How We Fooled Ourselves into Believing in Progress

How We Fooled Ourselves into Believing in Progress



Is history a story of human progress? Is it a story of human decline? Is it just a matter of ups and downs, not going anywhere? For over 2,000 years, the answers to such questions have shaped Western civilization’s varying self-perception. In part, this is a matter of facts, a matter of beliefs about what will happen and about what has happened. But most centrally the disagreements have been about “what really matters, and what does not.” Things occur in the world, but they do not come with labels on them that say “this is important” or “this us better than that.” It is only against the backdrop of our values that we can develop a conception of what happens in time. As we shall see, the history of the notion that mankind makes progress is itself a history of the abandonment of some values in favor of others.

       An inquiry into the history of the idea of progress shows how unusual it is to think about the economy as we do—as an independent realm to be evaluated in terms of the magnitude of its output rather than in terms of it contribution to a larger vision of life. Further, an inquiry in-to the history of the idea of progress shows that the issue we are concerned with, the value of simple living, has been a recurring theme in the effort to understand “what happens” in history. This should come as no surprise, for the idea of simple living is an ancient ideal and it has often represented a challenge to dominant values.

       From the point of view of graceful simplicity, an inquiry of this sort is particularly illuminating. It shows that to a considerable extent the debates in the past over whether mankind makes progress in history were debates over the relative beauty of the art and literature of different historic periods. Yet when those debates ended there emerged something of a consensus that adhered to a belief in progress, it was not because


agreement was reached in the relative merits of ancient and modern arts. Rather, what happened was a shift in the implicit definition of progress, beauty, and creative power once central concerns had been relegated to the periphery. In short, the emergence of the idea of progress reflected the dominance of new values. In particular, it represented the emergence of the modern way of thinking about economic life.



The Love of Books


I have suggested that a love of books is the hallmark of whether our schools are preparing children for living the good life. And in reading a good book, either to oneself or with others, whether with friends or children, one finds proof that the sources of both pleasure and growth are as available as fruit in an orchard.

       When we think of history as the story of human progress, especially when we think of that progress as involving the progressive evolution of human sensibilities and relationships, then inevitably we postulate a radical gap between ourselves and those that lived long ago. Yet consider this ancient passage from The Instruction of Duauf, to which Toynbee calls our attention. I believe it the most ancient affirmation of the wisdom of building one’s life around books.

       Duauf, an Egyptian scribe, is writing for his son, having installed him in the School of Books:


       “I have seen him that is beaten, him that is beaten: thou art to set thine heart on books.

       I have beheld him that is set free from forced labor: behold, nothing surpasseth books. . . .

       Would that I might make thee love books more than thy mother; would that I might bring their beauty before thy face. It is greater than any calling. . . .

       Every artisan that wieldeth the chisel, he is wearier than him that delveth. . . .

       The stone-mason seeketh for work in all manner of hard stone. When he hath finished it his arms are destroyed and he is weary. . . .

       The field worker, his reckoning endureth for ever . . . he too is wearier than can be told, and he fareth as one fareth among lions. . . .

       The weaver in the workshop, he fareth more ill than any woman. His thighs are upon his belly, and he breatheth no air. . . .

       Let me tell thee, further, how it fareth with the fisherman. Is not his work upon the river, where it is mixed with the crocodiles? . . .

       Behold, there is no calling that is without a director except (that of) the scribe, and he is the director. . . .1


       On one level this passage is a parent’s advice to a son. As such it is advice that we have heard before. Essentially Duauf the Egyptian is telling his son to “stay in school!” While this is sound advice in our contemporary world, what is most remarkable is that Duauf gave this advice to his son over four thousand years ago. One thousand years after it was written, around the time of King David and Solomon, well before the Bible was written down, this text was being used by Egyptian schoolboys in their copy books.

        How startling it is! Duauf speaks to the practical issue of human capital formation, the relationship between education and vocational life. With considerable poignancy Duauf reflects on the difficult conditions faced by laborers throughout the social order. He speaks not only of physical exhaustion but of freedom within the workplace: “there is no calling that is without a director except that of the scribe.” There is even, perhaps, a fleeting recognition of the difficult condition of women (“the weaver in the workshop, he fareth more ill than any woman. His thighs are on his belly, and he breathest no air.”)

       What does it tell us about history that this exchange between father and son, with these sensibilities, occurred almost 4000 years ago? It is not easy to fit this ancient text into our modernistic vision. It suggests an ancient history to one of the common dilemmas of life—“What will I do when I grow up”. And it bears witness to human relationships and human sensibilities which mock our distinctions between modern and traditional societies and make us wonder if we really do know what happens to man in history.

       There is something else in this passage. Duauf tells his son to “set thine heart on books” and he says “Would that I might make thee love books more than thy mother; would that I might bring their beauty before thy face.”

       In holding up the standard of “love . . . more than thy mother,” the passage attests to the bond between child and mother. But against this most fundamental standard of love, Duauf interposes books. Books, too, are a matter of the heart; they are the objects of love; a love that might appropriately surpass even the love for thy mother. Perhaps Duauf senses that books themselves are our mothers, giving birth to our ever-renewed selves. And books are, he tells us, things of beauty. But not necessarily beauty that is immediately visible. Duauf says of this beauty,” Would that I might bring [it] before thy face.” The appreciation of their beauty requires instruction.

       What we have in this passage is Duauf’s love for his son, his love for books, and his effort to bring about a love-marriage between these two objects of his love. This is to be a marriage that will be valid in itself. Like all marriages, it is one that will take cognizance of the realities of economic life—there is a practical side to loving books. Specifically, for Duauf’s son, there is his career as a scribe. How are we to fit this image in among our other images of ancient Egypt as a past world, a world of idol worship and pyramid building? From his relationship with his son, from his mixed role as affectionate father and practical guide, from his own love of books, it is clear that the world in which Duauf lived turns around remarkably fixed points of human experience. How, by the way, are we to explain Duauf’s love of books? Perhaps we have yet to understand what books were and meant in ancient Egypt. Often enough we think that “back then” what was recorded was only a listing of the triumphs of the Pharaoh, or of the financial records of the Pharaoh’s ministers. But for us, the “book” of ancient Egypt that we can love the most is itself Duauf instruction—preserved in clay tablets as a text for school children to copy. It is this writing of Duauf himself that, for us, is the book that opens up the inner world of ordinary people at the time of the Pharaohs, opens up their beauty, their loves and their anxieties.



The Problem of Homer


In our rush towards the future and our indifference towards the past we are all victims of The Idea of Progress. This is a Western idea, and any understanding of it should start with Homer. It is not that Homer wrote about progress, though it is possible to read The Odyssey from that perspective. It is rather that the phenomenon of Homer has always represented a problem for the Idea of Progress. This was true in the fifth century b.c.e.; it was true in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; it is true today.

       Homer did not write. He was a poet in an oral tradition. The tales he told had been told for several hundred years. But it was his account that was written down and preserved. Possibly The Iliad and The Odyssey were the works of two different authors; we do not know for sure. But it is the Homer of The Iliad that is most problematic.

       The Iliad is the earliest known work in Western literature. It was written down in the eighth century b.c.e. In sheer volume it is impressive, an epic poem of 600 pages. It is the story of the Trojan War. Thus, our first story was a war story. Yet it is not what one might expect. It opens nine years into the war. There is no Trojan horse in the story; there is no account of Achilles death, no mention of his vulnerable heel, and there is no account of the fall of Troy. It is a slice of experience at a critical point during the war.

       It is most essentially a human story. There are no faceless, nameless, masses of soldiers. Each death, and there are many, is unique. Each is of an individual human being who is individually connected to other human beings, be they Greek or Trojan.

       Perhaps The Iliad should be seen as the story of Hector. Hector is the great Trojan warrior, brother of Paris, whose thoughtless kidnapping of Helen started the conflict. The doomed Hector must fight Achilles who is half god. Hector curses his thoughtless brother:


“As for me, I go

for Paris, to arouse him, if he listens.

If only earth would swallow him here and now!

