THE IDEA OF PROGRESS F. S. Marvin
The editor of these essays was busy in the autumn of last year collating the opinions attached by different people to the word 'progress'. One Sunday afternoon he happened to be walking with two friends in Oxford, one a professor of philosophy, the other a lady. The professor of philosophy declared that to him human progress must always mean primarily the increase of knowledge; the editor urged the increase of power as its most characteristic feature, but the lady added at once that to her progress had always meant, and could only mean, increase in our appreciation of the humanity of others.
The first two thoughts, harmonized and directed by the third, may be taken to cover the whole field, and this volume to be merely a commentary upon them. What we have to consider is, when and how this idea of progress, as a general thing affecting mankind as a whole, first appeared in the world, how far it has been realized in history, and how far it gives us any guidance and hope for the future. In the midst of a catastrophe which appears at first sight to be a deadly blow to the ideal, such an inquiry has a special interest and may have some permanent value.
Words are the thought of ages crystallized, or rather embodied with a constantly growing soul. The word 'Progress', like the word 'Humanity', is one of the most significant. It is a Latin word, not used in its current abstract sense until after the Roman incorporation of the Mediterranean world. It contains Greek thought summed up and applied by Roman minds. Many of the earlier Greek thinkers, Xenophanes and Empedocles as well as Plato and Aristotle, had thought and spoken of a steady process in things, including man himself, from lower to higher forms; but the first writer who expounds the notion with sufficient breadth of view and sufficiently accurate and concrete observation to provide a preliminary sketch, was the great Roman poet who attributed all the best that was in him to the Greeks and yet has given us a highly original picture of the upward tendency of the world and of human society upon it. He, too, so far as one can discover, was the first to use the word 'progress' in the sense of our inquiry. The passage in Lucretius at the end of his fifth book on the Nature of Things is so true and brilliant and anticipates so many points in later thought that it is worth quoting at some length, and the poet's close relation with Cicero, the typical Greco-Roman thinker, gives his ideas the more weight as an historical document.
He begins by describing a struggle for existence in which the less well-adapted creatures died off, those who wanted either the power to protect themselves or the means of adapting themselves to the purposes of man. In this stage, however, man was a hardier creature than he afterwards became. He lived like the beasts of the field and was ignorant of tillage or fire or clothes or houses. He had no laws or government or marriage, and though he did not fear the dark, he feared the real danger of fiercer beasts....