Is Progress Real?
an essay from The Lessons of History by the Durants + commentary and critique
I couldn't find the essay “Is Progress Real?” by the historians Will and Ariel Durant (The Lessons of History, 1968) anywhere on the internet so here I am now, posting it on the internet. I think it's a classic, short but filled with provoking ideas and beautiful prose and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that no one writes like this anymore.
Afterwards, I offer some commentary on the essay and make a devastating criticism of the idea of progress (a death blow, really). Enjoy.
Against this panorama of nations, morals, and religions rising and falling, the idea of progress finds itself in dubious shape. Is it only the vain and traditional boast of each "modern'" generation? Since I have admitted 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 by the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars. One of the discouraging discoveries of our disillusioning century 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. How inadequate now seems the proud motto of Francis Bacon, "Knowledge is power"! Sometimes we feel 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 locomotion, 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 are the same trousered apes at two thousand miles an hour as when we had legs. We applaud the cures and incisions of modern medicine if they bring no side effects worse than the malady; we appreciate the assiduity of our physicians in their mad race with the resilience of microbes and the inventiveness of disease; we are grateful for the added years that medical science gives us if they are not a burden—some prolongation of illness, disability, and gloom. We have multiplied a hundred 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 skilled workingmen and the middle class, but we have allowed our cities to fester with dark ghettos and slimy slums.
We frolic in our emancipation from theology, but have we developed a natural ethic—a moral code independent of religion—strong enough to keep our instincts of acquisition, pugnacity, and sex from debasing our civilization into a mire of greed, crime, and promiscuity? Have we really outgrown intolerance, or merely transferred it from religious to national, ideological, or racial hostilities? Are our manners better than before, or worse? "Manners," said a nineteenth- century traveler, "get regularly worse as you go from the East to the West; it is bad in Asia, not so good in Europe, and altogether bad in the western states of America". And now the East imitates the West. Have our laws offered the criminal too much protection against society and the state? Have we given ourselves more freedom than our intelligence can digest? Or are we nearing such moral and social disorder that frightened parents will run back to Mother Church and beg her to discipline their children, at whatever cost to intellectual liberty? Has all the progress of philosophy since Descartes been a mistake through its failure to recognize the role of myth in the consolation and control of man? "Does that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow, and in much wisdom is much grief?"
Has there been any progress at all in philosophy since Confucius? Or in literature since Aeschylus? Are we sure that our music, with its complex forms and powerful orchestras, is more profound than Palestrina, or more musical and inspiring than the monodic airs that medieval Arabs sang to the strumming of their simple instruments? (Edward Lane said of the Cairo musicians, "I have been more charmed with their songs...than with any other music that I have ever enjoyed.") How does our contemporary architecture—bold, original, and impressive as it is—compare with the temples of ancient Egypt or Greece, or our sculpture with the statues of Chephren and Hermes, or our bas-reliefs with those of Persepolis or the Parthenon, or our paintings with those of the van Eycks or Holbein? If "the replacement of chaos with order is the essence of art and civilization," is contemporary painting in America and Western Europe the replacement of order with chaos, and a vivid symbol of our civilization's relapse into confused and structureless decay?
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 how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable; there is a 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. Is a more objective definition possible? We shall here define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life. It is a test that may hold for the lowliest organism as well as for man.
We must not demand of progress that it should be continuous or universal. Obviously there are retrogressions, just as there are 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 progressing and some were declining, as Russia progresses and England loses ground today. The same nation may be progressing in one field of human activity and retrogressing in another, as America is now progressing in technology and receding in the graphic arts. If we find that the type of genius prevalent in young countries like America and Australia tends to the practical, inventive, scientific, executive kinds rather than to the painter of pictures or poems, the carver of statues or words, we must understand that each age and place needs and elicits some types of ability rather than others in its pursuit of environmental control. We should not compare the work of one land and time with the winnowed best of all the collected past. Our 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 diseases 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 thousands, millions have reached mental and moral levels rarely found among primitive men. Under the complex strains of city life we sometimes take imaginative refuge in the supposed simplicity of pre-civilized ways, but in our less romantic moments we know that this is a flight reaction from our actual tasks, and that the idolizing of savages, like many other young moods, is an impatient expression of adolescent maladaptation, of conscious ability not yet matured and comfortably placed. The "friendly and flowing savage" would be delightful but for his scalpel, his insects, and his dirt. A study of surviving primitive tribes reveals their high rate of infantile mortality, their short tenure of life, their lesser stamina and speed, their greater susceptibility to disease.: If the prolongation of life indicates better control of the environment, then the tables of mortality proclaim the advance of man, for longevity in European and American whites has tripled in the last three centuries. Some time ago a convention of morticians discussed the danger threatening their industry from the increasing tardiness of men in keeping their rendezvous with death. But if undertakers are miserable progress is real.