What an affliction the Olympian

brought up for us in him—a curse for Priam

and Priam’s children! Could I see that man

dwindle into Death’s night, I’d feel my soul

relieved of its distress!”2


       Hector has a wife and child. He knows that he is fated to die in this senseless war. He speaks with his wife, fearing that she will end up a slave in a Greek household. And she replies:


“Oh, my wild one, your bravery will be

your own undoing. No pity for our child,

poor little one, or me in my sad lot - -

soon to be deprived of you! Soon, soon

Akhains as one man will set upon you

and cut you down! Better for me, without you,

to take cold earth for mantle. No more comfort,

no other warmth, after you meet your doom

but heartbreak only.”3


       When the time comes, Hector’s great courage fails him. He flees from Achilles, and three times around Troy they run. But Achilles is known as the great runner; he cannot be escaped anymore than death itself. Finally, Hector turns. He will stand and fight. In short order, he is mortally wounded. As he is dying Hector speaks to Achilles:


“I beg you by your soul and by your parents,

do not let the dogs feed on me

in your encampment by the ships. Accept

the bronze and gold my father will provide

as gifts, my father and her ladyship

my mother. Let them have my body back,

so that our men and women may accord me

decency of fire when I am dead.”4


       Achilles refuses, thus adding to Hector’s total loss—“Dogs and birds will have you, every scrap.”5 But when old Priam, Hector’s father, journeys alone to Achilles camp, he is allowed to claim his son’s body.

       The Iliad is a story about human dignity. It is also about mortality and about being caught within the larger fatality of history and duty. Even in translation, it is beautiful poetry.

       For centuries the study of Homer was at the center of education for ancient Greeks. Professionals who traveled from city to city recited Homer. It was believed that “Homer enshrined all wisdom and all knowledge. . . . Homer held and nourished the minds and imaginations of Greeks for generation after generation—of artists, thinkers and ordinary simple men alike. . . . Aeschylus was said to have described his own work, modestly, as ‘sliced from Homer’s banquet.’”6 In the fifth century b.c.e. amidst perhaps the greatest flourishing of the human spirit, some, increasingly aware of how much they had progressed over the past, found in the greatness of this older poet a problem for their self-image, and they turned against Homer. The poet Timotheus proclaimed “I do not sing ancient melodies, my own are better by far.”7

       This was not the last time Homer served as the benchmark of human excellence. In the seventeenth century, 2500 years after The Iliad many had a similarly difficult time understanding their place in history without first settling whether they had surpassed Homer. And in our own time, a full 2800 years later, Simone Weil could say of The Iliad, “Nothing that Western civilization has since produced has surpassed this first poem to have appeared among them.”8

       This then is the problem of Homer. It is so good! And being so, it casts in doubt the claim that we have made progress. Nor is this just a matter of Homer’s individual genius, great though it was. For he arose out of a tradition, and it was to Greek sensibilities that his poetry was directed, and it was Homer, above all others, to whom the Greeks responded. They were thus capable of recognizing Homer’s genius and appreciating The Iliad. So the problem of Homer is really the historical problem. Given the heights that were achieved by individuals and cultures at the dawn of Western civilization, how are we to accurately orient ourselves towards the great expanse of human experience and change that followed?



Musings on the History of the Idea of Progress


When historians inquire into the history of the Idea of Progress they are arguing about the history of a specific set of beliefs about progress. They are interested in when those beliefs first arose, in who held them, in what those beliefs expressed, and in the consequences of those beliefs having been held.

       What are the beliefs that constitute the “idea of progress”? The historian George Hildebrand has identified three elements:


  • “The belief that history follows a continuous, necessary and orderly course.”
  • “The belief that this course is the effect of a regularly operating causal law.”
  • “The belief that the course of change has brought and will continue to bring improvement in the condition of mankind.”9


       There is considerable debate as to whether or not there was, in this sense, an idea of progress prior to the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Some writers such as Robert Nisbet find the idea of progress in virtually every era of western history with the exception of the Renaissance. The absence of this concept in the Renaissance can perhaps be understood as following from the rediscovery of the classical world, and in the light of that rediscovery, a perception of the vast period in between as a period of decline and stagnation.10

       Other historians argue that the ancient and medieval world lacked a full sense of the idea of progress. They emphasize several ways in which the dominant outlook of other periods varied from the key elements identified above.

       It is pointed out that:


  • The Greek philosophy of history typically involved the notion of decay or decline from some Golden Age.
  • When the Greeks focused sharply on the progress that had occurred, they did not anticipate that it would continue indefinitely, but rather imagined that they were near the end of the process.
  • The Christian view of history centered around acts of divine intervention rather than the operation of causal laws, and even when is celebrated scientific technological change, it anticipated that the world would end in the not-too-distant future.


       We can accept these points, yet what is remarkable is how mch of a “progressive mentality” there has been, reaching as far back in Western thought as we can go. Most important is that, for over 2,500 years, the West has been change-oriented. It has been aware of the fact that important processes of deep social change occur over time.

       We tend to think of our current period, whether this be the last hudres years, or the last two or three hundred, as a unique period of change and awareness of change. Yet something of this sort must also have been true among the ancient Greeks and possibly the Romans. Consider the following passages from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. They are extraordinarily rich in what they reveal about the awareness of multiple levels of rapid transformation. Thucydides is providing background about Greece:


The country now called Hellas had no settles population in ancient times; . . . There was no commerce, and no safe communication either by land or sea; the use they made of their land was limited to the production of necessities; they had no surplus left over for capital and no regular system of agriculture.11


Thus, the first thing we learn about is economic change. This passage suggests an implicit theory of economic growth. The ancient peoples produced (either by necessity or design) only what they needed. There was no economic surplus that could be devoted to capital for greater productivity.


In these early times, as communication by sea became easier, so piracy became a common profession both among the Hellas and among the barbarians who lived in the coats in the islands. . . . At this time, such a profession, so far from being regarded as disgraceful was considered quite honorable. It is an attitude that can be illustrated even today by some of the inhabitant of the mainland among whom successful piracy is regarded as something to be proud of.


Thus, Thucydides tells us that one of the things that changes overtime are the moral ideas of people. What is now viewed as disgraceful, was once viewed as honorable. Some of the old customs and attitudes survive today.


Among these people the custom of carrying arms still survives from the old days of robbery. Since houses were unprotected and communications unsafe it was the normal thing to carry arms on all occasions, and this was a general custom throughout the whole of Hellas as it is now among foreigners. The fact that the people I have mentioned still live in this way is evidence that this was once the general rule among all the Hellenes.


Though Thucydides does not say it outright, there seems an implicit view that it is not merely that there is change in our moral ideas and practices, but that such change moves in one direction, and is a change for the better.


The Athenians were the first to give up the habit of carrying weapons and to adopt a way of living that was more relaxed and more luxurious. In fact the elder men of the rich families who had these luxurious tastes only recently gave up wearing linen undergarments and tying their hair behind their heads in a knot. . . . It was the Spartans who first began to dress simply and in accordance with our modern taste, with the rich leading a life that was as much as possible like that of the ordinary people.” They, too, were the first to play games naked, to take off their clothes openly, and to rub themselves down with olive oil after their exercise. In ancient times even at the Olympic Games the athletes used to wear coverings for their loins, and indeed this practice was still in existence not very many years ago. Even today many foreigners, especially in Asia, wear these loincloths for boxing matches and wrestling bouts. Indeed, one could point to a number of other instances where the manners of the ancient Hellenic world are very similar to the manners of foreigners today.


       In this last reference to ways in which the manners of foreigners are similar to those of the ancient Hellenic world we have a vision not unlike contemporary views that see the world as divided into the developed and the less-developed countries, with “our country” representing the apex of development.

       Thucydides displays not merely an awareness of change, but a tremendously broad sense of the elements that undergo transformation. These include: the physical form of cities, level of technology, modes of political organization, forms of economic activity, agricultural practices, level of material well being, moral attitudes (e.g. towards piracy), attitudes towards nudity and sports, modes of dress, and even hair styles. The fact that Thucydides moves so easily from discussing whether or not men wear underwear to how they build their warships suggests that for him all aspects of human life were part of one broad process of transformation.

       He presents changes as one-directional. He gives no indication that any of them have ever been reversed, nor does Thucydides express any expectation that they will be. Rather, he talks of the Hellenes as having been “the first” to make certain changes. He apparently expects that other societies will eventually undergo similar transformations. Thus, implicitly there is a vision of a single pattern of change through which all societies move.

       It is true, of course, that many believed that they had declined from a Golden Age. There were those who believed in the continuous recurrence of historical cycles, yet they too believed that there were long periods of time within which mankind gradually gained critical inventions, techniques, and institutions: the plough, use of fire, navigation, law giving, mathematics, metallurgy, and cities.

