Adler On


The word progress is a modern word. It was not used in the ancient and medieval world. But what the word signifies did have some bearing on the philosophy of history that developed in antiquity and in the Middle Ages.

In the ancient world, one view of the pattern of human history was that it was cyclical -- an everlastingly recurrent pattern of growth and decline.

Another ancient view was that the golden age of mankind was in the far distant past. Since then there has been a steady decline.

In his City of God, Augustine tells us that divine providence operates in the opposite direction. Man's relation to God will have a brighter future.

For both Aristotle and Aquinas, no individual thinker contributes to improvements in thought -- improvements in science and philosophy. By the collaboration of many, advances are made.

With regard to progress itself, as that is discussed in modern times, certain questions should be in everyone's mind. One is the question of whether there is any progress in human nature -- whether in the course of historical time, human beings are improved in the traits that all human beings, as member of the same species, share.

Another basic questions is whether such progress as has been achieved is entirely in human institutions. If so, the next question to be considered is whether this institutional progress is quantitative or meliorative -- whether the institutional improvements are in the direction of more and more or in the direction of better and better.

The facts of history in the last 3,000 years, and certainly in the last 600, contain many examples of quantitative progress; the human population has increased in size; with advances in medicine, human beings live longer than they once did; and as scientific knowledge has grown from century to century, its technological applications have showered on us more and more instrument that have been immensely useful. In this century, there are more scientists alive and working together than in any previous period.

But the question remains whether the more is also the better -- whether the progress is meliorative as well a quantitative. To answer this question, we must appeal to the fundamental principles of ethics for the standards of evaluation. (I recommend a book by Charles Van Doren entitled The Idea of Progress [New York: Frederic A. Praeger, Publishers, 1967], especially Book Two, Part II and Appendix, pp. 317-475)

Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)
Recommended Readings on Social Problems

Revised 2 November 2000