“There are too many people who have come to hold a jaundiced view of the wonders of science and technology—and a loss of confidence in the moral values of Western civilization,” laments Robert Nisbet, 66, Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities emeritus at Columbia University. Although no Pollyanna, Nisbet defends the West’s contribution to the world and points out that economic growth and cultural achievement usually go hand in hand. In his latest book, The History of the Idea of Progress (Basic Books, $16.95), he traces mankind’s faith in progress that began with the Jews and the Greeks 2,000 years ago, and warns that the contemporary disillusionment with it endangers the future of Western culture. Now semiretired, Nisbet lives with his second wife, Caroline, 49, a former stockbroker, in Washington, D.C. He is already at work on his next book, A Philosophical Dictionary, an ambitious sequel to the 200-year-old classic by Voltaire. Nisbet discussed Americans’ changed attitude to ward progress with Arthur Lubow of PEOPLE.
Have Americans really stopped believing in progress?
I think the question “Are we progressing as a civilization?” doesn’t carry much meaning to younger people today. It did to their predecessors.
Why this change?
There is a languishing faith in the inevitable good of economic growth—the spread of industry and towns and cities. There is also an outright fear of what technology is doing to the ethics of life and death, to the environment and to the human spirit.
Is this fear of economic growth new?
I can’t think of a time before this one when there has been as much dismay and confusion over what economic growth accomplishes. There is a growing fascination with what John Stuart Mill called “the stationary state,” with economic growth stopping altogether so that people can relax. And there is the feeling, with some foundation, that the more progress in industry, the more pollution and spoliation of the environment.
How significant is the environmental movement?
It is the nearest thing to a “radicalization” of the middle class that I’ve ever seen. Who can be against a clean environment? Only a brute or a madman can say he hates the sight of beautiful little fish in a stream. But to favor the physical environment over economic growth and development is going to take a radically different set of political and social controls.
Hasn’t the disenchantment with technology spread beyond concern for the environment?
Yes. Medical technology has probably produced more of a trauma in the popular mind than any other aspect of technology. The image we once had of medicine was of the brilliant surgeon saving lives. Now when medicine flashes through our mind, we think of a Karen Anne Quinlan. We think of bodies all over the United States that want to die and are being prevented from doing so by life-supporting machines. This is an ominous way to think of medicine, the great healing art.
Do you oppose the movement to curb economic growth?
In general, yes. I think technology can produce the means of averting the spoliation and pollution that horrify me, too. I have no forgiveness for a Love Canal. But I do not think that human beings can be creative in science, literature or art while living in a civilization that is declining in economic terms. Economic progress is the base on which any other type of progress takes place.
Does inflation take away our faith in progress?
It’s very hard to think realistically that your children are going to be better off than you are today. Inflation is like being in a huge rubber bag. You can’t see how to fight your way out of it. In a depression, you’re in a bad way because you are without money. How do you correct it? You get more money, and then you’re okay. That gives you something to fight for. But inflation—what do you do about it? Work harder? You get more money, but it has less value. Inflation is the single greatest economic enemy of society and culture.
Does it seem that not only money but everything we earn has less value today?
Yes. You work all your life to have a very fine automobile. At last you drive it from the dealer, and you’re promptly in a traffic jam, full of smoke and pollution. And you think to yourself, “Yes, I’ve got it, but with respect to the environment and the tens of millions of other people who have automobiles, there’s no fun in it anyway.”
Has the work ethic suffered?
Surprisingly, no. I am struck by the avidity with which young people are fighting and struggling to get into jobs. On the other hand, many middle-class people are touched by a sense of boredom, passive incomprehension, apathy and cynicism. There are more thoroughly bored people than ever—bored by work and family life. Only humans know boredom. Animals know apathy, but not boredom. Boredom takes a fairly high level of evolution of the central nervous system.
Are we progressing culturally?
Nobody can sit and watch Charlie’s Angels or the dozens of analogous things without being affected. You can have the mind of an Einstein and a Goethe combined, and you’re still going to be diminished somewhat if you watch that stuff. The same is true of reading Jacqueline Susann or Judith Krantz. Popular literature used to be written by craftsmen who, even if they weren’t themselves competent writers, had editors who polished their work. They put a challenge to the human mind. They weren’t filthy and slovenly. But Jacqueline Susanns by the dozen make no demands on the reader who opens the book waiting for that first obligatory sex scene. Any normal human being wants an occasional erotic literary experience—but not dumped on him out of a garbage pail.
Are we progressing in our attitudes toward sex?
Some of the sexual revolution is good. It has broken down what had become a very brittle, Puritan attitude toward sex. But the other side of it is pornography. I console myself by thinking that the kind of pornography we have now—involving small children, animals, physical abuse—well, there’s no way to go any lower. At its present level of shrillness and ugliness, it will change. People will simply tire of it.
Is there a loss of interest in the past?
Children haven’t been taught the importance of the past, about the great heroes and the great events. In schools, there is no history. There’s contemporary studies or issues. If it’s history, it’s a historical account of the Hispanic woman over 10 decades. That gives you no feeling for the past. People don’t want to study Western civilization because there’s a loss of pride in it. We all tend to feel guilty about what the West has done, not proud, as my parents were.
How do you respond to that?
I happen to feel very strongly that Western civilization is about the best that has come along in world history. It aspires toward justice and the moral life. At the same time there is a profound eagerness to advance knowledge and learning, to achieve and to better yourself and your whole generation—to contribute.
Why do you think that Communist societies still express a belief in progress?
There has to be a solid, evocative core of theology, a religious type of belief about the world and human history. Christianity has been in abeyance as a great intellectual force for at least a century, but Marxism is still spreading and deepening. It is widely said that Marxism will go down in world history as the single most successful heresy of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Marx wanted to be a scientist, but he’s wound up as a major prophet. He has a following in the hundreds of millions. Think about that face. It’ll look good on medallions and in little shrines.
Are you depressed by the rise of Marxism?
No. I happen to be anti-Marxist and anti-Soviet. But the only thing that depresses me is the thought that out there in the world there’s only a void. If I thought that Christianity and the other major religions were heading for extinction, with nothing out there to fill the vacuum, I’d be very depressed. My idea of absolute nightmarish hell in the human race is a period in which nobody believes in anything.
In which case, then, better Marxism than nothing?
Precisely. I feel that way.
Is there any active force to oppose Marxism?
There’s no mistaking that the messianic and evangelical religions are increasing in size, devotion and intensity. Religions like Southern Baptist, Adventist and Mormon are burgeoning all over the world. It isn’t anything I can empathize with, but it will probably prove to be good in the long run in the same way that Old Testament-based Protestantism in the 16th century ultimately proved to be pretty good for Western civilization. Only religion exerts as strong a pull on human minds as ideological politics. It takes a force to conquer a force. Politics is becoming more aligned with the police power of the state and with the abuse of authority. I can only believe that a religious awakening will give it some competition.