       In Thucydides the picture that emerges then is one of vast change in almost all aspects of life, change that is pushed by technological innovation, and that ultimately will carry all of mankind with it. Thus, there is nothing uniquely modern about our modern self-consciousness. We are not the first to see ourselves as modern, in self-conscious contrast to a more ancient past out of which we have progressed. Rather, this way of thinking about history goes back to our earliest reflections on history. Though, just as today, there were those in the ancient world, who challenged whether all this change was indicative of real progress.



Progress and Knowledge


In ancient days, as in the current century, a more convincing case could be made that there was progress in some areas rather than others. And like today, our knowledge of the world, if not our wisdom, appeared a cumulative matter that grew as it was passed on to the next generation. The first full and clear statement of the continued progress of knowledge into the indefinite future is to be found in the writings of the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca who wrote:


There are many peoples today who are ignorant of the causes of eclipses of the moon, and it has only recently been demonstrated among ourselves. The day will come when time and human diligence will clear up problems which are now obscure. We divide the few years of our lives unequally between study and vice, and it will therefore be the work of many generations to explain such phenomena as comets. One day our posterity will marvel at our ignorance of causes so clear to them.

       How many new animals have we first come to know in the present age? In time to come men will know much that is unknown to us. Many discoveries are reserved for future ages, when our memory will have faded from men’s minds. We imagine ourselves initiated in the secrets of nature; we are standing on the threshold of her temple.12




Much remains to do; much will remain; and no one born after thousands of centuries will be deprived of the chance of adding something.13


       What distinguishes Seneca’s vision is that unlike the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century apostles of progress, in Seneca, and in the intervening centuries, there is no broad assumption that progress with respect to knowledge means an increase in human virtue, well-being, or happiness. Either it is thought that these are independent matters or it is suspected that increased knowledge might itself be the cause of human unhappiness.

       Thus in the earliest myths, be it The Garden of Eden or the Decline from the Golden Age, it is ignorance not knowledge which is associated with human virtue and happiness. Knowledge is associated with the forbidden, and its acquisition is associated with theft, dishonesty and disrespect in relation to the gods. And thus there is a heavy price to be paid for increasing knowledge.

       Seneca is despairing about human virtue and happiness. Taking issue with a contemporary who celebrated their modern world, he makes a critical distinction among kinds of knowledge, distinguishing wisdom and philosophy from ingenuity, saying:


Posidonius says: “When men were scattered over the earth, protected by caves or by the dug-out shelter of a cliff or by the trunk of a hollow tree, it was philosophy that taught them to build houses.” But I, for my part, do not hold that philosophy devised these shrewdly-contrived dwellings of ours which rise story upon story, where city crowds against city, any more than that she invented fish preserves, that are enclosed for the purposes of saving men’s gluttony from having to run the risk of storms and in order that, no matter how wildly the sea is raging, luxury may have its safe harbors in which to fatten fancy breeds of fish. . . . Was it not enough for man to provide himself a roof of any chance covering and to contrive for himself some natural retreat without the help of art and without trouble? Believe me that was a happy age, before the days of architects, before the days of builders! All this sort of thing was born when luxury was being born.

       . . . . A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.

On another point also I differ from Posidonious, when he holds that mechanical tools were the invention of wise men . . . it was man’s ingenuity, not his wisdom, that discovered all these devices.

       . . . . The things that are indispensable require no elaborate pains for their acquisition; it is only the luxuries that call for labour. Follow nature, and you will have no need for skilled craftsmen.14


       Here, 2,000 years ago, we have the link being made between a doctrine of progress and a philosophy of simple living. With progress in ingenuity, that is technology, we have a variety of new products and processes. We have apartment houses, and architects and aquaculture! Invention, mechanical skill, ingenuity, labor, or to call it what it is: economic growth. All of this (for Seneca) emerges from human vice and foolishness. Before such luxury men were free and there was little need for labor. The path of wisdom and happiness lay elsewhere.

       In a very severe way, Seneca advocates restricting economic activity to the satisfaction of only our most basic needs. He tells us:


Houses, shelter, creature comforts, food, and all that has now become the source of vast trouble, were ready at hand, free to all, and obtainable for trifling pains. For the limit everywhere corresponded to the need; it is we that have made all other things valuable, we that have made them admired, we that have caused them to be sought for by extensive and manifold devices . . . that moderation which nature prescribes, which limits our desires by resources restricted to our needs, has abandoned the field . . . .15


       Seneca’s advocacy of a simple life and his despairing vision of what happens in history have a common root—his judgement about what is important. If one sees in the simple life the full resources for whatever happiness and nobility is possible for mankind, then one is not likely to see history as a story of progress.

       What we do not find in Seneca’s distinction between ingenuity (technology, economic growth) and wisdom, is the idea that they could indeed be combined. Neither Seneca nor Aristotle envisioned technology and the growth of productivity as opening the way for the masses of mankind to be freed from toil or freed to live a life that was economically modest but abundant in the higher aspects of life. For Seneca this would have been unnecessary for, as a stoic, he maintained that almost nothing of a material nature was really necessary for the good life. Whereas for Aristotle, the problems of the mass of humankind simply did not arise.



How They Overcame Homer


In the seventeenth century boundless confidence and pride in scientific progress expanded into the more general assertion of human progress, both that it had occurred, was occurring, and would continue to occur. These assertions were contrasted with the perspective of the Renaissance that emphasized the greatness of the classical achievements and took pride in their rediscovery and in having regained the heights achieved centuries before. As was the case with Seneca, there were those who questioned the sweeping claims. The issue was not so much whether or not there would be continued progress in the future, but rather whether or not genuine progress had in fact been made. In the seventeenth century, the issue emerged as “The Quarrel Between the Moderns and the Ancients”—a phrase used to describe an on-going intellectual exchange which lasted over a century, primarily in France and England.

       This quarrel is interesting in several respects. First there is the sheer fact that for one hundred years there was an extended intellectual debate over whether mankind actually makes progress. Second, to some extent it is out of this debate that the modern idea of progress emerges, and thus the terms of the debate reveal not just the factual conclusions of the participants but their deeper definitions and values. And finally, joining this debate allows us to again enter into the big question of what happens in history. Who was right? Were (or are) the moderns superior to the ancients?

       Bury, the great historian of the Idea of Progress, identifies the earliest writing on the subject as that of the Italian, Alessandro Tassoni, in his Miscellaneous Thoughts published in 1620. But Tassoni refers to “the quarrel” as a “current dispute,” so its origins are obscure.16 Tassoni, himself a poet and knowing his enemy, leveled an attack on Homer, identifying faults in language, plot, characterization, and imagery. He concluded that modern writers were on the whole superior to the authors of the ancient classics.

       Fifteen years later, in 1635 the attack on Homer was renewed, this time in France. One of the founders of the Academie Francaise, a dramatist named Boisrobert, speaking to that body delivered a violent attack on the ancient poet. Indeed, it was Homer who was the ancient most frequently vilified.

       A central voice in the attack on the ancients was Charles Perrault, remembered today as the author of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Perrault made one particular contribution; in his account the issue shifts away from the simple comparison of modern and ancient works. He argues for the superiority of modern accomplishments on the basis of general processes which guarantee that that which is later will be superior.  Thus knowledge advances with time. Perrault does not claim for the moderns themselves any inherent superiority of talent or genius. Rather he argues that nature is the same at all times. Those of the present have the same natural ability as those who came before, but being later, their works in both science and art are superior.

       This line of thinking—that there are at work general processes whereby advance is assured—increasingly serves to build confidence in future progress. Indeed, a great deal of effort, especially in the nineteenth century, will focus on the identification and specification of such processes. Moreover, broadly opposed political philosophies will emerge based in part on whether or not these processes require for their full operation that we understand them and deliberately manipulate the world in accord with them.17

       As Bury points out, Perrault did not extrapolate his process of progress into the indefinite future. Quite the contrary, he wrote:


Our age had, in some sort, arrived at the summit of perfection. And since for some years the rate of the progress is much slower and appears almost insensible—as the days seem to cease lengthening when the solstice is near—it is pleasant to think that probably there are not many things for which we need envy future generations.18


       The exposition of the fuller version of the progress of knowledge was left to Perrault’s contemporary, Bernard de Fontenelle, author of Dialogues of the Dead and Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns. Like Perrault, Fontenelle argues from an exploration of the processes of change that in physiological terms men of his time are the same as those of ancient times. He dismisses the effects of climate as a determining factor. And he infers that whatever differences exist are due to either the passage of time or social conditions. 

