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The Idea of Progress

Ian Taylor

It would seem almost ludicrous to ask the question, has mankind made progress since his appearance on this planet? The advance of technology is now so rapid that everyone can remember how things used to be: laborsaving in the home, ease of transportation and the wonders of communication, come to mind. The answer is, of course, in the affirmative. Or is it? Most people give the matter little thought and when pressed will say, It should be perfectly obvious that mankind has come a long way from the cave. If the topic of conversation should continue beyond this point the initial question will be met with, what do you mean by progress? And here, as with the Greek philosophers who asked the same question, the reply has to be that nebulous and quite unscientific word, "happiness." Philosophers and especially historians have been asking these questions and generally conclude that invention does not guarantee happiness.

The idea of progress - the belief that mankind has advanced in the past, is now advancing, and will inevitably advance in the foreseeable future - is a peculiarly Western faith with a long history and, it turns out, a doubtful future. We will take a brief look at the idea of progress over the past 2,800 years and then look at some evidences that are not normally brought into the discussion.

The Greek farmer/philosopher, Hesiod, living in the 8th century B.C. was one of the earliest to comment on the idea of progress while, of course, the biblical record goes back at least another thousand years but says nothing of progress; quite the contrary, it seems to imply regression. In his Works and Days, Hesiod (1) spoke of a Golden race followed by a Silver race then a Bronze race, next a race of Heroes and finally an Iron race. While Hesiod does not refer to these races as ages the concept has become somehow identified with the paleoarchaeologist's progression of Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. From Hesiod's description of these metallic races we learn that the Golden race was the first created, existed in the time of Kronos and was a race that knew little of the practical arts but excelled in moral probity, peacefulness and general happiness. As progression was made from one metallic race to the next there was a greater and greater inclination to war and injustice. Those of bronze destroyed those of silver and those of iron destroyed those of bronze. Hesiod's sequence of metallic races from a noble metal (gold) to the base metal (iron) is certainly regression but he also relates the story of Prometheus. Prometheus in Greek legend was a Titan who, in defiance of Zeus the tyrant son of Kronos, stole fire from Mount Olympus and enabled man to move from primordial deprivation and fear to eventual civilization. The overall picture is that of regression from a Golden race but there is a suggestion of progression by the innovation provided by Prometheus. Hesiod spoke of it as "some good things mixed with the evils" but his chief theme was the need for justice in a tyrannical age and the need for work. As we shall see, this dual character of good and evil hinted at by Hesiod is indeed the pattern throughout history.

The story of Prometheus told very briefly by Hesiod was made the subject of the tragic play Prometheus Bound by the Greek dramatist, Aeschylus, living in the 5th century B.C. Prometheus was one of the favorite gods of the Greeks and in the play the immortal Titan is condemned by the tyrant, Zeus, to be chained to a desolate rock for all eternity. He was condemned for having given man knowledge, setting him free from fear and ignorance and bringing him into full use of his intelligence. This theme, perhaps more than any other, gave the Greeks a clear faith in the god-given progress of man. Hesiod saw the regression of man from a noble beginning but had hoped that the good life was attainable through man's own efforts and hard work. Aeschylus completely ignored the noble beginning and emphasized man's state of primitive squalor (2).

It would not do to leave the Greeks without mention of Plato. Writing in the 3rd century B.C. he is best known for his Republic and the Dialogues. It is not surprising that Plato's ideas present in these works have had such an effect on Western thinking because Plato's Academy taught his ideas for over 900 years! The Republic has since become the humanist credo but it is in the Dialogues and the sub-section, Protagoras, that Plato records the conversation between Socrates and fellow philosopher Protagoras. Historians generally agree that Plato has recorded an actual dialogue between two historical characters and here in the Protagoras will be found the creation account where first the animals then men were made from a mixture of earth and fire. By some oversight man was left uncared for and, upon inspection, the demi-god, Prometheus, saw that "man alone was naked and shoeless and had neither bed nor arms of defense"(3). Being compassionate he stole the mechanical arts of Hephaestus and Athene together with the fire that was necessary and gave them to man. Man thus had the knowledge necessary to support life and Protagoras then provided a detailed account of the progress made in culture, arts and sciences. However, as man's lot improved he was at first attacked by the animals and then by warfare among themselves. Zeus looked down and saw that the entire race could be exterminated so he sent Hermes to distribute to all mankind justice and a sense of respect for others. The account is short but Plato develops it in his The Laws and The Statesman and the result has been to establish in the Western mind the thinking that "Man is the measure of all things," that by his own efforts Man has improved his lot immeasurably from the time when he was "naked and shoeless etc."

This then is the Greek background and it will be noted that from the 8th century to the 3rd B.C, the early belief in the regression of man has been turned on its head and now the idea of progress facilitated by means of the mechanical arts has become predominant. Hesiod's initial "Golden race" of moral probity, peace and happiness has virtually disappeared from the picture. We will now look briefly at the thinking of the Early Christians.