In the debate between ancients and moderns it is not at all clear that the ancients carry off the prize. Shall we count it a trivial achievement that famine has been eliminated in modern states, and that one country can now grow enough food to overfeed itself and yet send hundreds of millions of bushels of wheat to nations in need? Are we ready to scuttle the science that has so diminished superstition, obscurantism, and religious intolerance, or the technology that has spread food, home ownership, comfort, education, and leisure beyond any precedent? Would we really prefer the Athenian agora or the Roman comitia to the British Parliament or the United States Congress, or be content under a narrow franchise like Attica's, or the selection of rulers by a praetorian guard? Would we rather have lived under the laws of the Athenian Republic or the Roman Empire than under constitutions that give us habeas corpus, trial by jury, religious and intellectual freedom, and the emancipation of women? Are our morals, lax though they are, worse than those of the ambisexual Alcibiades, or has any American President imitated Pericles, who lived with a learned courtesan? Are we ashamed of our great universities, our many publishing houses, our bountiful public libraries? There were great dramatists in Athens, but was any greater than Shakespeare, and was Aristophanes as profound and humane as Molière? Was the oratory of Demosthenes, Isocrates, and Aeschines superior to that of Chatham, Burke, and Sheridan? Shall we place Gibbon below Herodotus or Thucydides: Is there anything in ancient prose fiction comparable to the scope and depth of the modern novel? We may grant the superiority of the ancients in art, though some of us might still prefer Notre Dame de Paris to the Parthenon. If the Founding Fathers of the United States could return to America, or Fox and Bentham to England, or Voltaire and Diderot to France, would they not reproach us as ingrates for our blindness to our good fortune in living today and not yesterday—not even under Pericles or Augustus?
We should not be greatly disturbed by the probability that our civilization will die like any other. As Frederick asked his retreating troops at Kolin, "Would you live forever?" Perhaps it is desirable that life should take fresh forms, that new civilizations and centers should have their turn. Meanwhile the effort to meet the challenge of the rising East may reinvigorate the West.
We have said that a great civilization does not entirely die—non omnis moritur. 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, and 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 education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing. Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we would be savages again. So our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all. Once colleges were luxuries, designed for the male half of the leisure class; today universities are so numerous that he who runs may become a Ph.D. We may not have excelled the selected geniuses of antiquity, but we have raised the level and average of knowledge beyond any age in history.
None but a child will complain that our teachers have not yet eradicated the errors and superstitions of ten thousand years. The great experiment has just begun, and it may yet be defeated by the high birth rate of unwilling or indoctrinated ignorance. But what would be the full fruitage of instruction if every child should be schooled till at least his twentieth year, and should find free access to the universities, libraries, and museums that harbor and offer the intellectual and artistic treasures of the race? Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man's understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.
The heritage that we can now more fully transmit is richer than ever before. It is richer than that of Pericles, for it includes all the Greek flowering that followed him; richer than Leonardo's, for it includes him and the Italian Renaissance; richer than Voltaire's, for it embraces all the French Enlightenment and its ecumenical dissemination. If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art makes as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.
History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage, progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man's follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.
My favorite parts: “trousered apes”, “We frolic in our emancipation from theology”, “But if undertakers are miserable progress is real.”, “They are the connective tissue of human history.”, “Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we would be savages again.”, and the last paragraph <3. As someone who has been spent so much of his life in schools (master’s degree in biology, 6 years as a high school teacher) but often gets very cynical and depressed about the state of modern education (and research), I find the final section tremendously uplifting and inspiring. Despite all that is dreadful about schools and the whole soul-sucking system, there is something grand, something beautiful and glorious, dare I say holy, in the act of passing knowledge on to the next generation (and we would all do well to remember that).
“Paul Klee’s friend Walter Benjamin, a noted German critic and philosopher, purchased the print in 1921. In September 1940 Benjamin committed suicide during an attempt to flee the Nazi regime. After World War II, Benjamin's friend Gershom Scholem, a distinguished scholar of Jewish mysticism, inherited the drawing. According to Scholem, Benjamin felt a mystical identification with the Angelus Novus and incorporated it in his theory of the “angel of history,” a melancholy view of historical process as an unceasing cycle of despair. In the ninth thesis of his 1940 essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Benjamin describes Angelus Novus as an image of the angel of history:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
“By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”
I like science. I like technology. I like progress. I think progress is good. I think suffering is bad. I think we should try to reduce it.
But there is still some part of me that just revolts at any glorification or emphasis of “progress”, and there is another part of me that feels like progress studies is fundamentally misguided, if not actively counter-productive. Maybe some time in the future I’ll write a lengthy anti-progress treatise, but for now here are a few brief objections and reflections. I probably believe about 61% of what follows and I’m guessing that slightly less than that 61% of it makes any kind of sense.
