The Faith in Progress

Prophecies tend to be self-fulfilling. The vision of a generation is a strong directive of its future, setting its agenda and influencing its allocation of attention and effort.

Two concepts the modern man accepts readily without question yet alien to ancient civilizations are:

100th Anniversary Boston Marathon (1996). Photo courtesy Philip Greenspun

  1. the idea of progress: that human society would slowly advance in a definite and desirable direction and that this "progress" will continue indefinitely;
  2. technological progress: that a prime mover of such progress would be science and technology that continually develop in power and sophistication.

Both concepts of progress originated in Europe, and constituted the fundamentally Western notions of development and modernity. J.B. Bury was probably the first to argue, not without controversy, that the two concepts were in fact modern innovation, arising to domination in the Enlightenment towards the end of the 17thC.

The modern conception of the future is one of development, emancipation, scientific and technological advancement. A belief in progress has become the dominant faith, whose optimism is anthropocentric - with man in the centre stage continually exploring, manipulating and improving his environment with tools and artifacts to his benefits. Man has crowned himself an agent of change, and technology his apparatus. Tomorrow can only be "better". Stationarity is as damnable as regress. The conservative is surely doomed.

The future, as well as the improvement of the present, has become inseparable from an increasing use of technology. Even literature about the future is dominated by science fictions, as though even our most imaginative writing profession cannot conceive of posterity without futuristic science and technology.

However, if we survey antiquities like ancient Greece or Zhou Dynasty of China when scholars were many and ideas about the human condition were actively developed and debated, the primary concern was either the political institution or the person. The Academy Plato established that lasted for over 900 years was preoccupied with philosophy. Instruction included mathematics, natural sciences and dialectics, and the ideal Greek statesman was a philosopher. For Confucius, it was personal character building and self-cultivation. His "six arts", viz., rituals, music, archery, charioteering, writing, and arithmetic are practical and skills orientated, an MBA of the time.

The Pessimistic Ancient Greek Philosophers

Katmai National Park (Alaska). Photo courtesy Philip Greenspun

The ancient Greek worldview was dominated by the idea of Moira:

"Moira meant a fixed order in the universe; as a fact to which men must bow, it demands a philosophy of resignation and hinders 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."

The Idea of Progress, J. B. Bury

The "Golden Age" they believed in was in the past, when the perfect order was in place, and the present is in a degenerate state. Change, to them, is always for the worst. Furthermore,

"Such [perfect order of a Golden Age], being an embodiment of reason, could be created only by a deliberate and immediate act of a planning mind. It might be devised by the wisdom of a philosopher or revealed by the Deity. Hence the salvation of a community must lie in preserving intact, so far as possible, the institutions imposed by the enlightened lawgiver, since change meant corruption and disaster."

Ibid., J. B. Bury

Star streak. Photo courtesy Philip Greenspun

The natural world was to them where Moira is perfect, and the cyclical order they observed in the seasons, the heavenly bodies and other natural phenomenons convinced them of world-cycles, where human history iterates in rounds, each of which started with a golden age and continued in degeneration.

Nonetheless, the Greek philosophers were keen to study Moira, to know as much as possible the nature of the order in ethics, physical and metaphysical worlds. However, their study was not so much for any improvement of the world than an enjoyment derived from glimpses of the perfect. Talking of Seneca, probably one of the most "progressive" Greek philosophers who did believe in a progress of knowledge, Bury commented that

"The value of natural science, from his point of view, was that it opened to the philosopher a divine region in which, "wandering among the stars," he could laugh at the earth and all its riches and his mind "delivered as it were from prison could return to its original home." In other words, its value lay not in its results, but simply in the intellectual activity; and therefore it concerned not mankind at large but a few chosen individuals who, doomed to live in a miserable world, could thus deliver their souls from slavery."

Ibid., J. B. Bury

Plato's Republic is a purely theoretical portrait of what he considered a perfect order for human society. How it may be arrived at from where they were was irrelevant as humanity was doomed to continual corruption. When he did talk about where and when it was realized, it was a place called Atlantis some thousands of years ago, a Golden Age in the past which had long degenerated and disappeared.

