Is Progress An Illusion?


Many years ago I read a book called The Next Ten Thousand Years.  The author, Adrian Berry, argued that no matter what happened to mankind–good or bad–he would survive, prosper, and go on literally to reshape the solar system and explore the galaxy.

There were some incredible topics in the book, such as the terraforming of planets, “Dyson spheres,” and faster than light travel.  Even nuclear war, Berry claimed, would be little more than a blip on the upward path of man’s ever-increasing, inevitable development.

Is this right?  Is scientific and technological progress inevitable?  Is history an unbroken story of aggregating knowledge and “progress”?  I am not so sure.  While I don’t consider myself an advocate of gloom and doom, I also object to the facile and smug argument that progress is somehow inevitable.

It’s important to appreciate that, to get the most accurate assessment of human affairs, we should look at the longest time spans. It’s good to look at all of history, from say, 3000 B.C. to the present. There were periods of “progress,” and then there were periods of chaos, decline, barbarism, and ferment. Long term trends matter, but the short-term matters, too.

The Industrial Revolution only really began in the 1700s.  The Scientific Revolution followed from that.  So against the entire span of human history, we are proposing to draw conclusions from only the past few hundred years.  What about the fact that, for many hundreds of years, or thousands of years, before this, there was little in the way of scientific “progress”?  Can we dismiss the vast majority of human history as an aberration?

The very idea of “progress” is in many ways a creation of the 18th century European Enlightenment. Scholars and scientists in those days believed that the progress of “Reason” would result in an upward trajectory for all fields of human endeavor. Were they right? Maybe. But there were also periods of catastrophic violence, ruin, and collapse. One need only look at 20th century history to make this point.

Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and Herbert Spencer (along with many others) firmly believed that increasing education and technology would create a permanent, inexorable upward track of human happiness. The idea that progress in science and technology would cure human ills became bound up with the very identity of the 18th and 19th centuries, as the Industrial Revolution took hold.


But there were some dissenting voices about the inevitability of “progress.” The 19th century Romantics like Nietzsche and others scorned the idea of progress. They celebrated the inherent irrationality of the human condition, and the imperative of individual action. Spengler believed history was cyclical:  progress would oscillate like a pendulum.

The British historian John Gray was even less convinced.  He said that the whole idea of progress is an “illusion with a future.” Gray thought that the whole idea of “progress” was so fundamentally “encrypted into the fabric of modern life” that people would find it nearly impossible to let go of.

I like to draw the analogy with warfare in this context.  As the Quantum Age dawned in the beginning of the twentieth century, everyone assumed that major warfare was obsolete.  The future would only be little colonial wars, like the Boer War.  All would go upwards, upwards, upwards. Scientists were told that there was nothing left to discover. The public in 1900 or so was told that future wars in Europe were “impossible” because all the crown heads of Europe were related.

And then 1914 came, which brought these comfortably optimistic convictions to a shuddering halt.  The Great War ushered in a new age of disorder, societal disruption, and violence.

My point is simply that the case for “progress” is not airtight, so to speak. When we look at the entire span of human existence, we see the Beach of History littered with the sorry wrecks of failed societies, fallen civilizations, ruined states and empires, and bankrupt ideals.

Who now remembers the Kings of Phrygia? Who now knows what secrets were held by the libraries of Babylon, Nineveh, Ur, or Tenochtitlan? Are we any better than our forefathers? I am not so sure.

As I said above, if we average history out on the longest timeline, we can see that our modern age of technological ease has only been around for, perhaps, 200 years. Mankind has been on this earth for 1 million years or so. Recorded history stretches back to about 5000 B.C. Perspectives matter. We should approach these matters with humility and awe, rather than assurance in an inevitable outcome.

Maybe Adrian Berry’s vision in his book is true.  It probably is.  But I can’t help thinking of the counter-argument for the short-term. In my mind’s eye, I see the ruins and colossal wrecks of civilizations, stricken down by the hubris of man, just as easily as I can see Adrian Berry’s interplanetary engineering projects.  Maybe even more so.

We can’t escape history, no matter how much we want. And it is good that this is so.

The military historian Stephen Van Evera’s Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict contains a shocking number of examples of how military planners had blind optimism in their own omnipotence. This false optimism distorted their perceptions, to their severe detriment. The pattern is repeated over and over again.  It is simply incredible to read the quotes and assertions of the major military planners before the advent of hostilities in nearly every major conflict.  Everything would be “over by Christmas,” everything would be wrapped up quickly, and every project was a foregone conclusion.  Some of this, of course, is the natural advocacy of men in charge of large projects, but much of it represents a willful desire to block out opposing viewpoints.

One can say much the same thing about those who put too much faith in science and technology.

One of my favorite historians is J.B. Bury. He was not really a believer in the idea of progress. Maybe it is hard for a historian to be so, having seen firsthand the crimes and follies of mankind happen in unceasing regularity through the ages. Bury said this about the idea of progress. I’ll just leave people with this, from his work The Idea of Progress:

It cannot be proved that the unknown destination towards which man is advancing is desirable. The movement may be Progress, or it may be in an undesirable direction and therefore not Progress…The Progress of humanity belongs to the same order of ideas as Providence or personal immortality. It is true or it is false, and like them it cannot be proved either true or false. Belief in it is an act of faith.

Perhaps this is the best way to see it. Belief in progress, like much else in human affairs, is an act of faith. Each of us must make up his own mind.


Read More:  Do What I Say, Not What I Do

11 thoughts on “Is Progress An Illusion?

  1. “Are we any better than our forefathers? I am not so sure.”

    The more I read history the more I’m convinced our forefathers made better decisions with what they knew at the time than what we do now even with the breadth of history to draw upon.