       Fontenelle saw mathematics, physics, and medicine as cumulative, and thought it a natural process that in these areas those that come later will know more. The process envisaged was not entirely linear, but involved the elimination of a multitude of false routes. Error was part of the cumulative process whereby advance was achieved. And similarly he noted that, of necessity, those that came first would be the authors of the first discoveries. But he felt this entitled neither group to greater distinction.

       Fontenelle takes a big step. He separates out from this process poetry and eloquence, arguing that they do not depend on correct reasoning and do not require a long course of experiments. In these areas he maintained that perfection might be attained in a few centuries. While the ancients might not be surpassed, they could be equaled.

       With respect to the role of social circumstances, Fontenelle did not see them as playing a decisive creative or shaping role, but rather believed that they may, at points, (e.g. war) provide a breach in the on-going process. But to the process whereby knowledge expanded there was a kind of necessity. Knowledge could be slowed down or blocked, but in time it would resume.

       Fontenelle thus provided the two final ingredients to the idea of the progress of knowledge, that it would proceed indefinitely into the future and that this indefinite extension was necessarily the case. If Seneca also came to all of these conclusions, they did not take firm root in ancient times. However, with Fontenelle this concept was part of the general r   ationalism of the period and ultimately emerged as the wider idea of progress which encompassed social progress.

       On this Fontenelle was also like Seneca. Neither believed in the connection between progress in knowledge and progress with respect to either human virtue or human well being. The difference however is that, for Seneca, if neither human virtue, nor well being, (nor, I might add, creativity and aesthetic accomplishment) progressed, then there was no progress in what is most important. In Fontenelle one finds a change in emphasis. While like Seneca, he does not believe that there is progress in wisdom or virtue, he celebrates what does progress—scientific knowledge. The difference it seems, is that Seneca believed that technological progress, in fact, makes us worse off. It draws us away from a more simple and free life towards a more artificial way of being.

       In England, somewhat separately the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns was also pursued. Perhaps the most enduring contribution is Jonathon Swift’s A Full and True Account of the Battle Fought Last Friday Between the Ancient and the Modern Books in St. James’s Library. Known for short as The Battle of the Books, it details how inside the royal library the books of the ancients and the moderns came to life and did battle.

       That Swift would conceptualize the conflict between the ancients and the moderns as a conflict between their books is more than a hint as to where he himself comes out. If ultimately the issue at stake in the debates over history is “what matters” for Swift the answer is “books”. Books capture the value of a civilization, and with the ancient Egyptian scribe, books are what we should love.

       In a clear identification with Homer, Swift wrote the key battle scene of The Battle of the Books in the style of The Iliad. And, best of all, using a touch of Homer’s own style, Homer himself becomes one of Swift’s characters and enters the combat to vanquish his modern challengers:


Then Homer slew W—sl—y with a kick of his Horse’s heel; He took Perrault by mighty Force out of his Saddle, then hurl’d him at Fontenelle, with the same Blow dashing out both their Brains.19


       The Battle ends with a defender of the Moderns (Wotton) being chased (and slain) by an ally of the Ancients (Boyle) in much the same fashion as Achilles chased Hector. Swift offers this good-bye to the dispatched Wotten: “And happy and immortal shall you be, if all my Wit and Eloquence can make you.”20 And again, Swift is right, it is Swift, through his dispatch of Wotton who has given him what immortality he has.

       This final victim, Charles Wooten, in his Reflections Upon Ancient and Modern Learning, did, however, make an important contribution. He deepened the distinction between art and knowledge. In the former he places poetry, oratory, architecture, painting, and statuary. In the later: mathematics, natural science, physiology, and their dependencies. He maintained that in some of the arts the ancients were superior to all who came after. Here he strengthens a direction that Fontenelle was moving along. This distinction was widely accepted throughout the eighteenth century as literature and art were viewed as distinct from the general progress perceived in all other areas.

        This is particularly interesting because the quarrel started roughly at the opening of the seventeenth century with the attack on Homer, and it appears to close with a sharper distinction between art and science and with a full idea of the indefinite progress of science. And in the eighteenth century it is on this basis that the extension is made to social progress as a whole. This foreshadows a notion of social progress that is divorced from aesthetic or moral progress. Indeed, this is part of the general mechanism in terms of which the Idea of Progress is able to achieve credibility: the value base in terms of which progress is maintained gets narrower and narrower. Now, rather than arguing that Homer has been equaled or surpassed, the entire realm of art, literature, and general sensibility is pushed to the side as a matter that no longer counts for much. The same is true of the concern with moral virtue, the central criteria employed by Seneca.

       Thus, the Idea of Progress becomes plausible not merely because of the scientific revolution, but because there has been a shift in the relative weight given to the alternative criteria for assessing whether or not there has been progress.

       Specifically, the emergence of the Idea of Progress required stripping from our definition of what counts as “progress” the aesthetic and moral dimensions of life. Instead, what we have left is the unstoppable progress of technology and its utilization in the production of the things of economic life. Thus, to think of history as the story of the inevitable improvement in the human condition, and to think of ourselves as fortunate consumers of an ever expanding material pie is really to think of two sides of the same coin.



Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees


Aristotle, Seneca, and peoples of the quite different religious orientations which dominated both the Middle Ages and the Reformation found common ground in the impossibility of conceptualizing human progress primarily in technological and economic terms, divorced from matters of human personality, character, and behavior. Whether it was a matter of ancient virtues of creativity, of artistic and literary perfection, or of piety, honesty, and religious virtue, there was little to celebrate in economics per se.

       The opposite perspective emerges most powerfully in the beginning of the eighteenth century, crystalized in the works of Bernard Mandeville. In 1705, halfway between the one hundred and fifty years that separate the landing of the Puritans in the New World and the publication of The Wealth of Nations, Bernard Mandeville published a twenty-six page poem called “The Grumbling Hive: or Knaves Turned Honest.” In 1714, the poem reappeared as part of a much larger work entitled The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits. This larger work, which ran to several hundred pages, was a detailed explanation of the various theses maintained in the poem. Subsequent editions enlarged Mandeville’s commentary on his own poem.

       The book created considerable scandal, and at one point was determined to be a public nuisance by the Grand Jury of Middlesex. Ultimately Mandeville’s explications required an additional work: The Fable of the Bees: Part II.

       Mandeville’s poem is an attack directed at those that would live the simple life. When Mandeville wrote his poem, the great utopian experiment in religiously based simple living, the effort to build a “New England” was not yet one hundred years old; the Plymouth Colony having been founded in 1620.     

       All had not gone well for the project of simple living. From the pulpits of New England the clergy denounced a materialism that had betrayed the pious ideals of earlier generations. Yet the impulse towards pious simplicity was still very much alive, and the great religious awakening of the 1730’s that swept through the colonies and called people back to a simple piety was still decades away.

       Mandeville was not concerned with New England, but with England herself. His tale can be read as a cautionary message: look what would happen here if those seekers after the simple life of virtue were to gain the upper hand.

       The basic poem appears to be a simple tale. It is the story of a flourishing hive of bees that, not having the sense to leave well enough alone, prayed to the God Jove that they be made virtuous. Jove answered their prayer, but virtue proved their ruin. My primary concern is less with Mandeville’s novel empirical thesis (that private vice is beneficial to the public good), than it is with the values that are implicit in Mandeville’s thought. As we shall see, it is in this respect that Mandeville can be viewed as a contemporary voice. His way of thinking about economic issues bears much in common with the way we approach questions of economic life.    

       Stripped to its essentials Mandeville is telling us that a thriving prosperous economy is what is important and that, if it turns out that such prosperity requires behavior and character which violates religious, moral, or spiritual ideals, then we best not trouble ourselves about such ideals.

       Mandeville is the intentional voice of the great separation of economic life from any project of human transcendence. He differs in one main respect from contemporary voices. He is absolutely clear-eyed about the corruption he accepts, while in contemporary life the separation he represented has advanced to such an extent, that we do not even perceive economic life within the larger context of our ideals for human life and character.

