The Roots of Progress

The idea of progress

March 23, 2017

I began this project simply thinking that I wanted to study the history of the Industrial Revolution.

There wasn’t an obvious place to start. I searched for books and asked friends for recommendations, but there wasn’t a clear one-volume overview that could serve as a starting point.

At the same time, I had recently read a great article in The Atlantic, “Progress Isn’t Natural”, by Joel Mokyr. I was especially intrigued by this quote:

… most people in the more-remote past believed that history moved in some kind of cycle or followed a path that was determined by higher powers. The idea that humans should and could work consciously to make the world a better place for themselves and for generations to come is by and large one that emerged in the two centuries between Christopher Columbus and Isaac Newton. Of course, just believing that progress could be brought about is not enough—one must bring it about. The modern world began when people resolved to do so.

The article continues:

Why might people in the past have been hesitant to embrace the idea of progress? The main argument against it was that it implies a disrespect of previous generations. … With the great voyages and the Reformation, Europeans increasingly began to doubt the great classical writings on geography, medicine, astronomy, and physics that had been the main source of wisdom in medieval times. With those doubts came a sense that their own generation knew more and was wiser than those of previous eras.

This was a departure from the beliefs of most societies in the past, which were usually given to some measure of “ancestor worship”—the belief that all wisdom had been revealed to earlier sages and that to learn anything one should peruse their writings and find the answer in their pages.

So I ended up beginning my reading with Mokyr’s new book, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy.