Acton Commentary

The More Things Change...


The past century has witnessed the greatest material advances in human history. It also has witnessed the greatest bloodshed. This is not coincidental.

First, the advances. Even a cursory look at life in the United States over the past hundred years reveals startling statistics. In 1900, one child out of ten died in infancy; today, that rate has dropped to seven out of one thousand. In 1900, the average American died at 47; today, 77. In 1900, only 1 percent of Americans owned stocks; today, 52 percent do. Even the number of academic doctorates awarded (a sure sign of prosperity) has skyrocketed, from 382 in 1900 to over 45,000 today. The evidence is conclusive; Americans today are far healthier and wealthier than their ancestors a hundred years ago.

This overwhelming sense of material progress is even more arresting when we expand our frame of reference to one thousand, rather than one hundred, years. "In the year 1000," a recent retrospective notes, "Europe would have looked like a very dubious long shot in any wager on the future of civilizations." In England, for example, peasants lived short lives of hard work, their subjection to capricious nobles broken only by Norse pillaging. Yet, a thousand years later, the West is the freest and most prosperous civilization the world has ever known.

This is a good thing. Prosperity and freedom are necessary conditions for human flourishing. And we must recognize that what turned the West from a bad gamble into a powerful civilization was freedom—political, economic, and religious. Specifically, genuine innovations in the application of freedom (such as representative democracy, constitutional and limited government, private property rights, and the role of human imagination in the creation of wealth) have contributed to our present peace and prosperity. We should certainly be grateful for such innovations and the material advances they engendered, but we must also recognize the limits of such advances. If they are not tempered by moral understanding, they can just as easily be used by the forces of tyranny to cause human misery.

Tyranny alone cannot explain why the twentieth century has been the bloodiest in human history. Tyranny has always been with us. Rather, this past century's tyrants have had at their disposal the fruits of the material—especially the technological—advances of the past thousand years. In the service of tyranny, technology yielded the one twentieth-century innovation in political science: totalitarianism. In the service of tyranny, technology planted in the dark imaginings of tyrants the seed that yielded this century'sbitterest harvest: the possibility of exterminating systematically whole races of people.

Over the past thousand years, we have become more technologically proficient, and we now more clearly understand certain moral principles and our obligations toward them, but we still tend to fall short of the good. Nor do our practical discoveries change how we come to know what is good. We know what is good as we have always known it: by knowing something about the nature of man—in what circumstances he began, in what state we find him, toward what destiny he is headed, and, most importantly, what is required of him. Specifically, man is created in God's image, has fallen from grace, and is destined for eternity. Most importantly, we know that what is required of him is to love God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love his neighbor as himself. This has been understood for thousands of years. Nothing that has happened since has changed it. And any practical advances we have made flow from our knowledge of it.

In the early days of World War II, when European civilization began to convulse and consume itself for the second time that century, C. S. Lewis observed that "the lesson of history" is that "civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost." The implication of this, for Lewis, was clear: Technological prowess can be a good thing, but it is not the only thing; the preservation of the good life, of civilization, requires keeping before our mind's eye the twin commandments to love God and to love our neighbor.

As we step into the new millennium, we shall find it much like the old—that is, inhabited by a race made in God's image yet fallen and for whom the line between civilization and barbarism is drawn not by what we are able to do but by how we choose to live. And though this new millennium may bring us new wonders (and new horrors), our duties remain what they have been since time began.