Bury concluded his discussion of the pessimistic ancient Greeks and the ensuing Romans as follows:

"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;

The Minoan Lines ferry from Greece arrives into Venice. Photo courtesy Philip Greenspun

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 ...

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 ... 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."

Ibid., J. B. Bury

The Religious Middle Ages

Christianity dominated Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

According to Bury, its opposition to the Greco-Roman worldview were twofold:

Interior of Rome's Pantheon, built by Hadrian as a temple around AD 120 and converted to a church in the middle ages. Photo courtesy Philip Greenspun

  1. The Judeo-Christian view of the human history as unique and linear, with a beginning and an end, replaced the world-cycles theory.
  2. "The conception of the whole inhabited world as a unity and totality, the idea of the whole human race as one" became widespread. The ecumene or inhabited world, as opposed to the polis or city, is a man's true country.

The Christian doctrines of original sin, Providence and salvation sustained the pessimistic view that this world suffered continual degeneration. The literate minority, many of them churchmen and the illiterate majority, convinced of their sin and condemnation, were in tight grip of the Church and her indoctrination.

The medieval vision of the future was essentially Christian - heaven for the elected few and purgatory for the rest. It was St Augustine, the great thinker of Christian antiquity in the turn of the 4thC who in his masterpiece The City of God defined this vision, in which human history is but confrontation of the divine and the earthly cities. Both the elect and their triumph were predestined:

For Augustine, as for any medieval believer, the course of history would be satisfactorily complete if the world came to an end in his own lifetime. He was not interested in the question whether any gradual amelioration of society or increase of knowledge would mark the period of time which might still remain to run before the day of Judgment. (Ibid., J. B. Bury)

The Christian hope is otherworldly, and the secular history is considered insignificant. Bury took these as evidence for an even deeper pessimism:

Katmai National Park (Alaska). Photo courtesy Philip Greenspun

The conceptions which were entertained of the working of divine Providence, the belief that the world, surprised like a sleeping household by a sudden end, had the same effect as the Greek theories of the nature of change and of recurring cycles of the world. And medieval pessimism as to man's mundane condition was darker and sterner than the pessimism of the Greeks. There was the prospect of happiness in another sphere to compensate, but this, engrossing the imagination, only rendered it less likely that anyone should think of speculating about man's destinies on earth.

Ibid., J. B. Bury

Although Greco-Roman philosophies were considered pagan, the use of reason and logic was highly regarded. In fact, much Greek scholarship was preserved, translated, commented upon and assimilated into Christendom. Early Middle Age Christianity had a strong Platonic flavour, stressing the existence of an ideal, a human soul superior to and independent of the body, knowledge of the Good inborn in the human mind, unreliable sense experience, etc. Christian philosophers like Boethius and St. Augustine were professed Platonists and considered the Platonic philosophy the best available apologetical tool.

If there is one motto of the thousand year long medieval intellectual tradition, it would have been "to join faith with reason".

As medieval intellectuals were preoccupied with spiritual and otherworldly knowledge, they effected a development of fundamental importance in their institutions, the first of which was the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino founded in early 6thC. Erection of such monasteries all over Europe signified the first large scale institutionalization of learning, albeit of a particular and elitist kind (c.f. the popular school system of imperial China).

Scholasticism, as the body of knowledge developed in medieval Christian schools, was a magnificent intellectual enterprise.

Albertus Magnus and his pupil Thomas Aquinas were instrumental in the triumph of Aristotelianism in the 13th century (following the "rediscovery" of Aristotle's' works from the Arabic world in the previous two centuries).

While the Platonic Christian tradition was contemplative and mystic in nature, the more Aristotelian scholastics were diligent in working towards a synthesis of learning in which theology surmounted the hierarchy of all knowledge. The system of learning of scholasticism has in fact proved to be practical and universal with:

Accumulation of knowledge in library. Photo courtesy Philip Greenspun

  1. the institutionalization of learning in monasteries and early universities;
  2. lectures and debates as the primary methods of learning;
  3. the "schoolwork" of organizing, sorting and classifying materials.