The first Christians were, of course, converted Jews and, together with their Greek and later Roman background, introduced the Hebrew thinking of the Old Testament and the fulfillment of those ideas in the New. The Book of Revelation describes a future in which Christ will reign on earth together with His saints for a thousand years. This millennial period was perceived to be an era of restored perfection with superabundant crops and harmony among men and even among the animals. Clearly, going from any point in known history to this Utopia must be progress and thus it was that the early Christians introduced another powerful dimension to the overall belief in progress. The sainted Augustine (4) writing in the 4th century A.D. was probably the most influential of the early Christian writers and powerfully promoted the idea of progress in his The City of God. Among his proposals was the necessity of history. By this he meant that God was an ever-present reality completely in charge of history, nothing happened by chance, fate or the merely fortuitous. Moreover, God's overall plan had been offered to man in the Scriptures. Augustine then divided past history according to Scripture into ages in which could be seen the progression to Christ; he was more cautious about projecting ages into the future. The end-time plan however, given in Scripture, included a time of severe persecution for Christians just prior to the glorious millennium thus giving a mixed "good and evil" message for Christians. Further, since God was good then history would end in the achievement of perfection and the destruction of all that was evil. This was surely progression! Most, however, including Augustine, naturally focused upon the good side and saw this as progress. The essential terms of nearly all utopias since: affluence, security, freedom, peace and justice can be traced back to Augustine. Often, however, there are those who, fully aware of a necessary period of suffering, torment, fire and destruction before the promise of Utopia, have used this God-given prophecy to justify revolution.

By the beginning of the 13th century, the Christian idea of progress as seen from the perspective described above was in full bloom. Then came the technologists, the inventors and by the 15th century, the explorers; each major discovery and invention was seen as progress. Johann Gutenberg's invention of the moveable metal type printing press, about 1447, allowed hundreds of Bibles to be printed and thus more readily available to the common man. Surely, no Christian would deny that this was progress? The early printing press is a perfect example of evil coming together with the good because although hundreds of Bibles were indeed printed so were copies of the Greek works, especially Plato's, and the less than pure works such as, Boccaccio's Decameron. Historian Robert Nisbet (5) has pointed out that the Christian Puritans of the 17th century added another dimension to reinforce the idea of progress towards a glorious Utopia in the distant future. With the proliferation of inventions the Puritans in England emphasized the need to establish the scientific principles involved. The motivation was two-fold: to glorify God by studying His handiwork and to hasten the glorious Utopia by advancing knowledge. While certainly not Puritans, Francis Bacon in England and Rene Descartes working in Holland were most responsible for promoting the scientific method for the advancement of knowledge.

In the great age of exploration from the 15th to the 19th centuries and the discovery of the colored peoples of Africa and America, their perception by white European Christians were that these were degenerate savages and thus by contrast, the Europeans had made more progress. By the time we reach the 19th century and Charles Darwin, the words "progress" and "evolution" had become virtual cognates. Darwin (6) almost always chose the word "savages" to describe the colored people and it was assumed almost without question that they were less evolved than the Europeans. In other words, upward progress was part of the grand assumption inherent in the doctrine of evolution and this assumption, spoken of as fact, gave scientific support to the idea of progress in history.

Another, less than obvious example of evil coming together with good by innovation concerns the introduction of the metric system as a product of the French Revolution. Prior to this time each country, indeed often each city, had its own system of weights and measures that made trade, especially international trade, particularly difficult. Since its mandatory introduction in 1801 virtually every country since, with the exception of the USA, has adopted the system although often less than willingly. The result is that international trade, and today particularly computer-linked commerce, is greatly facilitated but at the same time taking control. Further, as individual governments become the handmaids to multinational corporations, there is a trend to less competition, more control, and less freedom for the smaller countries and the individual. This certainly has all the earmarks of the final world tyranny foretold in the Book of Revelation.

From the earliest records the majority of historians have generally tended to select their evidence to fit their preconceptions and optimistically see only the good that discoveries and inventions have brought about. They thus speak of man's progress in history. However, there have always been a minority who acknowledge that invention has given man comfort, convenience and generally set him free from the drudgery of manual labor. Yet, those same inventions have also permitted man to exercise to an even greater extent his inherently evil nature. It is in this sense that they speak of man's moral regression. Man is still just as capable of murder as those of less civilized times with the difference that today it can be carried out on a far greater scale, and where the victims are very young or very old, can all be perfectly justified and given legal blessing. In the light of modern science, historians today are having second thoughts about progress through science. An interesting example was the discovery of antibiotics. When these were developed more than half a century ago thousands of lives were, and still are, being saved. During the development of antibiotics when say, 99.99% of the bacteria were destroyed by a particular formula, this was then considered to be a commercially viable product. However, that 0.01% of resistant bacteria has now become predominant with the result that many of the former antibiotics are no longer effective and there is a continuing necessity for ever stronger antibiotics. This is a typical good news/bad news situation in science that has caused many historians to question if we really are making progress or has the acquisition of knowledge through science backed us into a corner from which the only possible movement is regression?

