Today's date:
Winter 2002


Apostles of Novelty

Daniel J. Boorstin, former Librarian of Congress in the United States, is the author of The Discoverers (1993). He prepared this comment for the first meeting of Intellectuels Du Monde, which gathered in Paris in February 1997 to discuss whether others could share the same idea of progress as the scientifically and technologically advanced Western nations.

Washington-The Western idea of progress, widespread since the 18th century, had its roots in two characteristically Western ideas and experiences. First, the Judeo-Christian belief in a Creator God who had made the world new; and second, the rise of experimental science in the work of Galileo, Harvey, Newton and others, who documented man's increasing ability to know and control the world. These ideas and experiences were at odds with the cyclical views of history presumed by other world religions and even in the classical Greek heritage. If God could make the world ex nihilo, and man shared the powers of that God, then making the new was not only possible for man, it revealed his spark of divinity.

Then the Western enthusiasm for the natural sciences was contagious, inspiring social sciences which aimed to make new and better institutions. As scientific knowledge accumulated in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was encouraged and shared by the European community, with an increasing faith in its utopian possibilities. It was this faith which stirred the beliefs of Jefferson and the American Revolutionaries in the possibility of creating a new nation in a New World, pursuing the idea of human equality and the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It was this faith that stirred the beliefs of the French Revolutionaries of 1789 in their power to clean out the cobwebs of the Old Regime and make a new Republic dedicated to Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and the rule of Reason. The spectacular successes of European industry in the 19th century-the creation of steam power and then electrical power, along with the epochal insights of Adam Smith, Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and others, with improvement of transportation, the growth of cities, and the increase of wealth-reinforced the hope (in Tennyson's words) to "let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change."

Can such an idea, that grew from distinctively Western memory, experience and imagination, take root and flourish elsewhere? Can it be credible in parts of the world that do not share the Judeo-Christian belief in a Creator God, a God of Novelty, and in a Creator Man, Apostle of Novelty? Can the idea of progress survive in societies that lack the melodramatic Western triumphs of science and technology, that lack the rising standards of living, and have not succeeded in making viable societies by newly drawn constitutions? Can peoples be expected to share the intellectual product when they had not shared the processes from which it came?

More basic, even, than the idea of progress in Western thought is the notion of which Blaise Pascal was the eloquent spokesman. "Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed." And, though the universe destroys man, man is still nobler, for he is aware of the advantage the universe has over him. Man's greatness, then, is in his consciousness, his awareness of his place in the world, of what the world holds and might hold for him, and what he might hold for the world. That consciousness has led man in the West to believe in progress. But where will that consciousness properly lead men who have lived in drastically different circumstances, with contrasting histories? While the idea of progress may be a suitable and suggestive metaphor for Western history, elsewhere, among peoples who have no similar historical roots, it may express nothing more than a bitter utopian irony.

Finally, how does it benefit the world when people freeze the metaphor of alien history into ideology? For ideology itself is a contradiction and denial of man's endless powers of novelty and change which are suggested by the very idea of progress. Would we not, perhaps, profit more from the diversity of human experience if we encouraged all people to make their own metaphor?