The Myth of Progress


Photo by Prateek Verma on Unsplash

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

This quote is attributed to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. I don’t think it’s true. For one thing, I don’t think it is necessarily the most dangerous phrase — others are more dangerous. For instance, “because we’ve always done it this way, let’s try something else” would be more dangerous when applied to driving on the left or eating glass.  Sometimes the way we’ve always done things is the best way to do it.

That’s the way it is with sayings; they aren’t universally true, but they communicate a truth.

Hopper’s saying resonates particularly with Westerners because we love change. We tend to equate change with progress.  We believe that new ways are better than old ways.

Time and Decline

Interestingly, the ancients actually assumed the opposite.

Book five of The Iliad follows Diomedes’ busy day on the plains before the city of Troy. In one episode, Diomedes has just killed boastful Pandarus with a spear throw that severs the braggart’s tongue. Aeneas attempts to recover Pandarus’ 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 the men alive in their time, and not only in terms of physical strength.

The book of Genesis in the Bible shows the same idea.  The first men lived far longer than we do today.  Adam 930 years and Methuselah made it to 1069.

Time and Progress

The Modern story, however, holds that our times are better than previous times. The increase of knowledge in the area of science and the conversion of knowledge to power through technology certainly can give the impression that civilization is advancing.

Check out this Radio Shack flyer from twenty-five years ago. The author of the accompanying article points out that the function of almost every item from the coolest page in the newspaper in 1990 is now on the phone in my pocket. If that ain’t progress, I don’t know what is.

It is progress, but only in two categories–scientific knowledge and technological sophistication.  This is not the same as cultural or moral development.  In these we’ve not progressed at all; human beings remain the same. The problem is that our scientific knowledge and technological power do not make us better, they only increase the effects of what we do–be that good or evil.

Human cultural and moral progress is a myth.

Chronological Snobbery

Agent Colson told us as much  in the pilot episode of Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D.

People tend to confuse the words, ‘new’ and ‘improved.’

C. S. Lewis also argues that is that time is not structured by progress.

“The idea of the world slowly ripening to perfection, is a myth, not a generalization from experience. ”

— (“The World’s Last Night”)

In Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, an experienced demon, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, Wormwood, a novice tempter, on how to undermine the faith of “the Patient” and thereby secure his soul for damnation. One of the diabolical strategies for populating hell, is to control how modern man understands the past.

Screwtape describes the “the intellectual climate which [the devils] have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe” (139). He jubilantly reports,

Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done so by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. . . . To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded. And since we cannot deceive the whole human race all the time, it is important to cut every generation off from all the others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another. (139-140)

Lewis calls this view of history, “chronological snobbery,” and defines it as “the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” (Surprised by Joy 167).

Blinded by our technology, we stubbornly cling to the Myth of Progress.

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.” –Malcolm Muggeridge

We are certainly progressing technologically, and we are moving steadily toward a more free, open, liberal or tolerant society. But make no mistake, humanity is making no progress culturally, politically or morally.  Nor will we–ever.


  1. Aaron

    I remember when you were just starting out as a blogger. How long ago that seems. It’s nice to see your writing has progressed over time and become more thoughtful and in depth. Just think what these posts will be like if you keep writing for another few years! Pure brilliance I’m sure.

    Oh wait, did I just miss the point of this post?

    Keep writing good sir. There always seems to be something interesting to read about whether it be post one or the latest one. The Woddy Allen movie Midnight in Paris would be an interesting source to add to the discussion. It raises the idea of a creative ‘golden age’ and how we often gloss history due to our disappointment with the current age. The author finds that his heroes of the 1920s (Hemingway as one) lament their time and look to the late 19th century as better who in turn look back and so on.
    Education is a good example of a field where ‘progress’ dominates. The phrase ‘old school’ is often used derisively without much thought given to why a certain practice is used or what good came out of it. “It’s 2015!” Is covers over a multitude of sins. “And it’s almost 2016!” I say. Now put your damn cell phone away and think.
    Happy new year!

  2. Trent

    You can tell a difference, really? I really like Midnight in Paris. My wife doesn’t like Woody Allen or Owen Wilson but we saw it anyway because there was some talk of Oscar and my wife and I see almost all movies around which there is the “Oscar Buzz.” We really enjoyed it, and yes, it does bring into question the assumption of progress.

    Your comments on education, show me to be a progressive. I certainly hold tightly onto what works, but it’s sometimes hard for me to sort out the difference between “what works” and “that with which I am most comfortable.” These are all too often not the same thing.

    Thanks for reading, Aaron. (I used to read The Hobbit to my grade 7 students every Friday afternoon. I must have done that 10 years in a row. I don’t do this anymore, now that I teach high school. Maybe that’s wrong.)

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