Reinhold Niebuhr on the distinction between growth and progress

"The inner relation of successive civilizations to each other may be described as 'unity in length' or in time. The inner relation of contemporary civilizations to each other may be described as 'unity in breadth' or in space. The former unity is more obvious than the latter one. The history of Western civilization is, for instance, more clearly related to Greece and Rome than it is to its own contemporary China. Yet there are minimal relations of mutual dependence even in 'breadth.' While the Western world has elaborated science and techniques to a greater extent than the oriental world, it would not be possible to comprehend our Western scientific development without understanding the contributions of oriental scientific discoveries towards it.

"Perhaps the most significant development of our own day is that the cumulative effect of history’s unity in length is daily increasing its unity in breadth. Modern technical civilization is bringing all civilizations and cultures, all empires and nations into closer juxtaposition to each other. The fact that this greater intimacy and contiguity prompt tragic 'world wars' rather than some simple and easy interpenetration of cultures, must dissuade us from regarding a 'universal culture' or a 'world government' as the natural and inevitable telos which will give meaning to the whole historical process.

"But on the other hand it is obvious that the technical interdependence of the modern world places us under the obligation of elaborating political instruments which will make such new intimacy and interdependence sufferable. This new and urgent task is itself a proof of the cumulative effects of history. It confronts us with progressively difficult tasks and makes our very survival dependent upon their solution. Thus the development of unity in breadth is one aspect of the unity of length in history.

"These facts seem obvious enough to occasion some agreement in their interpretation, even when the presuppositions which govern the interpretations are divergent. It must be agreed that history means growth, however much the pattern of growth may be obscured by the rise and fall of civilizations. Though one age may have to reclaim what previous ages had known and forgotten, history obviously moves towards more inclusive ends, towards more complex human relations, towards the technical enhancement of human powers and the cumulation of knowledge.

"But when the various connotations of the idea of 'growth' are made more explicit a fateful divergence between the Christian and the modern interpretation of human destiny becomes apparent. As we have previously noted, the whole of modern secular culture (and with it that part of the Christian culture which is dependent upon it) assumes that growth means progress. It gives the idea of growth a moral connotation. It believes that history moves from chaos to cosmos by forces immanent within it. We have sought to prove that history does not support this conclusion. The peril of a more positive disorder is implicit in the higher and more complex order which human freedom constructs on the foundation of nature’s harmonies and securities. The spiritual hatred and the lethal effectiveness of 'civilized' conflicts, compared with tribal warfare or battles in the animal world, are one of many examples of the new evil which arises on a new level of maturity."

—Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: Volume II: Human Destiny (1943), pp. 314-315


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