Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Trilling on Eliot, VI, the notion of human progress

Trilling writes that the “. . . notion of progress [is] a belief shared by the bourgeois and the Marxist, that the direction of the world is that of never-ceasing improvement.  So far as Marxism goes, this idea seems to have a discrepancy with the Marxist dialectic, for it depends on a standard of judgment . . . the judgment of direction, the certainty of what ‘higher’ signifies and what ‘better’ signifies.  One has only to hear a Marxist defend (as many a Marxist will) the belief that through the ages even art shows a definable progress and improvement to understand how untenable the notion is in any of its usual statements.  And the progress which is held to be observable in art is held to be no less observable in human relations. 

“And from the notion of progress has grown that contempt for the past and that worship of the future which so characteristically marks the radical thought of our time.  The past is seen as a series of necessary failures which perhaps have their value as, in the dialectical way, they contribute to what comes after.  The past has been a failure: the present – what can it matter in the light of the perfecting future?  And from – or with – a sense of the past as failure, and of the present as nothing better than a willing tributary to the future, comes the sense of the wrongness of the human quality at any given moment.  For while they have always violently reprobated any such notion as Original Sin and by and large have held the belief that, by nature, man is good, most radical philosophies have contradicted themselves by implying that man, in his quality, in his kind, will be wholly changed by socialism in fine ways that we cannot predict:  man will be good not as some men have been, but good in new and unspecified fashions.  At the bottom of at least popular Marxism there has always been a kind of disgust with humanity as it is and a perfect faith in humanity as it is to be.”

COMMENT:  What is being described here is a Marxist eschatology.  The Christian eschatology this most closely approximates is Postmillennialism.  They both hypothesize a future time when humans will be much closer to perfection than they are today.  Close enough so that human failings the world is used to become almost nonexistent.  This is another case, perhaps, where Marx addresses a Christian ideal and proposes to accomplish the same thing by material means.  

Postmillennialism envisions this improvement in human nature to be accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Marxism envisions this improvement to be accomplished by Socialism.  Atheists will argue that there is no Holy Spirit to improve man by changing him in such a way that he more closely approximates the image of Jesus Christ.  Very well, I would ask the Socialistic atheist, what in a material system is to effect this change?  Marx wasn’t specific, but Socialists have had a long time since his death to think about it  We have seen Socialism at work in many forms and stages.  Has anyone at any time in any place seen the sort of human improvement here alluded to?   

Postmillennialism is described as an “optimistic eschatology.”  There will be a time when the “Word of God will cover the world as water covers the floor of the sea.”  It is “optimistic” because this will occur on earth prior to heaven.  The other two major eschatologies, Amillennialism and Premillennialism are “pessimistic.”.  There will be no improvement in human nature and only small numbers will be saved.   The Marxists from Trilling’s time sound “optimistic” about a Materialistic future.  I wonder if that optimism exists in the Marxist remnant that survives today.

Trilling picks up Eliot’s arguments after this to say that while they are no more tenable than Marxism, at least Eliot is not deceiving himself. 

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