I think the concept of progress has gone through 4 historical stages (each being more prominent in a later era).
The World Regresseth
This belief comes from the ancients. I remember a quote about how insolent the youth have become, how common courtesy is on the decline, ignorance up, and how’s the world going to survive? Only this was by an ancient Roman writer. (Muchos gracias to anyone who can find the quote for me.)
2 interesting examples. In Judaism there’s the concept of yeridah hadorot: each generation has less Torah learning/spirituality than the previous. Thus, the generation of Moses was the loftiest, of Joshua the next-loftiest and so on until the diluted dregs of today. Example 2: many traditional historians considered the Byzantine Empire to largely be the Roman Empire in decline. 1000 years+ us a mighty long time to be in decline!
Seems like people always think the world’s going to shits. This attitude used to be amusing. Today, wishing for “the good old days” is an absolute insult. It spits in the face of millions who’ve died from diseases we laugh off today, of malnutrition that 2/3 of the world has overcome, of victims of the horrendous violence and cruelty of the past.
The Naive View of Progress
This came with the Enlightenment, Reformation, printing press and all that. The view is best summarised by this excerpt from Episode 12 of the Missing Link Podcast (unfortunately no longer running):
Now, there’s an easy bedtime story about the history of marvels, that goes a little something like this:[Medieval-sounding music] “Once upon a time, there lived a lovely princess in a tall tower. Her name was Dark Ages. Dark Ages was a very silly girl. For she believed in things like dragons and unicorns, and true love and rainbows and ponies. Ok, rainbows and ponies are real but my point is that she thought that comets were portains of evil and that she could turn base metals into gold, and she was just…silly, silly, silly. Then, one day, out of the forest emerged a splendid prince on a strapping white stallion. He was the brave prince Enlightenment, who was one day to rule the powerful kingdom of Modern Europe. Using his long…rope…the prince climbed the tall tower and, with a kiss, he freed the princess from the shackles of her superstition. Henceforth she became known as lady Reason, and Europe was freed from the magic spell of irrationality! Forever! And ever! Until, the Nazis came, the end.”
The Relativist Counterstrike
In the late 20th century people began to see history in a new light. And were horrified. Turns out European colonialism brought genocide, not just “progress to the savages”. Plus there were all the Nazi atrocities committed by what just a few years was one of the most “civilised” societies on earth. Something must have gone wrong, people realised.
So progress became a dirty word. To speak of it was chauvinistic, imperialistic, paternalistic. I’ve spoken of the evils of relativism before. Yes, stage 2 (naive progress) was not the correct view. It led millions to violently impose their views on others — views that turned out not to have been that progressive after all. But the main thing going against relativism is that it’s pointless. It can’t be the answer to anything — it takes away the tools to discriminate between possible answers. Within hardcore relativism we can’t ask “what’s next for our society?” Like intelligent design, it has no research program. And I think this has been and is being realised.
A Sane View Of Progress
Still working on this one alas! Perhaps the world’s problems shan’t be solved so quickly — but suggestions are welcome. What would be a sane view of progress?