Making Progress. Slowly.

Cover page from Pilgrim's ProgressA few days ago we had a beautiful gray sky, and the wind was blowing so that the trees were moving against that sky. I sat outside reading a novel about the war of independence in Bangladesh, and then I looked up to watch those trees move. I was thinking about how much people torture and abuse one another, and—going beyond the book I was reading—some of the reasons they give for that: you’re Bengali, you’re a woman, you’re gay, you’re from another country. And the thought came to me “I wish I could live a thousand years from now”.

I don’t mean I want to meet George Jetson and ride in a flying car. If technological changes happen anything like they have for the past thousand years, surely that part of the future will be astounding to someone from 2011. But that’s no reason to go to the future. I have people I want to be with here and now, and no technological marvels would make up for that.

But I’m making a second assumption about the future. Just as I figure technology will change dramatically, I assume that social changes will result in enormous progress. So a thousand years from now, I’d like to see a world where it is clearly not acceptable for some people to be idiotically rich while other people don’t go to the doctor because they can’t afford it. I’d like to see a world where religion is a completely personal matter, not something to condemn or kill people for. Or a world where the appearance of the body is relevant only when you want to find someone cute, but not relevant otherwise, such as when you want to find an engineer.

That would be progress. But what does the word “progress” mean? By etymology, which is not a definition, but I’m ignoring that, the word consists of the prefix “pro” (forward) and the root “gress” (move). Thus progress is forward movement. Toward what? Will we know when we get there? At various times progress is defined in terms of social relationships, or complexity of society, or sophistication of technology, or state of knowledge.

I would suggest that in western society the idea of progress is so deeply planted we don’t even know that it is an idea. It just seems like the natural state of the world, what history does. In terms of language, we frequently use the synonyms “move” or “movement” to refer to social changes. “We’re moving toward a more just world.” But as I used to tell my students, the ancient Egyptians had no concept of progress, and although their society lasted, albeit with some changes, for around 3,000 years, that society was not going anywhere. They were just there. Watching the Nile flow by, thinking about fishing or drinking some beer.

I’ve read one proposal that the idea of progress can be traced to St. Augustine, with the book City of God, written in response to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. Even though the Visigoths went away afterward, and even though by that point Rome was not the capital of the empire, citizens still emotionally considered the city the heart of the empire, and the wreck of the city by invading Germanic tribes left people from England to Africa feeling like the world was ending. (Actually, their world was ending.) Augustine wrote this book saying that even if this city of man was passing, the eternal City of God would be lasting. Among other things, Augustine was proposing that human history was moving toward something, toward an increase in belief in Christianity. That idea of movement was more or less our modern concept of progresss.

Some scholars have seen evidence of the idea of progress much earlier, in the Greek idea that human beings were steadily learning more, increasing their knowledge. This may not be progress in our modern sense, but it shows a concept of movement from ignorance to knowledge.

As we talk about it, the idea of progress is a metaphor, describing social changes with language of “movement forward” as if society were a single monolithic being that is walking. Of course prior to the metaphor, this is a philosophical matter. Because we all carry the idea of progress deep down, we are always looking at life through this filter. Does Russia finally have democracy? No, of course not. So that’s not progress. But Egypt is planning an election. That is progress. (There is still a buried enthymeme here about the value of democracy, but that’s another discussion.) Within 20 years Egypt will catch up with Russia and begin to pass them, leaving the Russians still cranky and making trouble. Language like “catch up” and “pass” are also metaphors arising from the “forward movement” concept. And we have adopted the language of progress even in small personal ways. Linda’s friends think she is making progress in getting over the breakup with Cory.

Just for the record, I’m not against riding in a flying car with George Jetson. I might even want to drive it.

The Jetsons in their car


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