Are you one of those people who has not given up hope that following generations will have better opportunities than you have had? If so, you may be interested to know when and how such hopes came to be considered realistic.
If progress is defined very broadly in terms of hope for advancement of mankind, it is possible to argue, as does Robert Nisbet, that the concept has ancient origins:
“the Western idea of progress was born of Greek imagery, religious in foundation; the imagery of growth. It attained its fullness within Christianity, starting with the Church Fathers, especially Augustine” (Idea of Progress: A Bibliographical Essay by Robert Nisbet, 1978-79).
Augustine held that prior to Judgement Day, the blessed will know an earthy paradise.
However, that is probably not what you have in mind if you hope that following generations will have better opportunities. As Nisbet acknowledges, “there is almost no end to goals and purposes which have been declared the fulfillment or outcome of mankind's progress”.
The goals I have in mind relate to growth of opportunities for human flourishing – the pursuit and achievement of happiness in a worthwhile life. More specifically, as discussed in a recent series of posts, flourishing entails opportunities for individuals to have the basic goods of a flourishing human: wise and well-informed self-direction, the prospect of a long and healthy life, positive human relationships, psychological well-being and living in harmony with nature. Hope for progress involves, among other things, an expectation that useful knowledge will continue to accumulate, and the material conditions of humanity will improve from generation to generation. In those terms, hope for progress isn’t necessarily associated with faith in the possibility of either an earthy or heavenly paradise.
J B Bury, the author of The Idea of Progress: An inquiry into its origin and growth (1921) viewed progress as movement of civilization in the direction of “an ultimate happy state … or of some state, at least, that may relatively be considered happy”. Bury’s emphasis on happiness seems appropriate, but the idea of “an ultimate happy state” seems inconsistent with the idea of ongoing progress.
I disagree also with Bury’s suggestion that “you have not got the idea of Progress until you … conceive that [civilization] is destined to advance indefinitely in the future”. Individual humans are destined to seek to advance their own happiness by reason of their human nature, but it doesn’t follow that civilization is destined to advance. Those who hope progress will be ongoing have a better grasp of the idea, in my view, if they acknowledge, with Karl Popper, that there are “conditions of progress” and “conditions under which progress would be arrested” (The Poverty of Historicism, 1957, p 142).
If we view progress in terms of the advance in useful knowledge and ongoing betterment of the material conditions of humanity, Bury’s claim that it is of comparatively recent origin seems correct. As noted by Joel Mokyr:
“A belief in future progress … requires an implicit model of what could have brought about such progress as well as evidence that such progress had happened in the past” (A Culture of Growth, 2017, reviewed here).
Mokyr argues that the relevant model - in which advances in useful knowledge came to be viewed as an engine of economic progress through improving production techniques - emerged in Europe in the 17th century.
French rationalists and advocates of liberte’
In Bury’s opinion, Bernard LeBovier Fontenelle “was the first to formulate the idea of the progress, of knowledge, as a complete doctrine”, in his Digression on the Ancients and Moderns (1688). Fontenelle argued that superior methodology, logical rigor and critical faculties enabled the science of the moderns to surpass that of the ancients. He also predicted that one day the current generation would themselves be ancients and their achievements would be surpassed by later generations.
Bury’s opinion of Fontenelle’s importance in the history of progress has been disputed, but Mokyr suggest that “although Fontenelle was no towering intellect”, “he was eloquent, well positioned, and influential”, and “part of an intellectual movement that reached its zenith with Condorcet” (p 262).
Before we discuss Condorcet, mention should be made of Abbe’ Saint Pierre and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. The Abbe’ widened the compass of progress to embrace progress toward social perfection. Bury notes that he “shared the illusion of many that government is omnipotent and can bestow happiness on men”.
Turgot viewed history as a record of human progress, advancing through periods of calm and disturbance toward greater perfection. Unlike some other French Enlightenment thinkers, particularly Voltaire, Turgot acknowledged Christianity as having been a powerful agent of civilization. He noted that the development of human societies has not been guided by human reason, but has occurred as a result of passion and ambition. Nisbet suggests that Turgot’s celebrated discourse, before an admiring audience at the Sorbonne in 1750, “probably” represented “the first full and complete statement of progress”. Mokyr observes that Turgot “seems to fall in the Candidesque error of thinking that almost any event in history, no matter how calamitous, led to progress in some fashion” (p 263). Mokyr’s judgement may be too harsh because Turgot’s laissez faire views on economics were apparently based on an appreciation of the mutual benefits of free exchange (see comments by Murray Rothbard).