Such a system is a powerful means to the accumulation of knowledge. Although still oblivious to the idea of progress, Europe was geared up for its execution with the scholastic tradition that integrated much that came before it.

A critical amount of attention to thisworldly matter was perhaps all that Europe needed to "make progress" in a modern sense.

The Awakening

Polar bear. Photo courtesy Philip Greenspun

The Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, over a period of four centuries, were exciting times for intellectuals as well as commoners. It was a time of emancipation - from religious dogma for intellectuals, and from feudalism for town folks. It was also a time of power shift - in polity from the universal church to the city and nation states, and in economy from landed wealth to commercial wealth. New knowledge about the world - the new world and the heavenly bodies - challenged and overthrew the old. The printing industry allowed literacy and the availability of knowledge to grow explosively. It was a fundamental paradigm shift from the religious to the secular, from otherworldly concerns to thisworldly matters.

"This world" certainly became more interesting to Europeans with the rise of Asiatic trade when oriental spices and other luxury goods came in via land and sea routes from Asia. City-states in Italy such as Venice, Florence and Genoa developed into powerful commercial centres. In such city-states, merchants and their wealthy families were influential and signified the rise of provincial power that rivaled the universal church.

The fall of Byzantium in AD1453 sent many refugees to Italy and brought with them many old Greek manuscripts, including Ptolemy's Geography. With papermaking and printing technologies that came in earlier from China, the map reference was sent to press and reached an international army of navigators. Maps were the high technology product of the time. Together with the mariner's compass, they ushered in an Age of Discovery when navigation was a quick way to wealth and fame in city and nation states. Kings, princes and merchants became patrons for brave navigators like Columbus, da Gama and Magellan.

La Grotta Grande in Florence's Boboli Gardens, which contains casts of Michelangelo's Four Prisoners, among other treasures. Photo courtesy Philip Greenspun

A host of wealthy and powerful patronage to various arts led also to a large population of artists and craftsmen. Religious subject matters, such as churches, paintings and sculptures of biblical scenes, were of course dominant. Something long since the Roman time had declined was revived - personal portraits. The demand from patronage was primarily display of wealth and power and nothing told the story better than a painting of the patron in elaborate clothings and majestic settings.

Renaissance art is applied art and is in fact closer to science and technology than fine arts of our time in its being a means to exploring the physical world and recording visual experiences. Renaissance painting is almost like today's graphics rendering technology with its preoccupation of techniques and realism. The focus of attention was the physical world and its content. The Renaissance artists managed to produce some of the best scientific drawings of plants and animals, human anatomy, maps and architectural plans with precision and clarity. Among them were the first draughtsmen, graphics illustrators, and even surveyors.

Another new profession that appeared in answer to political demands for construction and defense projects was civil and military engineering. (One of Leonardo da Vinci's many talents was in fact military engineering and a lesser known achievement of his in this area was in proving wrong Aristotle's theory about the path of a projectile.) As wealth and power became increasingly distributed, conflicts were inevitable. Gunpowder that came in from China was another strategic technology of the time. It was used in destroying fortified castles of the feudal order, threatening the rule of churchmen with its immediate and impressive power. Gunpowder was secular power realized as military strength of city and national states.

Three masterpieces on visions of ideal societies were written within this period. In Utopia, Thomas More was being satirical and his principal concern was condemnation of the corrupt establishment of his time. Although he remained pessimistic, his focus was the present nevertheless. When Campanella wrote the City of the Sun almost a hundred years later, his vision was optimistic, achievable, and downright political, advocating a theocracy on earth. Hailed as an apostle of modern science, Francis Bacon was prophesizing in The New Atlantis a bright future of the humanity with an accumulation of scientific knowledge and mastery over nature for human utility. God was irrelevant to Bacon. Man alone was capable with a methodical approach, like what he described in his other work New Instrument, now known as the Baconian Method.