       Like many others, his tale is that of The Fall. But it is not a fall from grace, innocence, or purity. Mandeville’s Eden has a very particular character. Consider the happy state in which his bees originally find themselves:


A Spacious Hive well stockt with Bees,

That liv’d in Luxury and Ease;

And yet as fam’d for Laws and Arms,

As yielding large and early Swarms;

Was counted the great Nursery

Of Sciences and Industry.21


       The Hive is not just man’s social life, it is life within the nation-state. It is life under a particular government “fam’d for Laws and Arms.” The central accomplishment of that country is the achievement of a life of ease and luxury. It is this that will be lost; not the spiritual innocence commonly ascribed to Paradise. The bees in Mandeville’s Paradise are far from innocent.

       Among the inhabitants of the Hive there were “Sharpers, Parasites, Pimps, Players, Pick Pockets, Coiners, Quacks, South-sayers.” This, of course, might be true of any society; there are always those that prey on it from the outside. But Mandeville tells us that while “These were call’d Knaves, . . . the grave Industrious were the same. . . . All Trades and Places knew some Cheat, No Calling was without Deceit.”

       He then proceeds to describe, profession by profession, the universal deceit. He describes lawyers whose art was in “raising feuds” and inflating fees, of doctors who valued “Fame and Wealth Above the drooping Patient’s Health.” He tells us of a clergy that allowed men to “hide their Sloth, Lust, Avarice and Pride,” of a military in which while “Some valiant Gen’rals fought the Foe, Others took Bribes to let them go.” It is the same with public servants who robbed “the very Crown they saved;” and of judges “brib’d with Gold.”

       Thus, Mandeville paints a picture of an entire society that is untrue to the values inherent in their social roles. It is a picture of decadence and corruption, but of a very particular kind. It is a corruption in which the pursuit of money supplants all the values that are inherent to the activity and profession in which people are engaged. It is precisely the kind of destruction of the integrity of each realm of life that Aristotle warned of. Indeed Aristotle even offered as examples of such corruption doctors and soldier.

       But Mandeville views it all with an easy eye. Having painted this vivid picture, he takes his novel turn, maintaining that all this is to the good:


Thus every Part was full of Vice,

Yet the whole Mass a Paradise;

Flatter’d in Peace, and fear’d in Wars,

They were th’ Esteem of Foreigners,

And lavish of their Wealth and Lives,

The Balance of all other Hives.

Such were the Blessings of that State;

Their Crimes conspir’d to make them Great.22


He then proceeds to sketch how this worked. It seems that each vice produced some benefit. Thus,


The Root of Evil, Avarice,

That damne’d ill-natur’d baneful Vice,

Was Slave to Prodigality,

That nouble Sin; whilst Luxury

Employ’d a Million of the Poor,

And odious Pride a Million more:

Envy it self, and Vanity,

Were Ministers of Industry;

Their darling Folly, Fickleness,

In Diet, Furniture and Dress,

That strange ridic’lous Vice, was made

The very Wheel that turn’d the Trade.23


Mandeville’s perception of “modern” life found its echoes two centuries later in Veblen and Galbraith. He zeroes right in on the issue of consumption; he looks at what lies behind consumer demand, and he finds vice and folly, vanity and envy, and even the fashion industry!

Yet he embraces it all. And what is the central benefit he cites? It is the very luxuries and pleasures of economic growth that Seneca distained when he distinguished wisdom from ingenuity:


Thus, Vice nurs’d Ingenuity,

Which join’d with Time and Industry,

Had carry’d Life’s Conveniencies

Its real Pleasures, Comforts, Ease,

To such a Height, the very Poor

Liv’d better than the Rich before,

And nothing could be added more.24


       Here we have the celebration of modern economic life. It is the sharp polar opposite of the perspective voiced by Mandeville’s contemporary, the Quaker John Woolman, and sometimes it almost seems as if Mandeville and Woolman were debating before a single audience. Mandeville’s values are the ones that have dominated our economic thought. Since Mandeville first stated it, it has been repeated a thousand times, jobs and income, employment and higher per capita GNP. This is the bottom line.

       The tale continues. The bees are undone because of their pursuit of virtue. They failed to recognize “the Bounds of Bliss.” They called out for honesty, and Jove, in anger, “rid the bawling Hive of Fraud.”

       Bit by bit disaster sets in. With a change in motivation and appetite market demand collapses. “The Price of Land and houses falls”; “The building Trade is quite destroyed, Artificers are not employ’d.”


The slight and fickle Age is past;

And Clothes, as well as Fashions, last.

Weavers, that join’d rich Silk with Plate,

And all the Trades subordinate,

Are gone. . . . 25


As Pride and Luxury decrease,

So by degrees they leave the Seas,

Not Merchants now, but Companies

Remove whole Manufactories.

All Arts and Craft neglected lie;

Content, the Bane of Industry,

Makes ‘em admire their homely Store,

And neither seek nor covet more.26


Ultimately, they are attacked by external foes, they fight, and are forced to retreat. Many die, and the survivors fly off to a hollow tree. Implicit in the poem is an emphasis on and an argument for enhancing the power of the nation state. The pre-Fall Hive is “fam’d for Law and Arms” and the ultimate denouement of the virtuous Hive occurs because they are attacked from without. Thus, the economy must be thought of as within a violent competitive international arena. National defense issues are central to issues of economic life.

       As a diagnostician Mandeville is fascinated by the issue of human character. And the categories he is most concerned with are those of the Christian tradition: avarice, envy, vanity, pride, etc. But he simply is untroubled by finding that such characteristics and motives pervade human life. Mandeville not only doubts that much progress can be made in the elimination of base motives, he is not even attracted to such transformations. If anything, he is amused by the human spectacle.

        Moreover, it is not that there are some other set of characteristics or virtues that he is concerned about (e.g. Aristotelian courage or Nietzschean vitality). He simply is not seized by the project of our becoming very different than we are. Independent of his view of the utility of vices Mandeville would not be concerned to eliminate them. He simply accepts human beings as they are, no matter how they are. In this, in fact, he echoes the contemporary “value-free” economist. The latter does not make any assessment about people’s desires; he takes them as a given. In academic jargon, economic performance is to be judged in terms of the ability to move to the outermost curve on a preference map. He states that he is of the “Opinion, that whether men be good or bad, what they take delight in is their pleasure . . . we ought to dispute no more about Men’s Pleasures than their Tastes.”27

       The question of what it is to really be better off is of central importance to any critique of economics. Certainly, one major criterion for the evaluation of economic circumstances and alternative economic systems is whether or not the population, or any representative individual, is better off in one or the other. Mandeville tells us that “The very Poor Liv’d better than the Rich before” and we look to his explication to reveal his understanding of what it is to have “liv’d better.”

       He writes:


If we trace the most flourishing Nations in their Origin, we shall find that in the remote Beginnings of every Society, the richest and most considerable Men among them were a great while destitute of a great many Comforts of Life that are now enjoy’d by the meanest and most humble Wretches.28


Here his answer appears to be quite simple. One’s life is better insofar as one has more of “the Comforts of Life.” In the contemporary idiom, he may be said to hold an opulence notion of standard of living, those who have more things live at a higher standard than those with less.29

       Mandeville goes on to explain how our notion of what constitutes a luxury is constantly changing:


Many things which were once look’d upon as the Invention of Luxury, are now allow’d even to those that are so miserably poor as to become the Objects of publick Charity, nay counted so necesary, that we think no Human Creature ought to want them.30


He then goes on to identify some of the remarkable luxuries that are now available to all. He calls our attention to “the most ordinary Yorkshire Cloth,” saying, “What depth of Thought and Ingenuity, what Toil and Labor, and what length of Time must it have cost, before Man could learn from a Seed to raise and prepare so useful a Product as Linen.”31 And he further points out:


The Arts of Brewing, and making Bread, have by slow degrees been brought to the Perfection they now are in, but to have invented them at once, and a priori, would have required more Knowledge and a deeper Insight into the Nature of Fermentation, than the greatest Philosopher has hitherto been endowed with; yet the Fruits of both are now enjoy’ed by the meanest of our Species, and a starving Wretch knows not how to make a more humble, or a more modest Petition, than by asking for a Bit of Bread, or a Draught of Smal Beer.32

       From Caves, Huts, Hovels, Tents and Barracks, with which Mankind took up at first we are come to warm and well-wrought Houses, and the meanest habitations to be seen in Cities, are regular Buildings contriv’d by Persons skill’d in Proportions and Architecture. If the Ancient Britons and Gauls should come out of their Graves, with what Amazement wou’d they gaze on the mighty Structures everywhere rais’d for the Poor!33


       While Mandeville does not use the term “progress” to characterize the phenomenon he has focused upon, it is clear that he is offering a progressive vision of history. It moves in one direction, towards what is better. What had been thought of as luxuries are later considered necessities. It does not move in the reverse direction. It is a slow process; one which Mandeville sees as a process of human betterment, and what makes this credible is ultimately Mandeville’s notion of what it is to be better off: to have more of what one desires from the marketplace.

