In the modern world, we assume progress.
We do so because, among other things, we see it all around us. The iPhone 5S was better than the iPhone 5C, which was better than the iPhone 5, which was better than the iPhone 4S, which was better than the iPhone 4, which was better than the iPhone 3GS, which was better than the iPhone 3G, which was better than the 1st generation iPhone. I remember the dial telephone with a three foot coiled cord.
It could be our infatuation with technology that underlies our assumption that civilization is forever progressing.
But it’s wrong.
Interestingly, the ancients actually assumed the opposite.
Book five of The Iliad follows Diomedes’ busy day on the plains before the city of Troy. This was my favourite part of the story the first time that I read it. He has just killed boastful Pandarus with a spear shot that severed the braggarts tongue. Aeneas is attempting to recover the body, but has to face Diomedes who “picked up a stone, a massive rock which no two men now alive could lift. He threw it all by himself with ease.”
The Greeks thought that the great men of old were better than we are today.
The modern story is much more optimistic. The increase of knowledge in the area of science and the achievements which follow as knowledge is converted to power through technology certainly can give the impression that civilization is advancing.
Philosopher John Gray, author of The Silence of the Animals: On Progress and other Modern Myths, suggests that growth of scientific knowledge and technological power is not the same thing as ethical development. We do not become more civilized, rather we merely produce new forms of civilization as well as new forms of barbarism.
He points out that we don’t unlearn scientific knowledge, but we regularly forget the moral lessons of the past. Errors in science don’t come back, but we regularly resurrect and repeat the moral errors of the past. Progressives tend to believe in gradual and incremental progress, but this idea assumes we retain what has gone before. This is not the case; we destroy our ethical foundations and without the stability of the past we can never improve. Gray says, we are constantly changing what is good and what is evil, consequently what appears to be moral evolution is always a short upward movement toward whatever the fashionable idea of the day.
I’m currently reading Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 by Max Hastings. In the beginning of hostilities in WWI, the Germans were so angry at the French francs-tireurs (guerrillas of sorts) in the Franco-Prussian war over 40 years earlier, that the leadership authorized the execution peasants and the burning of villages. Consequently, in the opening days of the war, almost 6,500 civilians were executed (often without even meager evidence) and many thousands left homeless in Belgium and France by the Kaiser’s armies. In The Iliad, Homer tells the story of Achilles, so violently despondent over the death of his cousin that he profanes the body of noble Hector after slaying him in combat. It’s the same story, separated by millennia. 100 years of tremendous technological advancement separate us from the German atrocities of World War I, and the same scenario is reported everyday in the newspapers all over the world.
Human cultural, ethical, moral progress is a myth.
Scientific knowledge and technology doesn’t make us better, it just give us more power to do what we do–whether that be good or evil.