We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]


Life is far more fun when you have a really good book on the go, and the only thing wrong with mine just now is that it weighs too much to be lugged about comfortably on my pedestrian journeyings around London. It is The Lives & Times of the Great Composers by Michael Steen. For me, this book is perfect. I know what most of the music that the great composers composed sounds like. But I am enjoying hugely learning more about the circumstances in which this wonderful music was composed and first listened to.

After an Italian prelude, the first big name composer Steen deals with is Handel, the German who ended up living in London for most of his life.

Handel’s London was an exciting place (p. 39 of my unwieldy paperback):

The year before Handel arrived, Sir Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral had been completed at a cost of £1,167,474 paid for largely by the import duty on coal. Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist was still at work. London, with its sounds of wheels rumbling on cobbles and cries from the street vendors, was well into a century of commercial and cultural prosperity: the country’s population grew by 71 per cent over the century; its merchant fleet more than doubled in tonnage between 1702 and 1776.

London, in other words, then as now, was making lots of progress. Perhaps because music itself can be such an otherworldy thing, even when composed by such a worldly figure as the energetically entrepreneurial Handel, Steen chooses in this book to emphasise the material aspect of things when describing the world in which this music was created.

The kind of people who enjoy the fruits of material progress, but who enjoy them more than they think about how they were first devised and are now cultivated, often dismiss progress as a small thing, perhaps because they dislike the kind of people who are needed to make it, and the methods they must be allowed to use. (Basically: commerce. And insofar as “public spending” is involved, someone has to make that money first before it can be spent.) Such people should ponder pieces of writing such as what Michael Steen says next about Handel’s London:

Behind its superficial prosperity and elegance, London was overcrowded, squalid and full of beggars. People had fleas, lice and few teeth. Most people defecated in nooks and crannies, or used public lavatories built over rivers such as the Fleet. For the more refined, with a small fee, the ‘human lavatory’ would provide a pail and extend its large cape as a screen. Lavatory paper did not exist, the alternatives ranged from a sponge on a stick in a container of salt water, to stones, shells and bunches of herbs.


But the most chilling observation Steen makes about the trials and tribulations of material life in the early eighteenth century – instead of the early twenty-first, say – is this, a couple of paragraphs later:

The political outlook was uncertain.

So? When was it not? But now, hear the reason:

Queen Anne, who was in her late 40s, had borne seventeen children; mostly still-born, none had survived.

Let an anti-progress person of now read that, and then try telling us that material progress of is no great importance, or of no “spiritual” significance, that it is merely a matter of brute, animal comfort. The Queen of England, no less – who presumably enjoyed, if that is the word, the very best medical attention then available – scored zero out of seventeen in the deadly game of childbirth and child-rearing; which meant that there was no obvious royal heir, which meant that the political outlook was uncertain. Poor, poor woman.

Later (p. 54), Michael Steen throws light on another kind of material progress, of a sort that is far more widely and deliberately scorned than progress in things like plumbing or medicine (which is often merely forgotten about), namely cosmetics. Steen has this to tell us about the way that the sort of women Handel often had dealings with – such as the highly paid and outrageously indulged and pampered opera singers whom he supplied tunes for, the crazy rock stars of their day – tried to beautify themselves:

Their faces were painted with compounds of white lead, rice and flour, with washes of quicksilver boiled in water with bismuth.

Suddenly, the progress made in female adornment, which has put incomparably more convenient and healthy – to say nothing of far more visually appealing – methods of adornment into the hands of any modern woman with a few quid to spare who wants them, appears almost as impressive as progress in plumbing, medicine, nutrition, travel, civil engineering, electronic entertainment, or even the wondrous progress that was about to be made in the two centuries after Handel, in music.

9 comments to Progress

  • jonturner

    the crazy rock stars of their day – tried to beautify themselves:

    Their faces were painted with compounds of white lead, rice and flour, with washes of quicksilver boiled in water with bismuth

    Lead and mercury in a topical ointment. Seems like a good recipe for madness. So what excuse do our current divas have for their foolishness?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Brian, well said on the case for progress. A few weeks ago, a commenter — now banned from this site — tried to argue that a poor person in a Brazilian favela could be as happy as a bored millionaire. It staggers and appals me to read such drivel and similar nonsense, written I’d guess from those who have no idea of what poverty really was like.

    Take another example from the 18th Century — life aboard ship. At the Trafalgar celebrations last year, I went on HMS Victory and tried to imagine what it would have been like to live in such a cramped place with more than 800 souls, without the comforts of hot and cold showers, fresh food, clean clothers, and the like.