The Marquis de Condorcet (known as Nicolas de Condorcet) was a supporter of the French Revolution, but his Sketch of a Historical Picture of the Progress or the Human Mind was composed after that, in 1793, during the Terror, while he was hiding from Robespierre. Condorcet viewed the history of civilisation as the history of enlightenment – he saw an indissoluble union between intellectual progress and the progress of liberty, virtue and respect for natural rights. Based on his analysis of history, he reasoned that humanity was on the cusp of a grand revolution toward a happy future. He seems to have viewed that outcome as inevitable, provided appropriate help was provided by people who wanted to be on the right side of history. He asked:
“What can better enlighten us to what we may expect, what can be a surer guide to us, amidst its commotions, than the picture of the revolutions that have preceded and prepared the way for it? The present state of knowledge assures us that it will be happy. But is it not upon condition that we know how to assist it with all our strength?”
Bury notes that Condorcet’s “principles are to be found almost entirely in Turgot”, but “Condorcet spoke with the verve of a prophet”. As prophets go, Condorcet seems to have been successful. He predicted equality of the sexes, mitigation of inequality in wealth by means of education, economic development obliterating distinction between “advanced and retrograde races”, and advances in medical science increasing life expectancy. His prophesy of cessation of war has yet to be fulfilled, but if Steven Pinker is right, there may even be a trend in that direction.
Scottish moralists and economists
Nisbet recognises the importance of Adam Ferguson’s contribution in documenting the history of arts, sciences and institutions, without mentioning his most important contribution. Bury mentions in a footnote that Ferguson “treated the growth of civilization as due to the progressive nature of man, which insists on carrying him forward to limits impossible to ascertain” and “formulated that process as a movement from simplicity to complexity”.
Further explanation is required. Ferguson argued that “man is susceptible of improvement” because of “a desire of perfection” stemming from “the powers that nature has given”. As humans strive “to remove inconveniencies, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages” they “arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate”. He suggests: “the forms of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin; they arise, long before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not from the speculations of men”. His main point:
“Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 1767).
Bill Easterly has noted recently that Ferguson used lack of intentional design to challenge the notion of innate European superiority leading to the right to coerce non-Europeans. He argues that superior group outcomes could not reflect innate superiority because those outcomes “arose from successive improvements that were made, without any sense of their general effect” (The Review of Austrian Economics, 2019).
Bury and Nisbet both recognize the importance to an understanding of progress of Adam Smith’s great work, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Bury notes that as well as a treatise on economic principles, The Wealth of Nations “contains a history of the gradual economic progress of human society, and it suggests the expectation of an indefinite augmentation of wealth and well-being”.
Smith’s well-known contributions on the gains from specialization and trade helped promote a broader understanding of economic progress, and of the potential for governments to hold it back.
Although he didn’t present a complete model of technological progress, Smith also made an important contribution to understanding of productivity growth. Smith suggested that “the invention of all those machines by which labour is so much facilitated and abridged, seems to have been originally owing to the division of labour”. He observed that people are “much more likely to discover easier and readier methods of attaining any object, when the whole of their minds is directed towards that single object”. That observation anticipates Friedrich Hayek’s insights on the importance of specific knowledge and Edmund Phelps insights on the importance of grassroots innovation to the economic development process.
In my view, Smith’s account of spontaneous order, building on the insights of Adam Ferguson, represents his greatest contribution to an understanding of progress. Smith observed:
“This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature, which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another”.
In his oft quoted passage about the “invisible hand”, Smith suggested that an individual pursuing his own commercial interests,
“by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain; and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it”.
Smith viewed progress as an outcome of voluntary exchange process with potential for mutual benefit. Bill Easterly reminds us that The Wealth of Nations, which is most famous as a critique of zero-sum mercantilist thinking, is also a critique of zero-sum colonialist thinking. Smith was scathing in his criticism of the conquest of the Americas. He wrote:
“The savage injustice of the Europeans rendered an event, which ought to have been beneficial to all, ruinous and destructive to several of those unfortunate countries”.
We can’t turn back history and there is a limit to what can be done to compensate for the injustices of the past, but we should ensure that our personal views of progress are consistent with generation of mutually beneficial outcomes, rather than use of force to enable some to prosper at the expense of others.
Hope for progress involves the expectation that useful knowledge will continue to accumulate, providing growing opportunities for human flourishing, including opportunities for voluntary and mutually beneficial exchange. That concept of progress emerged in Europe in the 17th century and was fully developed in the 18th century. Thinkers who were important in developing the concept include Fontenelle, Turgot and Condorcet, in France, and Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, in Scotland.