The Idea of Progress eBook

J.B. Bury
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 354 pages of information about The Idea of Progress.

This feeling or attitude was connected with the idea of Moira.  If we were to name any single idea as generally controlling or pervading Greek thought from Homer to the Stoics, [Footnote:  The Stoics identified Moira with Pronoia, in accordance with their theory that the universe is permeated by thought.] it would perhaps be Moira, for which we have no equivalent.  The common rendering “fate” is misleading.  Moira meant a fixed order in the universe; but as a fact to which men must bow, it had enough in common with fatality to demand a philosophy of resignation and to hinder the creation of an optimistic atmosphere of hope.  It was this order which kept things in their places, assigned to each its proper sphere and function, and drew a definite line, for instance, between men and gods.  Human progress towards perfection—­towards an ideal of omniscience, or an ideal of happiness, would have been a breaking down of the bars which divide the human from the divine.  Human nature does not alter; it is fixed by Moira.


We can see now how it was that speculative Greek minds never hit on the idea of Progress.  In the first place, their limited historical experience did not easily suggest such a synthesis; and in the second place, the axioms of their thought, their suspiciousness of change, their theories of Moira, of degeneration and cycles, suggested a view of the world which was the very antithesis of progressive development.  Epicurean, philosophers made indeed what might have been an important step in the direction of the doctrine of Progress, by discarding the theory of degeneration, and recognising that civilisation had been created by a series of successive improvements achieved by the effort of man alone.  But here they stopped short.  For they had their eyes fixed on the lot of the individual here and now, and their study of the history of humanity was strictly subordinate to this personal interest.  The value of their recognition of human progress in the past is conditioned by the general tenor and purpose of their theory of life.  It was simply one item in their demonstration that man owed nothing to supernatural intervention and had nothing to fear from supernatural powers.  It is however no accident that the school of thought which struck on a path that might have led to the idea of Progress was the most uncompromising enemy of superstition that Greece produced.

It might be thought that the establishment of Roman rule and order in a large part of the known world, and the civilising of barbarian peoples, could not fail to have opened to the imagination of some of those who reflected on it in the days of Virgil or of Seneca, a vista into the future.  But there was no change in the conditions of life likely to suggest a brighter view of human existence.  With the loss of freedom pessimism increased, and the Greek philosophies of resignation were needed more than ever.  Those whom they could not satisfy turned their thoughts to new mystical philosophies and religions, which were little interested in the earthly destinies of human society.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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