An essay by Leo Strauss entitled “Progress or Return?” frames the existential crisis of contemporary man as an imbroglio between the two titular ideas. On one hand, there is the Judeo-Christian idea of return: we were created perfect, fell from grace, and have spent the rest of our history trying to regain our original state. The most natural activity to mankind left alone is decay. On the other hand, the champion of contemporary times is progress: humanity’s most perfected state lies in the future, and our history chronicles our attempts to achieve that state. The idea of progress necessitates a distinction between bad and good; to progress is to leave behind the worse for the better.
Strauss, admits that, intellectually, modern man is a behemoth. Our technological and scientific achievements are vast and astounding. Yet, he claims there has been no simultaneous social ascendency. In fact, our knowledge of right and wrong, good and bad, is less sure than it ever was before. It the great shame of postmodernity that our progress has left us no better off in our pursuit of the good life. We have forsaken the task of “pursuit” anything, in fact; our progress no longer involves a telos, and thus it is merely change for change’s sake. Our centemporary champion, then, is up against the ropes: progress is badly bruised, if not broken.
Circling down the drain of “progress” prompts us to look back, to search for some better, prior state to which we can return. This is where the books of mankind’s great thinkers gain crucial relevance: as early as Plato and Aristotle, as late as Locke and Machiavelli. These thinkers, and all those in between, shared a characteristic which we do not: their conception of “progress” has an end in mind. Because Strauss is not anti-progress — a term which, with different ends, manifests different meanings. He is only against the contemporary progress — equivalent to caprice — which with no end manifests no meaning.