       From our point of view Mandeville’s significance is that he perfectly captured in 1705 so much of the way in which we presently think about economic life. The central elements of his outlook are:


  1. A lack of concern with whether higher or lower aspects of the human personality are brought to the fore in the economic realm.
  2. His view of the economic realm as outside moral concerns, to be evaluated on its own terms (e.g. levels of employment, income, production, consumption).
  3. His view that all classes gain as a result of economic growth.
  4. His underlying identification of “living well” with living at a high level of material consumption.
  5. His refusal to base policy judgments on any view of true human happiness other than those found within the actual behavior of economic agents. Desire is never in need of education, development or refinement.
  6. His situating of economic policy within the world of national security and inter-state competition, with these areas providing the central criteria for policymaking.
  7. His concern with the possibility of economic collapse and unemployment, and his focus on the importance of high levels of consumer demand as necessary for economic vitality.


       These are all very much a part of contemporary thinking. When Mandeville wrote they represented a dramatic break with the way the western world had heretofore thought of the economic realm. Today, we take them for granted.

       In the poem, Mandeville maintains that the poor lived better than the rich before, it might seem that he has introduced a new criterion which would in fact represent moral progress over the way Aristotle viewed the good society—namely a concern for the poor. Yet this is not the case. His comments on how the poor live better today than in previous centuries are little more than rationalization. Indeed, in his attitudes toward the poor he is worse than indifferent. He states, “I have laid down as Maxims never to be departed from, that the Poor should be kept strictly to Work, and that it was Prudence to relieve their Wants, but Folly to cure them.”34

       And further, in explaining his opposition to providing free schools and provisions for the children of the poor, he wrote:


Abundance of hard and dirty Labour is to be done, and coarse Living is to be complied with: Where shall we find a better Nursery for these Necessities than the Children of the Poor? None certainly are nearer to it or fitter for it. Besides that the things I called Hardships, neither seem nor are such to those who have been brought up to ‘em, and know no better. There is not a more contented People among us, than those who work the hardest and are the least acquainted with the Pomp and Delicacies of the World.35


Mandeville continues:


It being granted then, that abundance of Work is to be done, the next thing which I think to be likewise undeniable is, that the more cheerfully it is done the better, as well for those that perform it as for the rest of the Society. To be happy is to be pleas’d, and the less Notion a Man has of a better way of Living, the more content he’ll be with his own     . . . .


As by discouraging Idleness with art and Steadiness you may compel the Poor to labour without Force, so by bringing them up in Ignorance you may inure them to real Hardships without being ever sensible themselves that they are such.36


       A few rhetorical gestures notwithstanding, it is clear that for Mandeville the poor are a lesser form of humanity. Indeed, he is happy enough for them to live out their lives in total ignorance of their conditions—essentially as work animals. For him they are a mere means to greater objectives. When he speaks of public benefits, or of a flourishing economy, his concern is with the aggregate features of the economy and the polity that it sustains.

       The fact that Mandeville is essentially unmoved either by equity concerns or by the wretchedness of the lives of those at the bottom, helps to explain why it is that he can remain content with society as he finds it. Woolman’s linkage between the pursuit of superfluous consumption and poverty, slavery and injustice (even if Mandeville accepted the connection) would have left him unmoved. He does not share in the passion for social justice that has animated the reformers and revolutionaries of the last several centuries.

       Yet it was just this passion for a better world for the ordinary man that was to explode at the end of the eighteenth century with the French Revolution. From the perspective of the Revolution, the condition of everyman matters most of all and, with a new vision of what matters, comes a new way of thinking about progress and history.

       No figure better exemplifies this passion and this new vision than the French mathematician, historian, and political leader, Condorcet.



Condorcet and the Progress of Everyman


Born into a noble family, the Marquis de Condorcet was a leading figure during the French Revolution. In 1789 he was elected to the Commune of Paris and in 1791 to the Legislative Assembly, ultimately becoming its president. Yet in 1793 as the revolution devoured itself, Condorcet went into hiding. Over a nine month period he developed a two hundred page plan for his intended great work. This Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind is all we have of this vision; later that year he was arrested and died in prison at the age of fifty-one.

       In Condorcet we find the Idea of Progress in full bloom. He expresses it thus:


Nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties; . . . the perfectibility of man is truly indefinite; . . . the progress of this perfectibility, from now onwards independent of any power that might wish to halt it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us.37


       What is particularly interesting in Condorcet is his re-conceptualization of the real subject matter of history. When history is seen as political history, it is filled with particular events: wars, assassinations, coronations, declarations, and rebellions. To Condorcet this was secondary; there are certain critical events in history, even critical political events, but this is not what history is about. These events take on their importance only insofar as they bear on something else.

       For Condorcet, there is really only one story. It is the story of how mankind comes into an awareness of its ability to think for itself. It is the discovery of the power we possess in our own reason, our ability to learn and assess the world, each of us relying on our own rational abilities, free from reliance upon authority.

       The issue of authority is central to Condorcet’s account. The theme is reminiscent of Charles Peirce’s nineteenth century essay on “The Fixation of Belief” wherein Peirce considers the different ways in which people come to have and to hold their beliefs. He contrasts the “method of authority” with “the method of science.” In Condorcet’s world, this ultimate releasing of mankind from authority, that is, from the intellectual control of others, is the central theme of human history. So coming to be able to think for oneself, both in virtue of freedom from the control of others, as well as in terms of the actual capability of knowledgeable reflection constitutes mankind’s attainment of maturity. This, for Condorcet, is what matters.

       Along these lines it is possible to take as one’s subject matter “the human mind” or “the human spirit” and to see this as something that evolves over time, at first embodied most completely in one people and then in another people, great thinker, or philosophy. Hegel in fact did something of this sort. But what is most striking about Condorcet is that rather than thinking of “the human mind” as an abstraction, he took as the central subject of history the mind or mentality of the ordinary person. And going beyond this, he set this evolution of the ways of thought of the ordinary person within the context of a political struggle between the ruled and the rulers.

       The central value in terms of which Condorcet distinguishes those changes that constitute progress from those which do not is the “freedom of the mind.” This however has to be understood as being composed not only of a freedom from intellectual tyranny, but also a positive freedom that consists of the acquisition of the methods of rational inquiry. For Condorcet this development of the mind, a freedom from superstition, a freedom from authority, and certain mental dispositions (e.g. intellectual self-confidence, habits of rational inquiry) is of ultimate value. Condorcet, as much as anyone before or since, conceives of progress and of the history of mankind in terms of a movement towards enlightenment, understood in both its psychological and social dimensions.

       Given what we said earlier about the centrality of books to the vision of progress (are those of the ancients superior to those of the moderns?) it is interesting to note that books continue, though in a different way, to be central for Condorcet. He focuses on the invention of printing. This invention serves to mark off the seventh from the eighth stage in human history. Only the invention of the alphabet, which marks the third from the fourth stage, has an equal place. In blissful ignorance of our own century, though sounding very much like those who now sing the praises of the Internet, he wrote:


Has not printing freed the education of the people from all political and religious shackles? It would be vain for any despotism to invade all the schools; vain for it to issue cruel edicts prescribing and dictating the errors with which men’s minds were to be infected, and the truths from which they were to be safeguarded. . . . The instruction that every man is free to receive from books in silence and solicitude can never be completely corrupted. It is enough for there to exist one corner of free earth from which the press can scatter its leaves. How with the multitude of different books, with the innumerable copies of each book, of reprints that can be made available at a moments notice, how could it be possible to bolt every door, to seal every crevice through which truth aspires to enter? For though this was difficult enough even when it was only a question of destroying a few copies of a manuscript to annihilate it for ever, . . . has it not become impossible today when it would be necessary to maintain an absolutely ceaseless vigilance and an unresting activity?38


Thus, whether as the intrinsic touchstones of progress, or as the guarantor of intellectual liberation, books were again affirmed in their import.

