John Gast, American Progress, circa 1872. (from here)

We have a political movement in this nation called Progressivism, and we have a political party that likes to peddle itself as progressive. We certainly saw the term bandied about in the last presidential election (See Democrats Debate: What Is A Progressive And Who Wants To Be One? (npr.org) and The progressives in the Democratic Party keep marching forward (washingtonpost.com/).), but what do Progressives define as progress? Does anyone have a good explanation? It is not readily apparent that anyone does.

As it happens, the inability of Progressives to define what they mean by progress is nothing new. As Gilbert K. Chesterton set the stage in his book, HERETICS, he considered this issue with respect to H. G. Wells. As it happens, Wells was one of the leading Progressives of his era.

Hence Chesterton made some especially cogent observations about the appropriate use of the word “progress”.

Every one of the popular modern phrases and ideals is a dodge in order to shirk the problem of what is good. We are fond of talking about “liberty”; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “progress”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about “education”; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, “Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He says, “Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”

Mr. H.G. Wells, that exceedingly clear-sighted man, has pointed out in a recent work that this has happened in connection with economic questions. The old economists, he says, made generalizations, and they were (in Mr. Wells’s view) mostly wrong. But the new economists, he says, seem to have lost the power of making any generalizations at all. And they cover this incapacity with a general claim to be, in specific cases, regarded as “experts”, a claim “proper enough in a hairdresser or a fashionable physician, but indecent in a philosopher or a man of science.” But in spite of the refreshing rationality with which Mr. Wells has indicated this, it must also be said that he himself has fallen into the same enormous modern error. In the opening pages of that excellent book MANKIND IN THE MAKING, he dismisses the ideals of art, religion, abstract morality, and the rest, and says that he is going to consider men in their chief function, the function of parenthood. He is going to discuss life as a “tissue of births.” He is not going to ask what will produce satisfactory saints or satisfactory heroes, but what will produce satisfactory fathers and mothers. The whole is set forward so sensibly that it is a few moments at least before the reader realises that it is another example of unconscious shirking. What is the good of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man? You are merely handing on to him a problem you dare not settle yourself. It is as if a man were asked, “What is the use of a hammer?” and answered, “To make hammers”; and when asked, “And of those hammers, what is the use?” answered, “To make hammers again”. Just as such a man would be perpetually putting off the question of the ultimate use of carpentry, so Mr. Wells and all the rest of us are by these phrases successfully putting off the question of the ultimate value of the human life.

The case of the general talk of “progress” is, indeed, an extreme one. As enunciated today, “progress” is simply a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative. We meet every ideal of religion, patriotism, beauty, or brute pleasure with the alternative ideal of progress—that is to say, we meet every proposal of getting something that we know about, with an alternative proposal of getting a great deal more of nobody knows what. Progress, properly understood, has, indeed, a most dignified and legitimate meaning. But as used in opposition to precise moral ideals, it is ludicrous. So far from it being the truth that the ideal of progress is to be set against that of ethical or religious finality, the reverse is the truth. Nobody has any business to use the word “progress” unless he has a definite creed and a cast-iron code of morals. Nobody can be progressive without being doctrinal; I might almost say that nobody can be progressive without being infallible—at any rate, without believing in some infallibility. For progress by its very name indicates a direction; and the moment we are in the least doubtful about the direction, we become in the same degree doubtful about the progress. Never perhaps since the beginning of the world has there been an age that had less right to use the word “progress” than we. In the Catholic twelfth century, in the philosophic eighteenth century, the direction may have been a good or a bad one, men may have differed more or less about how far they went, and in what direction, but about the direction they did in the main agree, and consequently they had the genuine sensation of progress. But it is precisely about the direction that we disagree. Whether the future excellence lies in more law or less law, in more liberty or less liberty; whether property will be finally concentrated or finally cut up; whether sexual passion will reach its sanest in an almost virgin intellectualism or in a full animal freedom; whether we should love everybody with Tolstoy, or spare nobody with Nietzsche;—these are the things about which we are actually fighting most. It is not merely true that the age which has settled least what is progress is this “progressive” age. It is, moreover, true that the people who have settled least what is progress are the most “progressive” people in it. The ordinary mass, the men who have never troubled about progress, might be trusted perhaps to progress. The particular individuals who talk about progress would certainly fly to the four winds of heaven when the pistol-shot started the race. I do not, therefore, say that the word “progress” is unmeaning; I say it is unmeaning without the previous definition of a moral doctrine, and that it can only be applied to groups of persons who hold that doctrine in common. Progress is not an illegitimate word, but it is logically evident that it is illegitimate for us. It is a sacred word, a word which could only rightly be used by rigid believers and in the ages of faith. (from here)

Think about it. What is progress? What moral doctrine do Democrats stand for? What about Republicans? What about the candidate you want to vote for?

When we vote, how much should we trust politicians to decide what is good? Do we want politicians to educate our children and teach them how to decide what is good? How many of us are happy with the job politicians did teaching us? You say they did not teach you? You learned your moral values from your parents or your church? Maybe you did not even go to a public school. Nevertheless, the vast majority goes to public schools. Those in the public schools spend hours there Monday through Friday. They learn from and copy their teachers, and their fellow students become their peers, the people whose approval they seek.

When you vote, have you asked yourself “what is progress?” Is your vote for the betterment of your family, friends and neighbors? Do you have a vision of what “progress” means? Do you even care? If not, why not?


There is a complete list “Of Twisted Words” posts at the first post in this series, OF TWISTED WORDS => FEMINISM.

If you like G. K. Chesterton, please see .

Note also a related post:


  1. Thoughtful post Tom. It’s been my experience that Progressives define progress by topical means. For example welfare programs are good because the word welfare means betterment, so according to a progressive the more welfare we have the better. What actually happens when their policies go in to effect is never taken in to consideration and in fact incessantly lied about after the fact when the results prove to be distastrous.

    1. @Tricia

      Well, I sort of hope you are right. I give Progressives credit for having more intelligence. What I fault is their wisdom. I think that what Progressives do is what all of us do to some extent. We vote for our own self interest instead of the good of our family, friends, and neighbors. If your priority is how much Social Security you are collecting, then may not pay enough attention when the people you vote for is bankrupting the country by buying everyone else’s vote too.

      However, I can’t read minds. Your theory is as good as mine, and the net effect is much the same.

  2. Culture demands that we make decisions in a vacuum apart from any particular moral code…but as Chesterton clearly points out, to do so is an impossible and absurd proposition. There must be some standard or agreed upon absolute. Really good stuff, Tom! Thanks for posting it and asking such thought-provoking questions. 🙂

  3. Excellent Post Tom,
    I especially empathize with the point, what is truly “good,” can even lead to controversy even in idioms.

    For example,

    “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” (One sees good, another sees bad on just about every controversy or opinions since the beginning of time.)

    Compared To

    “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.” ( Communism, Metooism, etc)

    King Solomon after spending a lifetime observing people, came this opinion. He only found one man with a good soul and no women. (Me too is not going to be happy about that verse unless they understand it)

    To add to your conversation, I just posted two statements of Bill Buckley about “the right side of history” in regards to the present doom and gloom about the fear of trade wars.

    The only truly good philosophy in the world has been recorded in the Bible, in my opinion.

    Regards and goodwill blogging.

    1. @scatterwisdom

      Thanks for the kind remarks.

      I will have to check out your post on Bill Buckley, but for now I am off to do some errands.

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