Glen Canyon Dam (Arizona/Utah border). Photo courtesy Philip Greenspun

Bacon's vision was not only progressive, it was progressive of a particular kind, with scientific knowledge as the driving force. He was well ahead of his contemporaries in the accuracy and the precision of how posterity developed even today. His emphasis on scientific methods, accumulation of knowledge and its application to human ends also provide an important perspective to the paradox of why ancient civilizations - Egypt and China alike - with their impressive scientific and technological achievements never progressed as rapidly as Europe did only in a few centuries.


  1. Bury, J.B. (1920), The Idea of Progress.
  2. Nisber, Robert (1980), History of the Idea of Progress.
  3. Hopper, David H. (1991), Technology, Theology and The Idea of Progress.



  1. Get hold of copies of the five European visionary works mentioned above. (There are links to electronic copies in the following appendix.) Read the beginning, the ending and at least some of the body of each to appreciate the style and the content.
  2. The Western Tradition (videorecording), 1989, WGBH Education Foundation in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Eugen Weber, part 6 - "Greek Thought", part 23 - "The Late Middle Ages".

Assignment - About the Idea of Progress

Write a term paper to analyse the idea of progress. You are encouraged to develop your own writing plan. You may begin with some of the following questions:

  1. What best reflect the degree of technological progress of a society?
  2. What best reflect the degree of progress of a society?
  3. Discuss possibilities of progress in the absence of further technological development.
  4. Is technological progress accelerating the concentration of power, in a privileged few individuals (capitalists) and organizations (e.g. governments) for instance?

Don't forget to give your essay an appropriate title. Refer to the writing guide for further advice on the format.


Analects on Confucius

He was the first person to devote his whole life to learning and teaching for the purpose of transforming and improving society. He believed that all human beings could benefit from self-cultivation. He inaugurated a humanities program for potential leaders, opened the doors of education to all, and defined learning not merely as the acquisition of knowledge but also as character building. ("Confucius and Confucianism: Confucius: The life of Confucius." Britannica Online)

Republic of Plato

Plato develops his plan for a just society by dividing the general population into three classes that correspond to the three parts of man's soul. Thus there are: the statesmen; the general civilian population that provides for material needs; and the executive force (army and police). These three orders correspond respectively to the rational, appetitive, and spirited elements ... In his scheme for the intellectual training of the philosophical rulers, the exact sciences--arithmetic, plane and solid geometry, astronomy, and harmonics--would first be studied for 10 years to familiarize the mind with relations that can only be apprehended by thought. Five years would then be given to the still severer study of "dialectic." (Plato and Platonism: Plato and his thought" Britannica Online)

The City of God of St Augustine

[St Augustine] drew a picture of the "beginnings, course and destined ends" of the two invisible societies of the elect and the damned. Augustine's two cities are ... symbolic embodiment of the two spiritual powers that have contended for allegiance in God creation ever since the fall of the angels--faith and unbelief, "the love of self extending to contempt for God, and the love of God extending to contempt of self." Neither power is embodied in its purity in any earthly institution; in this world the heavenly and earthly cities are inextricably intermingled. If there is a philosophy of history in [the work], it is the religious philosophy of predestination. ("Augustine" Britannica Online)

Utopia of Thomas More

More's Utopia describes a pagan and communist city-state in which the institutions and policies are entirely governed by reason ... Among the topics discussed by More in Utopia were penology, state-controlled education, religious pluralism, divorce, euthanasia, and women's rights. ("More, Sir Thomas" Britannica Online)

The City of the Sun of Campanella

[Campanella's] ideal commonwealth was to be governed by men enlightened by reason, with every man's work designed to contribute to the good of the community. Private property, undue wealth, and poverty would be nonexistent, for no man would be permitted more than he needed. ("Campanella, Tommaso" Britannica Online)

The New Atlantis of Francis Bacon (the original Atlantis is a story told by Plato)

Whereas the devout humanist Thomas More had placed his Utopia in a remote setting, Bacon put New Atlantis (1627) in the future. "Knowledge is power," he said, perhaps unoriginally but with the conviction that went with a vision of mankind gaining mastery over nature. Thus were established the two poles of scientific endeavour, the rational and the empirical, between which enlightened man was to map the ground for a better world. ("1648-1789: THE ENLIGHTENMENT: The role of science and mathematics." Britannica Online)

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Sep 1999