Leo Strauss on the Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization
* Article/Lecture: 'Progress or Return? The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization' by Leo Strauss (1952)
A selection from a lecture given by Leo Strauss in 1952
"Throughout the Western world more generally, progress has become a matter of doubt. The term "progress" in its full and emphatic meaning has practically disappeared from serious literature. People speak less and less of "progress" and more and more of "change." They no longer claim to know that we are moving in the right direction. Not progress, but the 'belief' in progress or the 'idea' of progress as a social or historical phenomenon, is a major theme for the present-day student of society. A generation or so ago, the most famous study on this subject was entitled The Idea of Progress. Its opposite number in present-day literature is entitled The Belief in Progress. The substitution of belief for idea is in itself worthy of note.
The contemporary crisis of Western civilization may be said to be identical with the climactic crisis of the idea of progress in the full and emphatic sense of the term. I repeat, that idea consists of the following elements: the development of human thought as a whole is a progressive development... . There is a fundamental and necessary parallelism between intellectual and social progress. [...] Ininite intellectual and social progress is actually possible. Once mankind has reached a certain stage of development, there exists a solid floor beneath which man can no longer sink. All these points have become questionable, I believe, to all of us. To mention only one point, perhaps the most massive one, the idea of progress was bound up with the notion of the conquest of nature, of man making himself the master... of nature for the purpose of relieving man's estate. The means for that goal was a new science. We all know of the enormous successes of the new science and of the technology which is based on it, and we all can witness the enormous increase of man's power. Modern man is a giant in comparison to earlier man. But we have also to note that there is no corresponding increase in wisdom and goodness. Modern man is a giant of whom we do not know whether he is better or worse than earlier man. [...] Modern man is a blind giant. [...] Now to understand the crisis of Western civilization, one cannot leave it at understanding the problematic character of the idea of progress, for the idea of progress is only a part, or an aspect, of a larger whole, of what we shall not hesitate to call modernity. What is modernity?
Western civilization has two roots: the Bible and Greek Philosophy. [...] Modern rationalism rejected biblical theology and replaced it by such things as deism, pantheism, atheism. But in this process, biblical morality was in a way preserved.
The immediate cause of the decline of the belief in progress can perhaps be stated as follows: the idea of progress in the modern sense implies that once man has reached a certain level, intellectual and social or moral, there exists a firm level of being below which he cannot sink. This contention, however, is empirically refuted by the incredible barbarization which we have been so unfortunate as to witness in our century. We can say that the idea of progress, in the full and emphatic sense of the term, is based on wholly unwarranted hopes. You can see this even in many critics of the idea of progress. One of the most famous critics of the idea of progress, prior to the First World War, was the Frenchman, Georges Sorel, who wrote a book, The Delusion of Progress [Les Illusions du Progrès, 1908]. But strangely, Sorel declared that the decline of the Western world was impossible because of the vitality of the Western tradition. I think that we have all now become sufficiently sober to admit that whatever may be wrong in Spengler.. that the very title, in the English translation especially, of the work is more sober, more reasonable, than these hopes which lasted so long.
This barbarization which we have witnessed and which we continue to witness is not altogether accidental. The intention of the modern development was, of course, to bring about ahigher civilization, a civilization which would surpass all earlier civilizations. Yet the effect of the modern development was different. What has taken place in the modern period has been a gradual corrosion and destruction of the heritage of Western civilization."