I’m skeptical about how beneficial it is to talk of progress and to directly aim to study it. I’ve written about this before. From “20 Modern Heresies”:
“Progress Studies is a waste of time. Most of what we have learned and could even possibly learn is either obvious (we already have good intuition about what policies and organizational structures stifle creativity and innovation), of highly limited value because it is idiosyncratic to specific domains, cultures, or time periods, or essentially impossible to act on in a meaningful way (scientific/technological ecosystems are so complex that interventions will either be ineffective or actively counterproductive). People who spend their time writing essays about how we can fix science and foster innovation are just trying to make themselves feel better about the fact that they are incapable of making any actual contribution to “progress” (and yes I’m talking about myself here). Progress Studies (and effective altruism and AI safety for that matter) have become so popular because they fill the religion-shaped hole in the hearts of frustrated nerds who are desperately searching for something to make their lives feel meaningful.”
And “Fuck your Miracle Year”:
Look, no one talked about how we can engineer miracle years when
miracle years were actually still happening. This modern obsession with progress is just a sign of our decadence, of our creative exhaustion and inability to innovate in any meaningful way. Einstein wasn’t reading fucking blog posts about geniuses and he definitely wasn’t writing them. He was thinking.
The very rich sense of progress that the Durants espouse is not the way that it is usually discussed today; it is either explicitly or implicitly defined as economic prosperity + the technological advance that enables it (with little or no emphasis on moral and aesthetic advancement or even belief in them). Cowen, the Pope of Progress, boils down the whole human project to “maximize sustainable economic growth while respecting human rights” in his book Stubborn Attachments.
I guess I just don’t think reality or humanity is that simple and that reducing the richness and complexity of the human story to this one magic word ~*progress*~ is like calling forth an egregore that we will quickly (and inevitably) lose control of. I worry that talking and thinking too much about ~*progress*~ will create a kind of species-wide goodharting effect, leading us to aim for something that is a weak imitation of the better-left-unnamed thing that we should really be striving for.
Do not ask whether it is “the Way” to do this or that…If you speak overmuch of the Way you will not attain it.
“Scholem believed that after the Enlightenment, messianism was “secularized as the belief in progress.”…Or as the Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk has written: “The Messiah … is something that flows in your blood, resides in your breath, it is the dearest and most precious human thought: that salvation exists.”
I know I probably shouldn't go there, but fuck it I'm gonna do it anyways… Do you know who else cared a lot about “progress”? Hitler…Adolf Hitler. (Godwin’s law, check)
The Durants admit “no substantial change in man's nature during historic times”. Robin Hanson thinks there is basically no such thing as moral progress and that any supposed progress is due to “our getting richer and safer, or to drift combined with a habit of judging past practices by current standards.”1 Sam Harris thinks that the only thing that matters in ethics are consequences, specifically the consequences for conscious beings— i.e. reducing their suffering and increasing their flourishing (nevermind, he says, the inconvenient fact that the true consequences of one’s action are unknowable across the fullness of spacetime2; see the maddening discussion in his podcast with Erik Hoel)
Again, maybe it's the pathological contrarian in me, but I have to call bullshit on all of this—moral progress does exist, man’s nature has changed and can change again, and morality can not just be reduced down to consequences in consciousness. We are at the Beginning of Infinity (and always will be); this existence is “not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose”. Do we really imagine that our understanding of reality (of consciousness, of morality) is anything but the most hopeless of misunderstandings, something that in hindsight will look like a blunder of an almost unimaginable proportion? Do we really imagine that our descendants will not look back on us and laugh thunderously like gods and demons at our ignorance?
I’m with Beff Jezos here.
Let us achieve our destiny—let our thoughts become universes. Then what? Are we so silly to imagine that this will be the endgame? That there is some way out, around, or through? Are we so foolish to believe that “careful what you wish for” won't apply to omniscience and omnipotence (and infinitely so)?
"We must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible in it. That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called "visions," the whole so-called "spirit-world," death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied.
To say nothing of God.
More from Hanson on moral progress:
Thus each society tends to see its own origin, and the changes which led to its current norms, as enormously important and positive historical events. But if we stand outside any one society and consider the overall sweep of history, we can’t automatically count these as big contributions to long term innovation. After all, the next society is likely to change norms yet again. Most innovation is in accumulating improvements in all those other social institutions.
Now it is true that we have seen some consistent trends in attitudes and norms over the last few centuries. But wealth has also been rising, and having humans attitudes be naturally conditional on wealth levels seems a much better explanation of this fact than the theory that after a million years of human evolution we suddenly learned how to learn about norms. Yes it is good to adapt norms to changing conditions, but as conditions will likely change yet again, we can’t count that as long term innovation.
In sum: most innovation comes in additions to basic human capacities, not in tweaks to those original capacities…To help the future the most, search more for better institutions, less for better norms.
I don't have time to discuss this right now but I just want to let it be known that I disagree standing with all of this and one day will swiftly and completely destroy this position.
Sam Harris’ position will also be swiftly and completely destroyed in due time.