    The enemies of progress also ignore another point. If one cannot embrace the idea that Man’s condition can progress, then the opposite is true — one cannot embrace the idea that societies regress, either. But some societies do go backwards, in terms of material comfort, liberty, excitement, manners and artistic achievement.

    Brian, if you want to read more Big Books, I strongly recommend Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Trilogy. First class, and covers a lot of the ground you mention.

  • veryretired

    One of the truly negative consequences of the utter failure of the school system to teach any coherent history of the world and, specifically, Western civilization, is the inability of many people who grow up in what would be considered by most of our ancestors as heaven on earth to comprehend the enormous gift that has been given to them.

    It has been one of my standard speeches to my own children that they cannot imagine the arduous nature of life a few centuries ago. No medical knowledge or facilities as we understand them, no communications, little chance for education, a diet consisting of what can be grown within a few days journey, and preserved with methods we now consider strange and exotic.

    I once led a couple of the kids around the house, after first explaining that our house itself would have been much smaller, dirtier, and filled with bugs, to point out the many things that simply would not be there if it was 1680 or 1780 instead of the 1980’s.

    I think they started to understand as I systematically abolished the central, natural gas furnace and air conditioner in the basement, the electricity, the telephone, the fridge, the dishwasher, the running water and water heater, the indoor toilets and sewage outlets, all their electronics, most of their books, most of their clothes, their shoes, their private rooms, etc. etc.

    As I said in another context, ordinary middle class people alive today in an anglospheric culture live lives that would be the envy of past emperors and kings, with powers and freedoms they could only dream about, and medical and scientific advantages that would be considered magical products of witchcraft.

    Instead of the guilt now inculcated in our youth by the multiculturist fantasy world they are immersed in from kindergarden, our future would be better served by the transmission of a sense of wonder and gratitude at the incredible effort that went into the developments that undergird our modern life, and a respect for the dangers that the incoherent and non-scientific mysticism so rampant in the world presents to any and all of those accomplishments.

    It is no accident that the favorite “boogeyman” of the reactionary 19th century was the “mad scientist”, and the favorite “suspect” of the 20th was, and is, a businessman trying to make a living. Both figures are anathema to those whose only real desire is to control people, not nature or commerce.

  • James of England

    One regularly comes across people who believe that progress is possible, but the west isn’t progressing. I was in a class on the NAFTA last year where a majority of the students, a plurality of whom were wanting to work in corporate law (just beating out human rights), believed that the average American was no wealthier today than in the early 60s. They did concede that there had been some technological progress. I came across a commenter today on DanielDrezner.com, a great political and economic blog, who was arguing that US consumption had not increased since 1980. No one challenged this.

    There can never be enough posts like this. Thank you.

  • Nick M


    Brilliant post. The richest kings of the past might’ve had diamonds by the roomful, but they couldn’t hop on a plane and cross the Atlantic in 7 hours.

    I’ll just add that I think one of the major reasons why the “sense of wonder” you mentioned isn’t passed down as well as it might be is a lack of technical and scientific education. I am continually surprised by the number of people who consider themselves educated who have absolutely no idea how anything works.

    This, of course, is not the case in India and China…

  • Andrew duffin

    Excellent post, Brian, thank you.

    Whenever anyone tells me that progress is a chimera and that people were just as happy in (fill in fictional golden era of your choice), I can demolish their argument in one word – just one:


  • Paul Marks

    As you know I great writer on how civilization developed (especially on good and bad development of cities) was Jane Jacobs – I was sad to hear of her death.

    The lady was not always “on our side” (i.e. Jane Jacobs was not a “card carrying” libertarian) but she had a healthy contempt for government schemes and robust good sense.

  • Nick M

    Andrew Duffin,
    Well, there’s always been dentistry of a sort and the current type practised by the NHS in the UK has a certain medieval charm, but you do hit a nerve…


    Nobody in the civilised world in the last 150-ish years has wanted to contemplate life without them.

  • It is possible to drive out to the local airport and get on a plane – in my case, in Tallahassee, Florida – ride eight hours and find oneself in the Middle Ages. Ethiopia, Yemen, Paraguay, Mongolia, Burma (Myanmar) – all have execrable governments and cultures. Darn it, France isn’t all that good. I did just that to visit my sister in Cairo, Egypt, (not Georgia!) five years ago and found myself touring the local dump, where 400,000 people lived.
    Modernity and health and freedom start with philosophy. The weird thing is that Christianity, which we all have been brainwashed into thinking of as the root of all evil, is actually better than any other widespread culture, if you care at all about how many babies survive infancy and how many individuals discover their particular genius. The worst thing in the world is “tolerance” for death and dirt and misery.