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.
of times (word in Greek) discovered in the past and again lost.  Metaphysics, xi. 8 ad fin.; Politics, iv. 10, cp. ii. 2.  An infinite number of times seems to imply the doctrine of cycles.] But the simple life of the first age, in which men were not worn with toil, and war and disease were unknown, was regarded as the ideal State to which man would lie only too fortunate if he could return.  He had indeed at a remote time ill the past succeeded in ameliorating some of the conditions of his lot, but such ancient discoveries as fire or ploughing or navigation or law-giving did not suggest the guess that new inventions might lead ultimately to conditions in which life would be more complex but as happy as the simple life of the primitive world.

But, if some relative progress might be admitted, the general view of Greek philosophers was that they were living in a period of inevitable degeneration and decay—­inevitable because it was prescribed by the nature of the universe.  We have only an imperfect knowledge of the influential speculations of Heraclitus, Pythagoras, and Empedocles, but we may take Plato’s tentative philosophy of history to illustrate the trend and the prejudices of Greek thought on this subject.  The world was created and set going by the Deity, and, as his work, it was perfect; but it was not immortal and had in it the seeds of decay.  The period of its duration is 72,000 solar years.  During the first half of this period the original uniformity and order, which were impressed upon it by the Creator, are maintained under his guidance; but then it reaches a point from which it begins, as it were, to roll back; the Deity has loosened his grip of the machine, the order is disturbed, and the second 36,000 years are a period of gradual decay and degeneration.  At the end of this time, the world left to itself would dissolve into chaos, but the Deity again seizes the helm and restores the original conditions, and the whole process begins anew.  The first half of such a world-cycle corresponds to the Golden Age of legend in which men lived happily and simply; we have now unfortunately reached some point in the period of decadence.

Plato applies the theory of degradation in his study of political communities. [Footnote:  Plato’s philosophy of history.  In the myth of the Statesman and the last Books of the Republic.  The best elucidation of these difficult passages will be found in the notes and appendix to Book viii. in J. Adam’s edition of the Republic (1902).] He conceives his own Utopian aristocracy as having existed somewhere towards the beginning of the period of the world’s relapse, when things were not so bad, [Footnote:  Similarly he places the ideal society which he describes in the Critias 9000 years before Solon.  The state which he plans in the Laws is indeed imagined as a practicable project in his own day, but then it is only a second-best.  The ideal state of which Aristotle sketched an outline (Politics, iv. v.) is not set either in time or in place.] and exhibits its gradual deterioration, through the successive stages of timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and despotism.  He explains this deterioration as primarily caused by a degeneration of the race, due to laxity and errors in the State regulation of marriages, and the consequent birth of biologically inferior individuals.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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