Democritus and the Sources of Greek Anthropology Association)
The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity
The historian, we are frequently reminded, has to have sympathy with his subject. There is validity in the injunction: it would be difficult for anyone to write a reasonable history of the Assyrians if he shared the hatred expressed in the Old Testament. But there is also danger. Sympathy easily slides into identification, so that a past culture or society begins to look and sound like the historian’s image of his own. Sympathy in that disguise requires the people who are the subject of the inquiry to have thought and felt in the right, advanced ways, not only in high culture but equally in social attitudes or economic doctrines. Histories of Greece and Rome still appear, in various western languages, in which slavery is scarcely mentioned (or is whitewashed); in which the brutality of the gladiatorial games is ignored or romanticized; in which all politicians are statesmen unless they are “tyrants” or have plebeian habits and impulses; in which such slogans as libertas and humanitas are taken at face value and their advocates are assumed to be contending with present-day problems and opponents.
In the history of ideas, narrowly defined, sympathetic identification requires not merely a blind eye but also a fond maternal one. That trait was what moved Joseph Schumpeter, for example, to protest against the habit of attributing theoretical understanding to mere “commonsense knowledge” in economics: “The layman’s knowledge…that division of labor increases the efficiency of the productive process is obviously prescientific and it is absurd to point to such statements in old writings as if they embodied discoveries.” It may be a heavy cross to bear, but it happens to be true that no surviving Greek or Roman writer developed any economic analysis from the starting point of division of labor, as Adam Smith did in The Wealth of Nations. The “failure” was not of the intellect, but of life. Adam Smith’s pin factory, producing an average of 4800 pins per worker per day, was an existing institution, which he observed, whereas in antiquity there was nothing of the kind, and no prospect of one.
OF COURSE ancient thinkers knew that their society was more complex and advanced than earlier ones. A few speculated on how the advance had come about, and some of their speculations were elaborate, sophisticated, and notably de-mythologizing. The best, Professor Thomas Cole points out, were “uncompromisingly naturalistic,” stressing the decisive role of past technological progress, with a “basically utilitarian” motivation behind it. The scheme to which Professor Cole has devoted his book starts with the assumption that the earliest men were nomadic food-gatherers, ignorant of fire, clothing, shelter, and the art of storing food, with starvation frequent. The first step forward came when men learned to take shelter and store food; the next stage encompassed the invention of houses, clothing, fire, and the method of processing wild grains. That was the big step, for connected with it was the formation of the first societies and the first languages …
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.