Is Progress Real?

Against the panorama of nations, morals, and religions rising and failing, the idea of progress finds itself in dubious shape.  History presents a strong argument that progress is only the vain and traditional boast of each "modern" generation.

Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body, character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of faith, a unit in an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask what history has to say about the nature, conduct and future prospects of man.

Acknowledging no substantial change in man's nature during historic times, all technological advances will have to be written off as merely new means of achieving old ends - the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.  One of the discouraging discoveries attributable to mankind over the past two centuries is that science is neutral:  it will kill for us as readily as it will heal, and will destroy for us more readily than it can build.  "Knowledge is power," the proud motto of Francis Bacon in 1597, now seems so inadequate.

We can be forgiven the feelings that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than science and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes.  Our progress in science and technique has involved some tincture of evil with good.  Our comforts and conveniences may have weakened our physical stamina and our moral fiber.  We have immensely developed our means of communicating and traveling, but some of us use them to facilitate crime and to kill our fellow men or ourselves.  We double, triple, centuple our speed, but we shatter our nerves in the process, and we are the same trousered apes at two thousand miles an hour as when we had legs.  We have multiplied a thousand times our ability to learn and report the events of the day and the planet, but at times we envy our ancestors, whose peace was only gently disturbed by the news of their village.  We have laudably bettered the conditions of life for the skilled workingmen and middle class, but we have allowed our cities to fester with dark ghettos and slimy slums.

History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances.  Choosing our evidence with a brighter bias, we might evolve some more comforting reflections.  But perhaps we should first define what progress means to us.  If it means increase in happiness its case is lost almost at first sight.  Our capacity for fretting is endless, and no matter of how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable; there is stealthy pleasure in rejecting mankind or the universe as unworthy of our approval.  It seems silly to define progress in terms that would make the average child a higher, more advanced product of life than the adult or the sage - for certainly the child is the happiest of the three.

We must not demand of progress that it should be continuous or universal.  Obviously, there are retrogressions, just as there a periods of failure, fatigue, and rest in a developing individual; if the present stage is an advance in control of the environment, progress is real.  We may presume that at almost any time in history some nations were / are progressing and some are declining as China progresses and the USA loses ground today.  The same nation may be progressing in one field of human activity and retrogressing in another as the evidence of history and nation-states strongly supports.

Our real problem is whether the average man has increased his ability to control the conditions of his life.  If we take a long-range view and compare our modern existence, precarious, chaotic, and murderous as it is, with the ignorance, superstition, violence, and disease of primitive peoples, we do not come off quite forlorn.  The lowliest strata in civilized states may still differ only slightly from barbarians, but above those levels thousand, millions have reached mental and moral levels rarely found among primitive men.

We should not be greatly disturbed by the probability that our civilization will die like any other.  Perhaps it is desirable that life should take fresh forms, that new civilizations and centers should have their turn.

Great civilizations do not entirely die.  Some precious achievements have survived all the vicissitudes of rising and falling states:  the making of fire and light, of the wheel and other basic tools; language, writing, art, and song; agriculture, the family, the parental care; social organization, morality, and charity; and the use of teaching to transmit the lore of the family and the race.  These are the elements of civilization, and they have been tenaciously maintained through the perilous passage from one civilization to the next.  They are the connective tissue of human history.

If one is fortunate they will, before they die, gather up as much as possible of their civilized heritage and transmit it to their children.  And to their final breathe they will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.

Will & Ariel Durant - Excerpts from The Lessons of History