the dialectical formalism which, in some philosophical works, is nothing but a mask whose aim is hiding the poverty of the content.

According to M. Nordau, history is not a descriptive science. For, he says, “objective truth remains as inaccessible to the historiographer as Kant’s ‘thing in itself’ is to human understanding.” We possess neither the instruments nor the organs capable of recording objective reality with unquestionable precision, and even if we did possess these means of positive understanding we would still be far from the goal, for it is the least important part of history that lends itself to objective measure. Its essential part is that which acts and hides in the souls of men, and remains entirely hidden from our immediate observation. The observation of facts is in this case necessarily replaced by its interpretation as soon as we break the silence, and this is why, according to M. Nordau, we don’t exaggerate, “in saying that all of history is nothing but a roman à thèse, in exceptional cases naïve, but as a general rule, perfectly premeditated.” “Every man,” he says, “who has come out of the shadows even a bit, and who has occupied, even fleetingly, the attention of his contemporaries, raises his arms to heaven when he reads the judgments inspired by his appearance, his character, his acts, and the personal impressions he produced on various minds.” It is true – and how could it be otherwise with acts when such is the case for ideas that are fixed in writing? – that every writer, however he applies himself to giving his ideas the clearest formulation, often sees attributed to him concepts contrary to those he has expressed, sees his intentions travestied in the most unforeseen costumes. And these travesties are so frequent that, reversing the terms of M. Nordau’s appreciation, I am tempted to say that this is sometimes done tendentiously, but that this is more often carried out in good faith and, alas, naively.

But if history isn’t worth anything as a descriptive science, can it not be accepted as a rational science? No more than the other one is, according to M. Nordau, “for it is absolutely impossible to predict any event, even with approximate certainty,” and what characterizes a true science is that it has the power “to specify in advance what must happen in determined conditions.”

M. Max Nordau goes even further: he refuses history any educational importance, and his developments on this subject are very curious. In the course of them, to the pressing interest that man has always had to know with precision nature’s various determinisms in order to take control of them, he, on the contrary, opposes the true danger that history often is for the individual. Objectively known, if this were possible, it would give him weapons against circumstances that will never reoccur in the conditions he will have studied; but written, in fact, in ignorance of objective reality, it is always tendentious. Employed at the instigation of governments and political passions as a method of suggestion, “with the assistance of the past it pursues the practical goal of blackmailing or defrauding the present.”

Refusing history any real utility as soon as it goes beyond the limits of the most recent period, M. Nordau considers it a form of aesthetic activity, insofar as among those with the most cultivated natures it answers to a need for disinterested knowledge, to a need for a representation without lacunae of the spectacle of the world. This is a vision that I am tempted to associate myself with, and the interest that history presents, leaving aside the principle of suggestion that it contains, appears to me to be above all of an aesthetic and spectacular nature. But such an observation worsens the imputation of imprecision formulated against it. How can we know without any lacunae a series of circumstances, a great number of which remain inaccessible to the most stubborn investigation? The lacunae exist, and one must make an effort in order to fill them. Begun with materiel borrowed from real life, history is only brought to completion by substituting the designs and vision of those who compose it for the designs and vision of the actual actors who lived it. This compromise remains a human work, but this also applies to the fragments of objectivity that support it and the quality of the intelligence that interprets it. The Napoleon I of Taine exists, and that of Thiers, and that of Lanfray, and that of Hudson Lowe, and that of the “Memorial.” Hugo, Lamartine, and Tolstoy left us an effigy of the hero, lightened or darkened by their dreams. Among these various forms of Napoleon, which is the true one? What image of the Emperor was reflected in the mind of the Emperor himself? Can we know it? Can we distinguish it in the expression of his own judgment of himself? What would this new fantasy be worth, and do we know how much bovarysme entered into the concept the man had of his own personage and role? Between the thought and its expression there is the word that betrays; between the act and the thought the consciousness that deforms. What reason then is there to credit, rather than to an outside estimation, that of the individual and interested party himself who, in the same way as the , others interprets his acts after the fact, led, more than others, to arrange, to coordinate, to overrate and confuse that which occurred thanks to complicitous circumstances with what was premeditated and willed? Any objective image flees; all that is left are more or less fortuitous proofs, of more or less artistic value, but there is no true image in comparison to which all others can be criticized and evaluated.

