The Idea of Progress eBook

J.B. Bury
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 296 pages of information about The Idea of Progress.


It may, in particular, seem surprising that the Greeks, who were so fertile in their speculations on human life, did not hit upon an idea which seems so simple and obvious to us as the idea of Progress.  But if we try to realise their experience and the general character of their thought we shall cease to wonder.  Their recorded history did not go back far, and so far as it did go there had been no impressive series of new discoveries suggesting either an indefinite increase of knowledge or a growing mastery of the forces of nature.  In the period in which their most brilliant minds were busied with the problems of the universe men might improve the building of ships, or invent new geometrical demonstrations, but their science did little or nothing to transform the conditions of life or to open any vista into the future.  They were in the presence of no facts strong enough to counteract that profound veneration of antiquity which seems natural to mankind, and the Athenians of the age of Pericles or of Plato, though they were thoroughly, obviously “modern” compared with the Homeric Greeks, were never self-consciously “modern” as we are.


The indications that human civilisation was a gradual growth, and that man had painfully worked his way forward from a low and savage state, could not, indeed, escape the sharp vision of the Greeks.  For instance, Aeschylus represents men as originally living at hazard in sunless caves, and raised from that condition by Prometheus, who taught them the arts of life.  In Euripides we find a similar recognition of the ascent of mankind to a civilised state, from primitive barbarism, some god or other playing the part of Prometheus.  In such passages as these we have, it may be said, the idea that man has progressed; and it may fairly be suggested that belief in a natural progress lay, for Aeschylus as well as for Euripides, behind the poetical fiction of supernatural intervention.  But these recognitions of a progress were not incompatible with the widely-spread belief in an initial degeneration of the human race; nor did it usually appear as a rival doctrine.  The old legend of a “golden age” of simplicity, from which man had fallen away, was generally accepted as truth; and leading thinkers combined it with the doctrine of a gradual sequence of social and material improvements [Footnote:  In the masterly survey of early Greek history which Thucydides prefixed to his work, he traces the social progress of the Greeks in historical times, and finds the key to it in the increase of wealth.] during the subsequent period of decline.  We find the two views thus combined, for instance, in Plato’s Laws, and in the earliest reasoned history of civilisation written by Dicaearchus, a pupil of Aristotle. [Footnote:  Aristotle’s own view is not very clear.  He thinks that all arts, sciences, and institutions have been repeatedly, or rather an infinite number

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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