    The trouble is people rate “progress” by how well it compares to their own preferences as to what constitutes “progress.”

    Reminds me of what Fred Reed once observed. Take a jungle savage and a typical feminist and show them a TV. One will be in awe, the other unfazed. But neither could explain how it works. The only difference between the two is that the feminist knows what it is because someone else told her. Conditional knowledge.

    Much progress through the centuries could be chalked up to that. The people aren’t better. They just know because others learned it for them. Even then they don’t heed the wisdom offered.

    I almost wonder if people are eager to downplay the wisdom of the past because to admit our forefathers knew better in many ways would be to concede that wisdom is often a casualty of “progress.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Good one, Quintus.

    The thing about progress, though, is that whether it’s an illusion or not is not the only important question. There are three that come to mind: whether it’s an illusion, what the definition of ‘progress’ is (and, by extension, how do we quantify it) and, most important of all, what the *point* of progress is.

    Let me tackle the second question.

    The way I see it, it’s the second most important one. The definition of “progress”, as you demonstrated, varies wildly, and is often created and altered by people to serve their purposes and arguments, rather than to serve a more unbiased, measurable and objective outlook.

    It’s funny that, by coincidence, I’m reading John Gardner’s ‘Grendel’, and I saw this new post of yours just after I read a part of it that resonates, possibly unintentionally, with this theme.

    I won’t digress into the book too much, suffice to say that the protagonist is Grendel, the monster from Beowulf. It has a different take on him, though: more of a nihilistic, philosophical (for the lack of a better word) monster than a savage, mindless brute.

    At a point in the book, Grendel meets the Dragon, and they have a talk about tormenting and killing humans, something which Grendel was becoming disgusted by, and wanted to stop.

    The Dragon calls ‘Fiddlesticks’, scoffs at the idea and mocks Grendel. He gives this as the answer to the question of why Grendel should continue tormenting humans:

    “Ah, Grendel! (…) You improve them, my boy! Can’t you see what yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. You are, so to speak, the brute existent by which they define themselves. The exile, captivity, death they shrink from – the blunt facts of their mortality, their abandonment – that’s what you make them recognize, embrace! You are mankind, or man’s condition: as inseparable as the mountain-climber and the mountain. If you withdraw, you’ll instantly be replaced! Brute existents, you know, are a dime a dozen. No sentimental trash, then. If man’s the irrelevance that interests you, stick with him! Scare him to glory! It’s all the same, in the end, matter and motion, simple or complex. No difference, finally, Death, transfiguration. Ashes to ashes and slime to slime, amen.”

    This, while probably not the point of the book, does, as I see it, tie in directly with progress and solves the problem of defining and quantifying it.

    Progress, individual or species-wide, is the killing of Grendel. It’s measured by how many Grendels we’ve killed. Fears, savagery, crises, natural disasters, predators, diseases, weakness, scientific and natural mysteries, challenges in using scarce resources, and in mass production of basic goods and resources, dangers of childbirth, etc.

    On that note, we have killed many Grendels. At least in the West, we certainly have, so to speak, fewer monsters in the woods threatening to eat us, than our forefathers did. So, I think this answers the second question, of defining and measuring.

    Problem is, it doesn’t answer the first question, of whether progress is illusory, in the end. Even more so when we consider the cost of it, in the wrecks littering the Beaches of history, as you said. We don’t know if we’re going anywhere, or, if we’re just spinning around in circles, killing new Grendels, but forgetting the lessons learned from the Grendels our ancestors killed, and taking it for granted. Frankly, I think our ancestors would, in certain regards, stare down in disappointment at us (and I include myself in this), more than they would stare up in awe at our achievements in order areas.

    I tend not to trust people who are overly optimistic about progress, about humanity’s future, about how far we supposedly came. These people tend to be almost pathological in their idealism, the way I see it. They’re also dangerously blind and arrogant.

    If we’re progressing, we’re not moving forward in a straight line, we’re going erratically; three steps forward, two steps back, then two forward, four back, then five forward… ad infinitum.

    The last question, I think, is the most important one, and I rarely see it being tackled. What is the point of progress, illusory or not? Is progress for its own sake enough?

    On this point, I’ll buy that book by J.B Bury you mentioned, and dive into it. Just by that quote, it seems really good. A friend of mine once recommended Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, I might dive into it too, since it seems to offer an opposing viewpoint to J.B Bury’s.

    Also, I really like the bit in The Question’s comment about the feminist and the jungle savage staring at a TV. That was really good!

    PS: yeah, another wall of text, sue me! I like to ponder these topics.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sounds awesome. I’ll keep an eye out for that one, too. Any good history work on the Romans is one I want to read.

      Good thing is that, after finishing Grendel, I want to read the rest of Dostoevsky’s work (I always end up returning to the bloody Russians, heh) I have, but haven’t gone into, and I’ll have time for it while waiting for Bury’s work to arrive when I order it. Will be a good break from fiction, then.

      Thanks for the tip, Quintus.


  3. I’m not too optimistic about the future. Technology has been advancing, but humans have been getting dumber and more dependent on them. Men today lack character and women today lack morality. Whatever progress we see today seem to be castle built on sand as every advance comes with a cost in the future.


  4. History seems to go in cycles. We had some rapid progress through the Industrial Revolution and the 20th century. Then our civilization got complacent and in many ways seems to be regressing. I expect eventually we’ll have another crisis, out of which will come another era similar to the renaissance. Possibly without a crisis, we’ll have a great awakening. I hope it works out that way.

    As men like yourself and Roosh have documented, as we progress, much of the ancient wisdom has been thrown away of disregarded as a relic of the past. Yet it was the embrace of that ancient wisdom and knowledge that made some of the recent progress possible. Progress is best when built upon the past. Once that link is severed, regress inevitably begins.


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