The modern idea of human progress is an interpretation of history. It involves a synthesis of the past and a prophecy of the future that envisions humankind slowly advancing in a desirable direction.
This desirable direction has to do with creation of a society wherein every person will have the opportunity to develop to the full potential of which each of them are capable. Because it involves an interpretation of history, the idea of progress cannot be proved true or false. Belief in it is an act of faith. Such a faith was not always prevalent.
The subject is a large one. There is economic progressless poverty, higher standards of living; social progressmore personal freedom, better health, less discrimination; technological progressinventions, processes and techniques that make life easier and richer. Modern human progress would include all of these and more.
A large proportion of the industrialized world expects, short of a cataclysm, that their children will live happier and better lives and that human knowledge and power will increase over the long run. Emergence of this idea was due to accumulation of economic surplus, increase in social mobility and major inventions that increased human power over nature. But over and above these, the idea of progress is a response to emergence of organized scientific inquiry, an increase in the understanding of the world.
The ancients and
The ancients did not form the idea of progress because they did not see it.
1. They had little recorded history.
2. There was no apparent increase in knowledge or growth in the mastery of nature.
3. They saw no change in the conditions of life.
4. They idealized the unchanging - it had a higher value than that which changed.
5. Because men in their anxiety over current problems always tend to
believe in the good old days when life was supposedly simpler and
better, some of the ancients felt they were living in a period of degeneration and decay. The Golden Age was in the past.
6. History seemed to others of them like a series of cycles good time, bad times alternating forever. That which was is that which will be and there is nothing new under the sun.
The Middle Ages and progress
In the Middle Ages the dominant world-view was incompatible with the idea of progress in this world. The movement of history and the purpose of the world were to secure the happiness of a select portion of the human race in another world. No further development of human history on earth was necessary. In Europe in the Middle Ages it was believed that the world could come to an end anytime. The religious doctrine of original sin was an obstacle to moral progress for if every child born is naturally evil and worthy of punishment moral perfection of humanity as whole is impossible.
But Christian theology, in a sense, was forward looking because for the first time an attempt was made to give a definite meaning to the whole course of human events. The concept of the past leading toward a desirable future goal was established.
The Renaissance (l4th-l7th cent.) and progress In the Renaissance, two developments of the human mind made belief in progress possible:
restored in human reason.
2. Life on earth recognized as having value independent of connection with the hereafter.
Still at same time, many Renaissance thinkers looked on their age as a degenerate one. In art, literature, science and philosophical thought the ancient Greeks seemed superior. The ancient minds were deemed better than present minds and the authority of the past ruled. Old authority was considered superior to present observation. Under such circumstances, no true idea of progress was possible.
The Copernican revolution and the dawn of new ideas
It began with the realization intellectual discoveries of the day were as good or better than those of the past. Ancient authority could be rejected and new discoveries changed the world. The compass, the printing press, gunpowder, industry, mathematical laws showed that the modern age was not inferior to the age of classical antiquity and might even be better.
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote that knowledge is power and proposed that its proper aim was the betterment of human life. To work to establish human reign over nature was desirable and possible.
The idea of progress as a reaction
When the earth lost its privileged position in space and man lost his role as the prime actor on the universes center stage something was needed to repair his self-esteem. Stripped of his cosmic pretensions, and finding himself lost in the immensities of space, he invented a more modest theory of his destiny confined to his own little earth. The 18th century radicals developed a theory of progress based on the perfectibility of man and his political freedom. The American and French revolutions developed and solidified the idea of progress.
The industrial revolution and increasing rate of change
The advance of science and the series of technical inventions it spawned, the use of steam and electrical energy, seemed to promise unlimited improvement. This was not so apparent to the new population of factory workers. Some saw a moral advance with the abolition of slavery.
The Darwinian revolution and the idea of progress (see subtopic The Idea of Progress)
The theory of evolution shocked some as a second degradation of humans from their special place in the universe but it was the decisive fact that established the reign of the idea of progress. The theory of evolution is a neutral scientific concept. When applied to human societies it does not necessarily mean movement of humankind toward a desirable goal and any species can become extinct nevertheless progressive development in time seemed scientifically established.
Until the First World War, continuous progress in many directions was observed and belief in the idea became part of the general mental outlook of educated people. History itself became evolutionary. All things that changed were influenced by the idea of progressive development. But the advent of modern warfare, nuclear weapons, overpopulation, exhaustion of natural resources and environmental pollution brought some to think that technical progress might be a mixed blessing.
People see some technological and intellectual progress in the world but happiness seems to be elusive. Many see no meaning in life. If optimism about mans future fades, does only enjoyment of today remain? Many see no moral or social progress. They are haunted by the fear that human behavior and social organization is founded not on rational thought, which progresses, but on feeling and instinct, which hardly change from century to century. They fear that there is and always will be a failure to change growing knowledge into greater happiness and more lasting peace. They are afraid that the madness of war and greed and lust for power will always plague humankind.
Progress as increase in human freedom
Increasingly throughout the world the attainment of more freedom is looked on as evidence of progress in human affairs. The elements of such progress are:
- those changes that tend to release humans from the domination of nature both in their surroundings and in their animal makeup
- those artifacts, institutions and ideas that extend human beings' control over their own fates
- those conditions that permit the development of human potentialities and an increase in the capacity of choice.
Modern intellectual life is strongly based on the idea of human perfectibility, and on the idea of progress in human affairs. It must be acknowledged that the movement known as progress may not be uniform. That there may be a decade or a generation when the movement slows down or loses ground yet the faith remains that the slow painful ascent of man from the hairless ape of the savanna to the star-gazer will continue.