The illusion of a perfectable human nature

September 16, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Three years ago, in a book on nationalism, I remarked that while science progresses, and our society has steadily become more complex, the moral nature of man has not changed. I wrote that it seemed to me ''a preposterous and impertinent notion'' that I should today somehow be a moral superior to the men and women who made the great cave paintings of prehistory, or the dramatists and poets of classical Greece.

A critic (Liah Greenfeld of Boston University) demanded that I clarify what I meant by this, and my reply turned into an article published last winter in the New York quarterly, World Policy Journal, and subsequently reprinted by a French quarterly magazine, Commentaire, under the title, ''Progress -- Reflections on a Dead Idea.''

That title was certain to attract attention in France, and in August the Paris newspaper Le Monde cited my article in launching a debate on whether progress is indeed a dead idea. There eventually were more than 20 published contributions to this discussion.

Among those contributions a clear division was apparent between those writers who do, and those who do not, believe that man has made moral progress over the centuries and can continue to do so in the future. I was offered the last word in the debate, and said the following:

Those who do not acknowledge a distinction between man's material progress and his moral improvement include both Marxists and thinkers in the liberal tradition. They believe that despite the political calamities of the 20th century, and the ambiguities of scientific progress, our world is still -- as one contributor wrote -- ''in its planetary iron age, and in the prehistory of the human spirit.'' They believe that humanity still can have a radiant future before it.

My own belief is not that the future will be worse. We simply do not know what the future will be. For Europeans of a century ago, their future proved to be worse -- much worse -- than anything they could have imagined in the year 1896, even if today their societies have recovered from the catastrophes of the last eight decades.

For North Americans of the year 1896, the future century brought generally improving material, social and political conditions. Americans today may feel less confidence about the hundred years to come, and Europeans may have better reasons for dTC feeling confident about their future -- but that can only be a surmise.

The issue is man's moral nature, and a part of the answer to the problem of man's role in history seems to me to lie in the conception we have of the nature of history and historical time.

Western history has been a chain of responses to what one writer in the Le Monde debate called ''the Promethean challenge,'' understood in classical Greece as a demand that man accomplish by his own efforts things that could compare with the permanence and nobility of nature. Success would give an individual a form of immortality in the memories of other men and women.

Jews, and then Christians, were enjoined by scripture to search for their immortality in obedience to God. They were to cultivate virtue and justice, but their aim was to achieve salvation or perfection in the next world -- outside history, outside time.

Since the Enlightenment, Western men have redefined the aim of their lives and actions as lying within time. They mean to achieve something inside history. The liberal tradition is committed to the belief that man and society can be perfected presently, through reasonable and enlightened human action, building a better society and a more reasonable man.

''New socialist man''

Marxists said that a science of history existed, and that by working with it a ''new socialist man'' could be created.

The alternative totalitarian version, or perversion, of this idea of progress was Nazism, which formulated its pro- gram in terms of the Social Darwinism, eugenics, ''race science'' and racism of the late 19th century. Its terrible con- clusion was that ''decadent races'' should be murdered, and ''supermen'' bred.

All these modern views of the role of man in history put the goal inside historical time. That has been the great and fateful error. If human fulfillment lies inside historical time, why not -- as in Russia, Germany, China, Cambodia -- use ''extreme measures'' to speed its arrival?

My own belief is that history is a tragedy, and is ennobled by that fact. I don't believe that history is going to be ''solved'' inside historical time. I believe that we are morally obliged to work to perfect the society in which we live, but that we must understand that while some of our efforts will succeed, there will be no final success. The hard thing is to act while knowing that our efforts will ultimately fail.

There is progress in civilization, but this is not the moral progress of man himself. I believe that our struggle to progress against the limits imposed by the divided moral inheritance of man (''implicated,'' as John Henry Newman wrote in the 19th century, ''in some terrible aboriginal calamity'') is both the duty and the justification of our existence.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/16/96

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