The Illusion of Progress

Ever since I purchased a book titled The Rise of the West by William H. McNeill, I wondered about why the word Rise would be tied to a history of Western civilization. Finally, at page 263, I came upon some words that made it clear to me that the concept of human progress began with the sophist philosophers of Greece around 500 B.C. This is what McNeill wrote.

“The sophists undertook to teach the arts whereby an ambitious man, even of ignoble birth, might learn to influence the assembly and lead the people by virtue of a proper use of words. But, beyond that, the sophist claimed to have a method of verbal reasoning according to precise rules of argument, whereby a man might hope to unravel all the mysteries of the universe, given the necessary acuity and an appropriate store of information. To hear and understand the radical ramifications of the famous phase, ‘Man is the measure of all things,’ from the mouth of Protagoras (ca. 480–410 B.C.) himself; to discover the parochial limits of traditional Athenian concepts of the gods, the world, and men’s place in it; personally to grasp after new truths to replace the unexamined superstitions of the past: all this must have been in the highest degree exciting, and, at first, liberating.”

I cannot distinguish from the words McNeill wrote any difference in the thinking of the sophist philosophers and that of twenty-first century humanist philosophers. If this is true, then possibly the idea of progress in human understanding is simply an illusion. We have been told that rise is inevitable in human affairs. However, if there has been no identifiable progress in secular philosophy in the approximately 2,500 years separating the sophists from the humanists why should we think progress is a certainty.

I think progress has been confused with increasing complexity. McNeill meant by rise the ever increasing complexity of human culture. Western thinkers looked at the growth of complexity in most areas of human endeavor and tied it to the idea of inevitable human progress. It makes an optimistic and promising story and most of us have accepted it. However, it neglects to show there are two sides of history. Along with the betterment of the human condition due to improvements in the way people live there have been regressions in the way people think. I think we should not be blinded by the appearance of things but look deeper into the reality.