While enlightenment is at the core of Condorcet’s conception of progress, it remained for Condoret only part of the story. At the same time, he parallels enlightenment and an increase in people’s happiness as the criterion of progress. Here, as before, he is exceptionally clear in directing our focus towards those invisible millions upon millions who constitute the bulk of humanity. Indeed, he tells us that what actually happens to these people is the real touchstone of progress and the subject of history. 

       I will quote this at length, as it represents a genuine turning point in human understanding:


Such are the subjects that ought to enter into a historical sketch of the progress of the human mind. In presenting it, we shall endeavor above all to exhibit the influence of this progress on the opinions and the welfare of the great mass of the people, in the different nations, at the different stages of their political existence. . . .39

       Up till now, the history of politics, like that of philosophy or of science, has been the history of only a few individuals: that which really constitutes the human race, the vast mass of families living for the most part on the fruits of their labor, has been forgotten, and even of those who follow public professions, and work not for themselves but for society, who are engaged in teaching, ruling, protecting or healing others, it is only the leaders who have held the eye of the historian. . . .

       It is this most obscure and neglected chapter of the history of the human race, for which we can gather so little material from records that must occupy the foreground of our picture. And whether we are concerned with a discovery, an important theory, a new legal system, or a political revolution, we shall endeavor to determine its consequences for the majority in each society. For it is there that one finds the true subject matter of philosophy, for all intermediate consequences may be ignored except in so far as they eventually influence the greater mass of the human race.

       It is only when we come to this final link in the chain that our contemplation of historical events and the reflections that occur to us are of true utility. Only then can we appreciate men’s true claims to fame, and can take real pleasure in the progress of their reason; only then can we truly judge the perfection of the human race.

       The idea that everything must be considered in relation to this single point of reference is dictated both by justice and by reason.40, 41


This is a great contribution. Both in its sophistication and its morality it truly represents progress over previous centuries of discourse. Here Condorcet not only puts forward a new conception of history, but a new standard in terms of which to decide whether or not history can be viewed as the story of progress: the condition of the common person.

       But what does Condorcet mean by improvements in the condition of the common person? On the one hand he has this rich notion of enlightenment. On the other hand, when he speaks of human happiness and of those things that will advance it, he operates on a very basic and practical level. His predictions for progress in the future, which are in many instances prescient, include:


  • voluntary birth control based on “a duty towards those who are not yet . . . not to give them existence but to give them happiness;”42
  • “New instruments, machines and looms” that “add to man’s strength and can improve at once the quality and the accuracy of his productions, and can diminish the time and labour that has to be expended on them [precisely what Aristotle did not understand—JMS]. The obstacles still in the way of this progress will disappear, accidents will be foreseen and prevented, the insanitary conditions that are due to the work itself or to the climate will be eliminated;”43
  • increased agricultural productivity;
  • social insurance, guaranteeing people in old age a “means of livelihood produced partly by their own savings and partly by the savings of others who make the same outlay, but die before they need to reap the reward;”44
  • an indefinite expansion of the life span through improved health and “the end of infectious and hereditary diseases and illnesses brought on by climate, food, or working conditions.”45


       What we find here are many of the elements that are emphasized in the politics of simplicity—a reduction in the arduousness of work, increases in the amount of leisure, increasing economic security, and improved health. Essentially, Condorcet is fleshing out how one would think of economic progress if one took it from the point of view of the life of the common man. Not as Mandeville asserted in terms of greater and greater luxury, but in terms of finally satisfying the core economic needs of everyman.

       Condorcet himself was a transitional figure, and the values that he used in defining progress still included the older criteria—the moral perfectability of mankind. But this, as well as Condorcet’s rich notion of enlightenment, did not endure. What did continue, however, was the notion that in deciding whether or not mankind has made progress, one should look at the conditions of ordinary people. Here however Condorcet’s concrete approach to material well being, in terms of health, food, security, leisure, and quality of work, never took hold.

       Instead, what emerged was a cross between Mandeville’s value-free endorsement of whatever the market produces, and Condorcet’s concern for everyman. In contemporary terms, this is growth with equity. For economists it is a rise in per capita GNP coupled with a concern for the Gini coefficient (which measures the degree of inequality of income). In short it is an embrace of the ever-expanding cornucopia of consumption, but with a concern that everyone get their share.

       The French social theorist Sorel maintained that the Idea of Progress was the ideology of the middle class. The values it ultimately embodies are those that Seneca rejected; they are the values associated with having more things, with expanded production, consumption, and acquisition. In short, they are the values associated with economic growth; the values of the economically rising class, the bourgeoisie. No one argued for progress on the grounds that there had been an expansion of the older values of the nobility: chivalry, military prowess, and personal fidelity. Nor was there progress to be found in terms of the Stoic values of inner freedom, self-understanding, wisdom, and peace. Nor are they successfully argued on the aesthetic grounds of art and literature. Rather the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns conceded that, in these terms, there may not have been progress. No, progress is evidenced first, as always, in the progress of knowledge and secondarily in the progress of technology and economic growth. So, one might say that given that the Idea of Progress is essentially a vision of history, the historical story that forms the dominant ideology is that of the dominant values, that of a rising and democratizing middle-class consumer.

       Whatever the limitations of this conception of progress, what it represents is an assertion of the importance of what is happening to the middle class. And as almost everyone comes to think of themselves as middle class, it represents a triumph of equality. Ultimately progress comes to be defined in terms of the well-being of individuals and, at least in theory, all individuals count and count of equal significance. 

       The fit between the idea of progress and the middle class consumer is not accidental. For progress to be a plausible vision of history, it had to be understood in terms of a narrower range of criteria. This means abandoning as benchmarks those areas in which progress is hard to find, such as moral virtue, aesthetic sensibility and enlightenment. But if we define progress in terms of a widening array of material goods for a wider and wider group of people, then evidence abounds. And analogously, in order to sustain the middle class consumer in his getting and spending there was need for a view of history which taught that this is what life is about, this is the dimension with respect to which what happens in time is significant.

       Today, we can dispense with the grand Idea of Progress, with the belief that history has been and will continue to be the story of progress. As a view of history this is both impoverished and naive. What we cannot dispense with however, is a definition of progress. Ultimately this is a matter of values, and is at the heart of any politics. For a politics of simplicity, a good starting point is the implicit definition implicit in Condorcet: an emphasis on the ordinary person, yet a concern with the extraordinary potentials of the human mind. This includes an awareness of the aesthetic realm coupled with a concern for the practical facts of economic life. This concern is with the material world but, rather than accepting unending acquisitiveness, it focuses on meeting core needs, increasing leisure, and reducing the arduousness of work. And with this, an essential recognition of the importance of freedom is understood, in part, as each person’s ability to think through for themselves the deepest questions of life and history and then to live accordingly.



Towards a More Adequate Definition of Progress


Interestingly, while the term “progress” does not play an important role in contemporary economics, the one area in economics in which there is considerable debate and innovation with respect to such matters is in what is called “development economics”. Unfortunately this is generally understood as the economics of poor countries, but the issues apply to the rich countries as well. Here it is the term “development” that is the central issue.

       In discussions of the Third World, the term is used with respect to a wide variety of subjects. Thus, we speak of economies as being undeveloped. We speak of political development. We speak of less-developed countries, of developing nations, and of underdeveloped societies. A comprehensive theory of development should offer an account of the relationship between these different applications.

       Rather than focusing on economies, nations, or countries as that which gets developed, we might focus on societies, and say that a developed economy is one that sustains a developed society. But what is it for a society to be developed? And is this the most basic notion of development? I think not. Instead we might say that societies are developed insofar as they give rise to human beings that are developed. It is the notion of the developed human being that is our central concept.

       Insofar as there are a multiplicity of alternative conceptions of a developed human being, there will be a multiplicity of notions of a developed society and quite possibly of a developed economy. The immediate question has to do with how one is to link an appraisal of societies to judgments about the kind of human beings they give rise to. One perspective emphasizes the heights of human development. Here one would look primarily for greatness or its absence. Surveying world history from this perspective is the kind of enterprise that was undertaken by those caught up in the debate between the Ancients and the Moderns. And when we do this, we do find remarkable differences. There are certain periods in which the human spirit seems to flourish, in which a kind of brilliance and power of intellect and sensibility stands out. In Western history we typically identify the classical period in ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance as two outstanding periods of human development.

