Progress?

In aNYRB review [subscription only]of Francis Fukuyamas bookThe Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution, William Pfaff, former editor and frequent contributor toCommonweal,wonders whether we may tell the tale of human history as one of progress. He writes:

Progress cannot usefully be discussed without discrimination among orders of progress, since human knowledge obviously expands. Scientific knowledge progresses, as does technological knowledge, invention, and exploitation. Humans in the aggregate have grown larger and healthier owing to science, better educated in the advanced civilizations, more sophisticated due to accumulated experience and recorded knowledge, vastly more powerful in their use of knowledge and technology. But have these humans themselves actually progressed?
The evidence of evolution as an account not only of the physical and social development of the human (and other) species demonstrates immense change inn our manner of life and thought, and above all in our tools, but in what sense has this been progress? In human terms, apart from the abolition of slavery, is the Middle East today a better place to live than was the prehistoric Eastern Mediterranean? Has human nature improved? The problem is in part terminological? Development commonly implies progress even it is applied simply to movement, activity, or the passage of time.
I am not myself aware that human character and conduct today display any general improvement over that recorded in the historical past. The political crimes of the twentieth century had their counterparts in the past, although the scale and reach of political crime subsequently became much more destructive, thanks to technology and modern bureaucratic organization, by comparison with so-called Asian barbarism, past wars of religion and race, enslavement, or mass extermination waged by men like Genghis Khan. Comparable things, or worse, continue to happen in our times. That men and women are morally improved from what they were at the beginning of recorded history has yet to be demonstrated. Fukuyamas 2006 book [America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy] identifies human progress with modernization, but is this a sustainable argument? Are modern Americans and their European contemporaries more advanced human beings than the founding Americans of 1776 or the Europeans of the Renaissance or Enlightenment? Do we find in modern society and contemporary universities the superiors of Socrates, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Herodotus, or of Shakespeare, Dante, and Mozart? They have not made themselves known.
What do you make of Pfaffs challenge to widespread beliefs in human progress? Are there indications of progress that he has overlooked? What orders of progress do you think need to be distinguished?

Progress cannot usefully be discussed without discrimination among orders of progress, since human knowledge obviously expands. Scientific knowledge progresses, as does technological knowledge, invention, and exploitation. Humans in the aggregate have grown larger and healthier owing to science, better educated in the advanced civilizations, more sophisticated due to accumulated experience and recorded knowledge, vastly more powerful in their use of knowledge and technology. But have these humans themselves actually progressed?The evidence of evolution as an account not only of the physical and social development of the human (and other) species demonstrates immense change inn our manner of life and thought, and above all in our tools, but in what sense has this been progress? In human terms, apart from the abolition of slavery, is the Middle East today a better place to live than was the prehistoric Eastern Mediterranean? Has human nature improved? The problem is in part terminological? Development commonly implies progress even it is applied simply to movement, activity, or the passage of time.I am not myself aware that human character and conduct today display any general improvement over that recorded in the historical past. The political crimes of the twentieth century had their counterparts in the past, although the scale and reach of political crime subsequently became much more destructive, thanks to technology and modern bureaucratic organization, by comparison with so-called Asian barbarism, past wars of religion and race, enslavement, or mass extermination waged by men like Genghis Khan. Comparable things, or worse, continue to happen in our times. That men and women are morally improved from what they were at the beginning of recorded history has yet to be demonstrated. Fukuyamas 2006 book [America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy] identifies human progress with modernization, but is this a sustainable argument? Are modern Americans and their European contemporaries more advanced human beings than the founding Americans of 1776 or the Europeans of the Renaissance or Enlightenment? Do we find in modern society and contemporary universities the superiors of Socrates, Euripides, Aeschylus, and Herodotus, or of Shakespeare, Dante, and Mozart? They have not made themselves known.

What do you make of Pfaffs challenge to the widespread belief in human progress? Are there indications of progress that he has overlooked? What orders of progress do you think need to be distinguished?

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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