It was said earlier that Scripture, the Bible, records history at least another thousand years before the time of Hesiod. In an early passage there is a perfect description of the duality of good and evil that historians have noted and that have been given briefly above. The scene is set in the fabled Garden of Eden, a paradise made for mankind where he could spend his days in peace and in perfect harmony with nature; God had created Adam, and later Eve, in the image of Himself, that is, as two perfect specimens of humanity not only perfect physically but, with perfect memories and without evil thought. God was there to instruct them. The rules were extremely simple and there was only one negative. Adam was told, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat" (Genesis 2:16-17). Eve and Adam disobeyed this one rule and when confronted were quite unrepentant. Humanity has since been living with the consequences. We are not given any further details about the tree while the passage is often misread as: "the tree of the knowledge of good and the knowledge of evil." It does not say this but tells us that the good and the evil come together as a package exactly as we have seen in the examples above. We might well ask if the Golden race and the times of moral probity and so on spoken of by Hesiod are not a memory of this original condition of man? And is the story of Prometheus a little more than insight into the business at the tree? Certainly, almost every advance made through knowledge in history has brought with it both good and evil consequences. But it may be asked, is there any evidence from science that man has fallen from his former pristine perfection? There may well be in the strange problem of the genius.

Genius comes in several forms and history is complete with dozens of famous examples. Usually recognized as the child prodigy the scientists Ampere and Gauss, for example, were both evident at three years of age. The musicians are well represented: Mozart for example had published four sonatas by the age of seven while Liszt, Chopin and Yehudi Menuhin were all public concert performers before they were eleven. One of the chief attributes of the genius is a capacious and very accurate memory.

The Oxford Companion to Chess (7) records the incredible feat of Belgium-born chess master, George Koltanowski (1903-2000) who, in December 1960, played fifty-six chess opponents simultaneously. He won fifty games and drew six while blindfolded throughout this entire nine-hour match! This is a remarkable feat of memory yet from time to time throughout history there have always been such people. The lightning calculator is another form of genius and, as an example, in 1962 Hunter (8) tested professor Alexander Aitken (1895-1967), head of the mathematics department University of Edinburgh, for his well known mathematical abilities. He was given a list of three figure digits and asked to produce their squares; he did so accurately almost instantaneously. He was asked to take the roots of a series of four-figure numbers and did so taking a maximum time of three seconds for each correct answer. Professor Aitken was 77 years old at the time. Examples could be multiplied but the genius remains as a major problem for the theory of evolution and the idea of progress. We often hear in defense that humans use only 10% of their brain capacity and it is argued that the genius uses nearly 100% of their capacity. If this statement is true then whatever evolutionary process is at work somehow knows ahead of time what man's future brain capacity needs to be. It is stretching the bounds of credulity to suggest that genius is the result of some fortuitous genetic mutation but that leaves as the only possible alternative an unusual retention of ancestral brain capacity. God created man in His own image and the genius is living evidence of man's continuing regression from a once noble origin.


1. Lattimore, Richmond, translator. Hesiod.
University of Michigan Press. 1959.
The story of Prometheus: Lines 42-105.
The story of the races: Lines 106-200
The character of the Golden race: Lines 110-126.
The quote “some good things mixed with the evils.” Line 179.

2. Grene, David translator. Prometheus Bound
In: Aeschylus II David Grene ed.
University of Chicago Press, 1956. Lines 442-471.

3. Jowett, B., translator. The Dialogues of Plato.
N.Y. Random House, 2 vols. 1937    
The quote, "… was naked and shoeless etc…"
Vol. 1, Protagoras, line 321.

4. Dods, Marcus, translator. The City of God by Saint Augustine.  
N.Y.: The Modern Library, Random House 1950.
The necessity of history: Book II, part 23.
The division of history:  Books XIII to Book XVIII
The final destruction of evil: Book XX, part 16

5. Nisbet, Robert. History of the Idea of Progress .
N.Y. Basic Books, 1980, p.124.

6. Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man.
London: John Murray, 1871, 2 vols.
Vol 1, Chapters 2ff continual reference to “savages.”

7. Hooper, J. A. & A. Whyld. The Oxford Companion to Chess.
Oxford University Press, 1992,  p.206.

8. Hunter, Ian M. L.  An Exceptional Talent for Calculating Thinking  
British Journal of Psychology  1962, Vol. 53, p. 243-258.