The Mystery of Progress
By Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov, 1897.
Note: this translation was originally published on my blog. I am republishing it here as I think Solovyov’s understanding of the meaning of tradition is very important. Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov was a 19th century Russian philosopher, theologian and literary critic.
Do you know this tale?
A hunter was lost in a deep forest; tired, he sat down on a rock above a wide, turbulent stream. He sat there staring into the dark depth, listening to a woodpecker drumming and drumming into the bark of a tree. And the hunter’s soul grew heavy. “I’m lonely in my life, like in a forest,” he pondered, “I’ve strayed from the path a long time ago onto the various little trails, and there’s no way out for me from these wanderings. Loneliness, languor, and death! Why was I born, why did I come to this forest? What do I gain from killing all these beasts and birds?” It was then that someone touched his shoulder. He saw a hunchbacked old woman standing before him, the sort that typically appear on such occasions—very, very thin, and of the same color as a stale carob or a dirty boot. Her eyes were sullen, two wisps of gray hair were sticking out of her cleft chin, and yet she was clothed in a rich dress, though a very old one—only rags. “Listen, young man, there’s a little place on the other side—a pure paradise! Get there and you’ll forget all your sorrows. You’ll never find the way on your own, but I’ll lead you straight there—I myself am from those parts. Only carry me over to the other side, or else how would I cross the stream? I can hardly move my legs as I am, already one foot in the grave, but to die—ah, I really don’t want to!” The young hunter was kindhearted. Although he did not at all believe the old woman’s words about the paradisiacal place, and the idea of fording the swollen stream was not very attractive, not to mention that having to carry an old woman would not be very flattering, still he took a look at her—she was taken by a fit of coughing and was all trembling. “The ancient one,” he thought, “shouldn’t have to perish! She’s probably over a hundred years old, how many burdens she must have carried in her time—one has to offer her some effort in turn.” “Well, old lady, climb up and pull your bones in, or else you’ll fall to pieces—and then no one will be able to gather them in the water.” She clambered up on his shoulders and he felt such a terrible weight that it seemed to him that he lifted up a whole coffin with a deceased inside—he could hardly take a step. “Well,” he thought, “it would be embarrassing to turn back now!” He stepped into the water and all of a sudden the weight felt lighter, and it grew lighter and lighter with every step. And he sees a vision of something unrealized. But he is walking straight ahead, he is looking ahead. And when he reached the other side, he glanced back: instead of the old woman he saw hugging onto him a woman of untold beauty, a real tsar-maiden. And she led him to her native land, and he no longer complained of loneliness, no longer hurt beasts and birds, and no longer searched for a path in the forest.
Everybody knows some variant of this tale, I knew it from childhood, but it is only today that I felt in it a meaning that was not at all a fairytale one. The modern man, in his hunt for transient goods and ephemeral fantasies, has lost the right path of life. Before him is the dark, uncontrollable stream of life. Time, like the woodpecker, is mercilessly counting off his lost moments. Loneliness and melancholy, and ahead—darkness and death. But behind him stands sacred old tradition—oh! in what unattractive forms—but what of it? Let him think only about that which he owes her; let him honor her gray hair with an inner movement of his heart, let him pity her feebleness, let him feel ashamed to reject her because of this appearance. Instead of idly looking for spectral fairies beyond the clouds, let him put some effort into carrying this sacred burden of the past across the actual stream of history. For this, after all, is his only way out from his wanderings—the only one, because any other way would be insufficient, unkind, and impious: the ancient one should not have to perish!
The modern man does not believe the tale, he does not believe that the decrepit old woman will turn into a tsar-maiden. He does not believe it—and all the better for it! What good is belief in a future reward when one has to earn it with real effort and selfless deed? Those who do not believe in the future of the old shrine must still remember its past. Why should he not carry it from a reverence for its great age, from a pity for its decline, from a shame of being ungrateful. Blessed are the believers: still standing on this side they can already see from beneath the wrinkles of decrepitude the glimmer of eternal beauty. But even those who do not believe in the future transformation also have a something to gain—unexpected joy. For those and for the others the work is the same; to march forward, having taken upon oneself the full burden of the past.
If you want to be the man of the future, modern man, do not leave behind in the smoky ruins the father Anchises and the native gods.1 They needed a devout hero to carry them over to Italy, but only they could give him a tribe, and Italy, and dominion over the world. And our sacredness is more powerful than that of Troy, and our path with it leads further than Italy and the whole of the earthly world. The savior will be saved. This is the mystery of progress—there is and will be no other.
Translator’s Note: In Greek mythology, Anchises is the father of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who, after the fall of Troy, carries him out of the burning city and takes him with him on his journey to Italy. This journey is immortalized in Virgil’s Aeneid.