“Progress” originally just meant a journey. In the modern sense it means the notion of improvement: that the human race is getting better, not just in terms of economic and technological improvement and rising living standards, but also in terms of greater knowledge, more representative and less oppressive government, and even moral improvement. There is also the expectation that the future will be better than the present, just as the present is better than the past. Some of these ideas are unquestionably true; other have been questioned.
It is often difficult to realize that this is a purely modern outlook. It was first voiced by Condorcet, a French philosopher at the end of the 18th century, following the time of the Enlightenment, when religious belief came to be questioned and Reason was elevated in its place. (At the same time, Conservatism took on its modern meaning, to describe those who resisted such a change)
Prior to this, the most widely held view was Degeneration: that people in the past knew more than us, and past civilizations were superior to others; wiser and more moral; even their art and literature being better. This is seen in the writings of conservative intellectuals like Dr Johnson and Edward Gibbon. It is also the core principle of most religious belief: the Garden of Eden lay in the past and we have fallen since then: religious leaders in the past were closer to God than we are now, and so we should accept their teachings as gospel truth. (By contrast, the notion of Progress hopes for the coming of a golden age at some time in the future)
The Victorian age was the time when a belief in Progress really took off: when people realized they were living through a time of unprecedented change. It was the central theme in the philosophy of both John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx; the latter drawing on Hegel’s philosophy. Mill based his whole system round “man as a progressive being”, and Marx was certain the golden age was just around the corner, following the revolution.
Types of Progress, and evidence for it
The most obvious evidence for progress is in the fields of science and technology, including medicine. The mid-Victorians knew that their world had been transformed into something entirely different from what had gone before, and invented the term “Industrial Revolution” for it. The most obvious example was railways. Neither the Romans nor any earlier civilization had built railways, and as a result people were able to travel much faster, and to carry heavy goods far cheaper, than had ever been done before. The population of Britain was massively greater than ever before. Thanks to science, more was known about the world than people in the past had ever known. The nature of disease was beginning to be understood, and thanks to the invention of anaesthetics and antiseptic surgery, lives were being saved, and made less painful. There was also, for the first time in human history, plentiful supplies of clean water, perhaps the biggest advance of all.
Coupled with this was what is known as the “Whig interpretation of history”. This is the notion that British history especially is the story of steady progress towards individual liberty and democratic, constitutional government: citing such landmarks as Magna Carta, the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 which spawned the Bill of Rights, the 1832 reform of Parliament, and so forth. Britain, it was felt, was particularly privileged here, and in fact led the world towards these goals. (The “Whig interpretation” has been unfashionable amongst historians for some time now!)
The Victorians could also cite moral progress: the fact that deliberate cruelty was no longer acceptable; that prisons had been reformed and punishments less barbaric; that factory conditions had been improved and child labour banned; education provided by the state, and even the rights of animals protected by law. Even in religion, toleration had become general, and the doctrine of hellfire and eternal damnation downplayed. Once again, Britain seemed to be leading the way.
Having said this, you can see why Darwinism was so exciting to progressive thinkers. Darwin’s theory of evolution appeared to show how the competition for survival led to progress by eliminating species which were unable to cope and thus leaving room for the more efficient. Darwin did not actually say that mammals were in any sense “better” than dinosaurs, but that is how his ideas were widely interpreted. This “social Darwinism” was seized on by racists and imperialists, and also by free marketeers, who argued that free competition, by eliminating waste and inefficiency, was the only route to economic progress. (Note how the term “dinosaur” is still used in a pejorative sense: “trades union dinosaurs” etc)
The Victorians had little doubt that all this progress would be continued in the future. Underlying it all was the idea of the ultimate perfectibility of mankind and the hopes for a coming Golden Age in the future. The liberals and Marxists were at one here; they only differed about how the Golden Age would be achieved.
Unquestionably this Victorian optimism suffered severe setbacks in the first half of the 20th century. The two World Wars suggested that technological progress had merely provided more efficient ways of mass killing. Nazism and other violent revolutionary movements showed that men were still capable of savage cruelty on a massive scale. More recently, religious extremists have rejected the entire western outlook of toleration in favour of a return to doctrinal fundamentalism and the persecution of unbelievers.
Thomas Malthus, writing at the end of the 18th century, famously argued that mankind would inevitably starve, because food production could not keep pace with rising population. Although we can nowadays feed a population more than ten times what it was in his day, we still find outlooks similar to his pessimism amongst those alarmed at the prospect of climate change.
Conservatives have, by definition, always doubted the concept of progress, and can be detected by their habit of talking about “so-called progress”. (I don’t mean here the leadership of our conservative party, who are free-market liberals, seeking to achieve economic growth and higher production). Most religions deny reject the notion of human perfectibility, maintaining that man can only be saved from sin by divine grace. By contrast with modern conservatives, J. R. R. Tolkien was a genuinely conservative Roman Catholic, who believed in respect for authority, mourned the disappearance of the English countryside and in his later years did not even possess a car. His ideas thus had quite an overlap with those of the Green lobby; which in turn can be said to have a definitely conservative tinge.
Thus brings us to Rousseau, the source of so many green-conservative and anti-progress ideas. He first came to prominence with a prize-winning essay on the subject of “How the arts and sciences have benefitted mankind”. Rousseau’s ringing answer was, “They haven’t! Civilization is all wrong! We were happier when we lived in the trees!” He greatly admired the stone age Red Indian tribes of North America (whom he knew, of course, only from travellers’ tales), saying they were “very well governed”. He believed international trade had disastrous consequences, making people dependent on foreign luxuries. He asked, as many of his followers do today, whether civilization had made people any happier, or any more moral? If not, what was the point? And for improved medicine, if people were more content with a simple lifestyle and didn’t crave unnecessary luxuries like sugar, they wouldn’t become ill! We still come across many such arguments today.
A conservative philosopher, Anthony O’Hear, once asked in a lecture I attended whether there had been any progress in the arts. Could we possibly argue, for instance, that Rothko was a better painter than Raphael, or that any modern playwrights are superior to Shakespeare? It was only afterwards that I realized that, while this question could not be answered, there could be no doubt that access to the arts had improved vastly. For the first time in our history, anyone can now access good music, art or literature (however we choose to define “good”) at very little cost, and this surely has to be progress.
By contrast, a great British liberal historian, Jack Plumb, argued strongly that the fact of progress is irrefutable. Medicine has so far advanced that life expectation is far longer than before, infant death is now uncommon, and there is no reason to suffer pain. (The best argument for living in the present time is dentistry!) Literacy is near-universal. We have become much more shocked by violence and cruelty; we no longer practice executions, mutilation or judicial torture, and rightly regard those countries which do as backward and primitive. We expect government to be tolerant of dissident opinion, and not to persecute those who do not conform.
When David Cameron talks of “British values”, he in fact means those of the 18th century or later. If we believed in the “British values” of Tudor times we would still be torturing suspects, hunting out witches and burning heretics at the stake! This must surely be counted as progress!
But what if Malthus was right after all? The world population surely cannot keep on increasing indefinitely at the present rate. Fossil fuels will not last forever, and the alternatives to them are expensive. Will progress, in the form of ever-higher living standards, soon have to stop?