       From this perspective development is not linear and progressive; it comes and goes. Thus mankind’s cumulative accomplishments are of less importance and those who argued for the ancients had a plausible case. One can quite reasonably argue that the heights of human development were attained over two thousand years ago; that in ancient Greece there was more creativity and human energy and a sharper sensibility and aesthetic awareness than at any time since. Their great thinkers were bolder and wittier than ours, their command of language and rhetoric more skillful. Their artistic creations were unparalleled, their skill and imagination rarely seen in human history. By contrast we appear confused, coarse, uncertain, mechanical, depressed, and misguided.

       Against such a perspective, what have we to offer to suggest that, say, twentieth- (or twenty-first-) century America represents a more developed society than Athens of the fifth century b.c.e.? Our list might look something like this:


  1. We know vastly more. The Greeks lived in considerable ignorance about the nature of the human and physical world. We have all the benefits of 2,500 years of discovery.
  2. Our average level of consumption is considerably higher. True, one might doubt that anyone could have lived much more luxuriously than those that lived best then, but on the average we are considerably better off.
  3. Their society depended on a slave class and an agrarian class that did not significantly partake in most of those things we celebrate with respect to ancient Greece, whereas over 50 percent of our high school graduates attend college.
  4. The condition of women, half of the population, is radically different now. In ancient Athens women were under the control and tutelage of men. They were married as children to mature males and rarely left the household compound. In general, they did not partake in the vast creativity nor in the democracy of Athens.
  5. In terms of health and life span, we are considerably better off. True, the oldest today are much the same age as the oldest then, but our average life span is over 70 years, while theirs was probably more like 20, with large numbers of children dying in infancy.
  6. Presumably, the vast majority of the Greeks who had to work, worked much harder and longer than we have to. We have the advantage of our vast capital and technological base which provides us not only with more output, but requires less labor input.


       What is interesting is that the case is not all that overwhelming. It is a strange mixture of considerations. Some seem very important; others, less so. What emerges more than anything else, however, is that our claim to be more developed stands primarily on the breadth of human development achieved rather than on the height. Broad social injustices toward slaves, women, and underclasses have been considerably overcome. Our highest peaks of education, consumption, psychic health, ease of life, and political participation may have been equaled or surpassed by many ancient Greeks, but in our society these benefits are more widespread.

       The issue goes well beyond Greece. It is unlikely that there have been any societies in which some people were not more fully developed than we are as a whole. Even in societies steeped in superstition and ignorance, societies without a written history, societies attached to human sacrifice, we will find individuals learned in their traditions, masters of their oral histories, creators of art and dance and music. We may not find other societies achieving either the heights or the breadth of human excellence found in Athens. But for whatever human attribute we value, be it intelligence, wit, creativity, craft, physical attainments, compassion, or moral breadth, we will always be able to find individuals who put us to shame. There are essentially two things that we do not find. One is accurate information (or knowledge, if you will), and the other is the widespread distribution of physical well-being.

       And our advantage with respect to knowledge comes little from ourselves; it is largely the accident of our being here rather than there. Most of us have absolutely no capacity for adding anything to the stock of what is known by mankind. Despite what Condorcet hoped, we are like most people have always been. We believe what we have been told. The difference is only that over the centuries mankind has made significant progress in attaining a vast stock of accurate information. Similarly, our greater incomes and wealth come not from possessing greater human capacities, but primarily because we are fortunate enough to have inherited an enormous stock of physical and intellectual capital which vastly enhances our labor productivity.

       Our claim to developmental progress, then, rests on two points:


  1. A vastly broader attainment of material well being and freedom;
  2. Our vastly more extensive and accurate information and science.


       The second of these is largely instrumental. The difference between people who believed the earth was flat and those who know it is round is simply not very important. What this suggests, then, is that our claim to greater development rests primarily on the breadth of well being. Given the horrors of human domination over others, and the terrible sufferings of starvation and early death that peoples have experienced, this is no small accomplishment. But it is only half of the story. Using both dimensions, the extent of development of various societies could be represented on a graph such as figure 6.1.

       There are many ways to think of the vertical dimension. Some may consider it in terms of the spiritual level to which a society rises. Others might emphasize the moral virtues or, the aesthetics realm, or the intellectual. Taken together the two dimensions allow us to envision the developed society as an environment within which an ideal of the human person is attained both in height and in breadth—the greatest development of the greatest number.

       Within this framework the case for a politics of simple living can be restated as the belief that the heights of human development are pluralistic, but that what they have in common is that they require a platform of achievement with respect to economic need. Once this platform of economic need satisfaction is achieved however, attaining fuller development requires that people turn away from the economic realm to pursue things more important, and to exercise their higher capabilities.


Figure 6.1



       What we look for in a developed economy then is that it provides this general platform of freedom from the economic for all persons. And it is on this platform that we individually and collectively seek a higher form of life. 




  1. The Instruction of Duauf, quoted in Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume IV, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951) p. 419.
  2. Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fitzgerald, (Garden City: Anchor Press, 1974) p. 150.
  3. Ibid. p. 154.
  4. Ibid. p. 526.
  5. Ibid. p. 526.
  6. Kitto, The Greeks, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1951) p. 44.
  7. Ludwig Edelstein, The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press), p. 35.
  8. Simone Weil, “The Iliad: Poem of Might,” Simone Weil Reader, ed. George A. Panichos (new York: David McKay Company, 1977), p.183.
  9. Frederick Teggart, “The Idea of Progress: An Historical Analysis” in The Idea of Progress, ed. Frederick Teggart (Berkley: University of California Press, 1949).
  10. Nisbet also rejects the idea that the “rediscovery” of the classical world occurred in the Renaissance; but what is important here is that that was the Renaissance perception.
  11. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner, (New York: Penguin Books, 1980), pp. 34-42. I was made aware of the significane of Thucydides for a history of the idea of progress by reading Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980).
  12. As quoted in J.B. Bury, The Idea of Progress (new York: Dover PUblications, 1960), pp 13-14. I draw heavily on Bury’s account.
  13. As quoted in Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress, p.46.
  14. Seneca, Epistulae Morales, in Teggart, The Idea of Progress, p. 95-96.
  15. Ibid., p. 98.
  16. An earlier consideration of the relative merits of the ancients and moderns can be found in Jean Bodin’s Method of Understanding History, which was published in 1566. Bodin cites various modern discoveries unknown to the ancients. See Nisbet, History f the Idea of Progress, p. 122.
  17. In the seventeenth century Turgot and Adam Smith stand out among those who argued that nothing was more detrimental to economic growth than the deliberate efforts of the state to manipulate the economy.
  18. Bury, The Idea of Progress, p.87.
  19. Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books, in A Tale of a Tub . . . (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958). p 246.
  20. Ibid. p. 258.
  21. Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, edited by F. B. Kaye, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 17.
  22. Ibid. p. 24.
  23. Ibid. p. 25.
  24. Ibid. p. 26.
  25. Ibid. p. 34
  26. Ibid. p. 35.
  27. Ibid. p. 148.
  28. Ibid. p. 169.
  29. See Amartya Sen’s essay in Ethics of Consumption, ed. David Crocker and Toby Linden (Lanham, Md.:Rowman and Littlefield, 1997).
  30. Mandeville, Fable of Bees, 169.
  31. Ibid. p. 170.
  32. Ibid. p. 171.
  33. Ibid. p. 171.
  34. Ibid. p. 248.
  35. Bernard Mandeville, “An Essay on Charity and Charity-Schools” in Fable of the Bees, p. 311.
  36. Ibid. pp. 314-17.
  37. Nicolas Condorcet, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the History of the Progress of the Human Mind (New York: The Noonday Press, 1955) p.4.
  38. Ibid. p. 102.
  39. Here, as elsewhere, he seems to be anticipating Marx. Would it be too much to say that Hegel found Condorcet standing on his feet, and stood him on his head, only to have Marx set him upright again?
  40. Condorcet, Sketch, pp. 170-172.
  41. Note that in this passage Condorcet speaks of societies at different “stages of their political existence;” in his general statement of the doctrine of the indefinite perfectibility of mankind he spoke of “the different stages of their development.” Because of the centrality of enlightenment and because for Condorcet the issue of enlightenment is inextricably a political issue, he can be said to have a conception of development as political development.
  42. Condorcet, Sketch, p. 189.
  43. Ibid. p. 187.
  44. Ibid. p. 181.
  45. Ibid. P. 199.