If M. Nordau did not precisely formulate these considerations on the lack of objectivity proper to history, it seems that they will even so easily take their place among the perspectives presented by the concepts he has composed. Applying himself to defining history in the most positive way, he casts the finalist chimera from the consideration of its object. He defines it as the totality of episodes of the human struggle for existence, and by this struggle he means both man’s struggle with nature and that of man against man. This idea of struggle implies that man is threatened by an incessant danger, and that this threat motivates human activity throughout his history. All of man’s efforts are thus aimed at removing himself from the danger that threatens him, of removing the feeling of displeasure engendered by the hostility of their surroundings.

I can’t criticize a conception of history which, as regards the moral sciences, is in close agreement with that implied by the general theory laid out in [my]"Les Raisons de l’Idealisme” and the “Dependance de la Morale et l’Independence des Moeurs.” At the very most I will say that M. Nordau expresses his way of seeing things with more intransigence than I did myself. A propos of Nietzsche’s “Untimely Considerations” and his study on the “Inconveniences of History,” I gave history as one of the circumstances where man finds the most powerful reasons to conceive himself other than he is, to turn his eyes from his immediate and precise needs in order to attach and constrain himself to out-dated worlds of activity that are no longer in accordance with his true desires or the real necessities that the events of the hour bring forth. I nevertheless left room for another form, this time a useful one: that of historical bovarysme. Among the facts and events that make up the ambience in which humanity is plunged, at any given moment there are many variables that offer unforeseen and new combinations to the activities before them; but there are also others that at all periods repeat themselves, identically or nearly and in regards to which history, proposing solutions and methods that have already proven their worth, leads men to attitudes and concepts of their relation to reality that have already been tested, and in regard to which, with its power of suggestion, it is beneficent, saves from stumbling, and has as its consequence an economizing of strength. M. Nordau doesn’t seem to envision this second kind. Every historical moment in his eyes is “the result of forces having acted at this precise moment and their quantitative relations.” “Thus,” he says, “the same combination never reproduces itself exactly and can’t be artificially brought about. What use then would it be for the living man to know how his predecessors acted in a given situation, if the situation is not the same?” The question remains that of knowing if the portion of identity between the two circumstances is not more important than the portion of difference that they imply; if there isn’t an interest in neglecting that difference in order to apply the old reaction rather than spending a more or less considerable time and energy in seeking a more appropriate solution and which will perhaps be found too late. It appears that in life one must grant the facts of repetition or quasi-repetition a larger portion than does M. Nordau. And so his critique is only absolutely correct regarding the excesses of historical meaning. Against these excesses, against the rationalist pretentions of historians and sociologists, it has a singular virtue, and that portion of the incalculable that I deduced in the domain of the moral world as an inevitable corollary of the notion of determinism, M. Nordau lays it out in multiple concrete observations, in psychological considerations that seem irrefutable.

* * *

For M. Nordau sees the entire content of human history in humanity’s adaptation to its milieu. He thus bases history in cosmology. In this regard his historical theories appear to be a corollary to Quinton’s laws of biological constancy.

This appears to be even more the case since this adaptation to the milieu is, M. Nordau is careful to note, of an artificial nature. Man, the author says, adapts to changed conditions not, as is the case with other inhabitants of the earth, with the aid of modifications to his organism, but thanks to the activity of his intelligence, which has shown itself to be capable of inventing artificial arrangements assuring itself all the conditions for existence it doesn’t find in nature. The only difference is that in Quinton’s theory human intelligence adapts the milieu to the needs of the cell, while M. Nordau’s hypothesis conforms to the old way of seeing, or rather the old way of saying, that man will adapt to the milieu which, from the point of view of the relationship in question, is the same thing; with this difference that all the elements of the law of constancy are found in M. Nordau’s point of view: the hypothesis of an increasing hostility of the cosmic milieu; the noting of the artificial character of human industry as opposed to the physiological character of organic transformations in other species; the supposedly constant character of life, which does nothing before the dangers that threaten it but maintain unchanged conditions of a lesser uneasiness without ever increasing its well-being by perfecting or complicating it. Such are, more or less, the elements implied in M. Nordau’s concept of history, and which find scientific foundations of great solidity in Quinton’s biological theory.

