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CHAPTER XXIII
PROGRESS, FALSE AND TRUE

"The Wind bloweth as it listeth; and thou canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth."

It may seem to some readers anomalous to write the words False Progress. It seems to be often ignored that any such thing can exist. Many suppose that so long as we are moving, we are necessarily moving onwards. Others again suppose that movement is of no use unless it be in the ultimately true direction; they forget that turmoil, which is useless for progress, may be useful in preventing stagnation.

Nothing is more certain than that some Power beyond our ken forces us to go through a great deal of false Progress, i.e. of motion, the tendency of which is not in the direction towards which Humanity is really tending. We are constantly deceived in this matter. We think we are making a progressive movement, and all the while we may have been retrograding towards barbarism, or making a rapid rush off on a path which we shall have to retrace before we can rejoin the onward March of Humanity. We have to discount our jubilation about progress; we certainly progress on the whole; but we are, at any given moment, liable to mistake for progress something which is in reality the reverse.

When the Prophets saw, as we see every summer day, how the wind catches up the particles of dust and carries them along, whirling them round and round as it goes, they felt that progress carries mankind on so; not in one straight line, but round and round, yet steadily moving on all the while. The same direction which is really in the march of progress at one moment, is a mere flying out of it, off at a tangent, at another. That is why fashion is not progress. Fashion is mere imitation. Now if we watch the wind-storm, we see that to go East to-day may be real progress, but to go East tomorrow because some one else went East yesterday may be not progress but a departure from it. All the outer life of the world, political, educational, social, philosophic, moves onward by incessant change of direction. There is no real misfortune in this; we should miss much that is valuable if we restricted ourselves to going always in one direction. The danger is that if we have no standard of right direction, we may lose our way altogether, and fly off into isolation. Therefore, just in the middle of the whirl, Providence has placed one thing which moves on in a steady sweep towards the ultimate Truth, and which was never meant to take any part in the whirling movement to which all else is subject. And that one thing is the religion of Israel. It stands always in the centre of the world's march, as a test of the right direction. Nothing is going far wrong which keeps, as it were, well within sight of that standard. And when we have gone a little way wrong, it acts as a test to help us to find our way back to the right path. Judaism helps the world to judge of its own direction. This standard is not so rigid as to make all people alike; it leaves us all free to differ in detail; it allows Gentiles to try experiments and to gain the experience that can only be acquired by making mistakes and then correcting them; but if we take heed to the legacy left us by the old Prophets, it enables us to avoid drifting dangerously far from the right road. If people were discussing which is East and which is West, and one happened to catch sight of the sun rising, he would listen to no further discussion; he would know which was East. And if people are discussing what is true and what is false progress, and one of them discovers that the road he is going is leading to a clearer understanding of the religion of Israël, that man has seen the Orient.

Suppose that the thought-life of an age or a Nation has diverged from the march of Humanity, and its philosophers cannot agree among themselves which is the path back towards the line of true progress. One says, "This is the way;" and another says, "No, it is that;" and a third obstinately wants to persevere in the road he is going along. But if one of them catches sight of the old religion of Israël, if he finds himself saying, "Now I understand the nature of the Law which the old Psalmists loved; now I know for what the martyrs of Israël gave up their lives, and what gave them courage," that man is troubled with no more doubts. He argues no more. He lets other men go on in their own road, quite certain that he is on the right track at last, and that those who are turning their backs on that beacon are going away from true Progress.

Perhaps the difficulty of distinguishing true progress from false is never so great as in what relates to mental cultivation, to refinement, to Education. It is here that the admission of Jews or other persons of Asiatic origin into European schools becomes most valuable as a test. If I had to select a school for a Christian girl, the first question I should ask would be, not how many pupils passed the Higher Examinations (for no Examination is any security against flashy and unreal modes of thinking); I should ask, first, whether the Jewesses who attend the school improve or deteriorate by being there; whether they are found to be, on the whole, a good or a bad influence. Every country and every school gets, as some French writer has said, the Jews which it deserves. A school or a country where Jews are found to be a deteriorating influence is one where public opinion is judging of progress by a false standard.

So it is on a larger scale. A Nation may seem to be rushing onward in a line which is supposed to be that of culture; but if it turns out that the Asiatics who take part in that culture drift out of sight of their own religion, if they lose their perception of the meaning of their own past, they are leaving the line of true progress; and whoever is sharing the same kind of education is leaving it along with them. Whatever culture produces that effect on Asiatics is deadening and stupefying for all parties; it may look like improvement, but it partakes of the nature of white paint over corruption. It will end by leading all parties towards impiety and vulgarity—the Asiatics first, of course; but ultimately everybody else as well. But if Asiatics can throw themselves heartily into the culture of a country without losing hold of their own religions, we may be sure that that culture is founded on something approximately like the true laws of human development. If the result of successive changes in an Educational code is that Asiatics can make excursions into the Science, the Literature, the Philosophy of their age, and come easily back, with fresh energy and fresh clearness, to the work of advancing their own religion, then the rest of us may feel assured that we are not being led far wrong; for whatever movement brought about that result must have been a movement towards the line of true Progress.[1]

  1. Given as a lecture at the Jewish Working-Men's Club, London.