Berdyaev: Are We Making Progress?

Here’s a question. As a species, as human beings, are we making progress? There are three basic answers to this question – yes we are, no we aren’t, or progress isn’t real. The first two are pretty straightforward – they either agree that we’re moving forward, or they disagree, and think we’re moving backwards. And you can quickly scope out the initial points of reference for each argument – it’s increasingly legal around the world to be gay, especially compared to a hundred years back, but we’re also already seeing the destructive impacts of climate change with several so-called once in a generation catastrophes happening day in and day out. We’re making progress, we’re regressing.

The third answer is a little curlier, rejecting the premise of the question altogether. Progress is potentially a contested notion – at the very least, it seems to imply that we have a particular goal in mind. You can’t judge whether you’re making progress without a destination against which to measure that claim. If we look back at the first two answers, and the proposed points of reference, we can see those destinations already implied. The argument that we’re regressing has an implicit goal of not destroying the earth – it says that we’re regressing because this goal of limiting the impacts of climate change is becoming unachievable. The argument that we are making progress has this implicit goal that’s almost centered around the idea of becoming more humane – that supporting gay rights makes us better people, makes us better as a society or a species. Both of these arguments also play host to some sort of end-state, some utopian vision – maybe not deeply sculpted, but present in the concept of progress itself. They speak about where we’re going – where we ought to be going – and how far along the path we’ve come.

As a question, then, it’s a fun little trapdoor into a whole range of issues – it’s a great way to start drawing out assumptions about human nature and the meaning of life. And obviously lots of people have opinions about these questions. All your top-shelf philosophers and theologians have their own responses. It feels pretty easy to imitate a standard Christian answer – ‘progress’ is moving towards God, and ‘regress’ is moving away from Him. For Nicolas Berdyaev, the 20th century Russian Orthodox theologian, the answer is more specifically wrapped up in the nature of time.

So we’ve been looking at Berdyaev over the past few weeks, in particular his book The Beginning and the End. In the eighth chapter, he addresses the concept of progress, interweaving it with the concept of time. He suggests that, as we’ve noted, “the idea of progress has a messianic basis.” There’s some concept of salvation, of The Good Place – whether it’s a post-capitalist Marxist utopia or just avoiding the heat death of the planet. It’s about the move towards utopia. Further, he says, “progress must have a final goal, and in that respect it is eschatological.” Eschatology is essentially about the end of the world, the end of time – so on the one hand Berdyaev is just saying that if progress moves towards a goal, then it orients you towards achieving that goal (and ending the struggle for that goal) – but he’s also connecting that in with the idea of Revelations and the end of time. That second bit is really operative – for Berdyaev, the way that we currently experience time is itself a symptom of the Fall.

“Time is eternity which has collapsed in ruin,” he declares. There are parts of time that retain something of eternity, but the rest of it is broken and ruinous. In explaining this idea, Berdyaev sets up a framework with different types of time. There’s historical time, which is the ‘and then, and then’ – time as we might typically think about it. We work from 9 to 5, and we get half an hour for lunch, two paid ten minute breaks – historical time. “Historical time … can be reckoned mathematically in decades, centuries, and millennia, but every event in it is unrepeatable.” Then there’s existential time. “Existential time is not susceptible of mathematical calculation, its flow depends upon intensity of experience, upon suffering and joy.” The best way I can describe it is that it’s what we experience when we’re sucked into something. You know when you see a good movie, and you get really into it – once it ends, there’s almost a point where you re-emerge into the world – where you shake yourself and remember that you’re a person with a face and a name, and you remember where you parked the car, and suddenly you’re also really hungry. It’s the sort of thing you can experience when you’re playing music or sport, when you’re driving, when you’re gaming – you sink into this flow state where historical time, clock time, gives way to something else. “It is within this time that the uplifting creative impulse takes place, and in it ecstasy is known.”

To Berdyaev, then, eternity is pure existential time. When we experience moments of existential time by engaging with art or in other areas of our lives, we slip into a little fragment of eternity. And then, as we come out of those moments, we return into our fallen world. “There are such things as moments of communion with eternity. These moments pass, and again I lapse into time. Yet it is not that moment which passes, but I in my fallen temporality: the moment indeed remains in eternity.” It’s a really beautiful idea. And it gives us the context to discuss Berdyaev’s ideas around progress.

Some of Berdyaev’s argument uses terms we might expect. He sees progress as moving towards God, towards the end times, towards the state in which we are made perfect. But, he says, history does not come to an end within historical time. We don’t make progress through historical time because historical time is part of the problem – our uplifting only occurs once we pass out of historical time and into eternity. We don’t make progress within history, Berdyaev argues, we make progress by exiting out of it. It’s a relatively subtle point, and I think easy to misunderstand – if there is a point in time where we exit out of history and into the afterlife, aren’t we always getting closer to that point simply by living? Isn’t that progress? If historical time is finite, if it ends, aren’t we by definition always progressing towards it? Berdyaev’s point is really more about positioning history or historical time as a sort of prison. We could say that we’re making ‘progress’, but it’s not that prison is getting better – it’s that we’re getting closer to being let out. All these other conversations about climate change and gay rights – they’re not unimportant, but they maybe miss the fact that we’re talking about the condition of our jail cells.

History thus emerges for Berdyaev as something of an ambiguous phenomenon. We are inescapably historical beings: “History in time is the pathway of man towards eternity, within it the enrichment of human experience is accumulated.” And yet history itself is “something like a crime” – it uses us “as material for the creation of an inhuman structure and it has its own inhuman and anti-human code of morals … Hatred is its controlling power and its most dynamic moments are associated with hatred at its keenest.” History “presupposes human freedom, yet it denies man’s freedom and sets it at naught; it scarcely allows him liberty to breathe freely.” It’s something we’ll progress out of, but not something we’ll really make progress through.

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