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Idea of Progress

The First Prophet Of Progress, Inevitable Progress, The Idea Of Progress In The Anglo-american World

The idea of progress—the idea that human society can be made ever better by conscious effort, or that society is becoming ever better by spontaneous laws of history—is relatively new. The idea was virtually unknown in classical antiquity. In each of the three greatest books of that period, what we think of as progress is explicitly denied. In Plato's Republic, even the best possible political regime, based on the rule of the philosopher-king, is subject to inevitable decay and descent into tyranny. In the Politics, Aristotle argues that while frequent change is good in the arts and sciences it is not good in matters of politics and law. And Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War begins with the famous "archaeology" meant to remind the reader of the oblivion into which even the mightiest human empires must inevitably fall. In the classical mind, the prevailing view was that the courses of time and the motions of the universe consist of endless cycles of rise and fall—creation is always followed by dissolution. It took the coming of the Bible for the courses of time to be understood as a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. But with the Christian doctrine of sin and redemption in the heavens and not on this earth, it was many centuries before the biblical understanding of history was reinterpreted in the direction of human redemption on this earth and by secular means.

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