M. Nordau expresses thusly this concept of a pure and simple maintenance of the human condition in the presence of a milieu of increasingly hostility: “We can’t even say that his organic constitution impels man to action by a piece of sugar and the whip; it is the whip alone that is his stimulant...Man is not on a permanent search for the blue flower, but he is eternally in flight before pain.” In fact, and by reason of the artificial and slowly progressive character that the adaptation of the human species presents to the cosmic milieu, man appears to M. Nordau, from the point of view of the desirable equilibrium that is represented by this adaptation, in a situation inferior to that of other species, which adapt in a spontaneous and purely physical way. In confronting the sudden hostility of the ambience [1] the different animal species, according to M. Nordau, disappear, or search the globe for zones that have remained propitious, or adapt by giving birth to modified types. Man persists, he confronts hostile zones, he suffers no physiological modification, and it’s through a slow labor of mental ingeniousness, by a slow accumulation of transmitted inventions, that he manages to accomplish that adaptation which privileged species arrive at in one blow. It is from this point of view alone that the word “progress” has a meaning: it would consist in that evolution of knowledge which, little by little, from an inferior situation to that of the privileged species, would bring man to occupy an equivalent situation, would realize for him that adaptation to his milieu in which the positive character of the biological fact exists. Progress would thus be the process, not from a state common to various biological elements to a more perfect state, but from a state of inferiority peculiar to man towards that common and specific state which, it seems, cannot be overcome. Progress would, in a way, have a negative meaning. It would make right an injustice: it would make man like unto a beast. For M. Nordau this progress, consisting solely in the development of an average, in the increasing of the intellectual average, would only affect the prosperity of the species and would have no impact, for reasons he explains and which are based on experience, on either individual happiness or intellectual perfection.

In applying to philosophical ideas the ethnographic method to which M. van Gennep, in the course of his works [2] initiates us with such precision, I am tempted to class the motif developed here by M. Nordau under the invocation of a distinctive theme, pinned to a sole term. This would be the theme of maintaining, which is the characteristic element, the essential foundation of the concept of the law of constancy. It is opposed to the theme of progress, and there already exists a literature about it that is an entire philosophy. Those who frequent poets will recognize in Baudelaire one of the ancestors of this point of view, and one of the creators of the sensibility that it sets in motion. Villiers de l’Isle-Adam continued its spread, and we can see it with little difficulty in the works of Flaubert. Finally, M. Remy de Gourmont summed it up with his law of intellectual constancy. It is this theme that I set myself to culling out from among the biological views of M. Quinton as the one most fertile in philosophical consequences. This theme of the maintenance of a fixed state that unfavorable circumstances have a constant tendency to destroy brings, in fact, if not an absolute proof, at least considerable support to the philosophical concept to which I have attached myself, to wit, that existence doesn’t support any explanations in terms of a moral finalism. In assigning a positive goal – that of a reaction in the face of a threat to organic evolution combined with transformations in the human milieu realized by intellectual play – the biological explanation removes much of the likelihood and probability from those messianic concepts according to which transformations in intelligence and sensibility presage an era of happiness and perfection, or at the very least correspond to a positive amelioration of the human condition. This forward march is no longer anything but a marching in place, if the ground moves in the opposite direction to the steps of the marcher. The belief in progress, in the embrace of happiness and perfection by future humanity, appears now as nothing but an illusion, useful perhaps for the maintenance of the status quo, if it is true that man deploys a greater effort in the hope of an indeterminate happiness than he would for the preservation of a state which he often declares himself dissatisfied with. M. Nordau’s theory of history provides confirmation through this way of seeing things, whose pessimism is only apparent, and which manifests itself only to those to whom it seems that a justification through moral ideas is the sole possible justification for the fact of existence.

M. Nordau has incidentally not failed to draw from this concept of the hostility of the milieu a consequence of great importance, and which confers a happy unity to his definition of history. In his reaction against the hostility of the milieu, man obeyed, he says, the law of lesser effort, and the result has been “that the strongest individuals have been assured by those who are weaker the favorable conditions of existence that were indispensable to them,” the resistance of their fellows often being less than that of nature. This consequence created parasitism, which is the general perspective in which history as a whole appears to M. Nordau, and which justifies the conception which he has formed about it, as well as of the totality of episodes of the human struggle for existence, against nature and against man.

1. By an application that is also a deviation from Quinton’s theory, M. Nordau supposes that man, born during a warm, “paradisiacal” period, saw follow this period of his genesis a very cold period, where in an abrupt manner the hostility of his milieu manifested itself.

2. See notably “The Formation of Legends.”