The Ancient Concept of Progress
by E.R. Dodds
Oxford University Press, 210 pp., $13.75
Those, I hope they are many, who have read two of his earlier books, The Greeks and the Irrational and Pagans and Christians in an Age of Anxiety, will know that Professor Dodds is that rare creature, a very learned scholar who wishes to share his thoughts not with his fellow scholars only but also with intelligent readers who are not specialists in his field, which in this day and age means persons who cannot read Greek. They will also, I think, have received the impression that, as a man, he is a rationalist and a believer in the “liberal values,” but at the same time acutely conscious of the difficulties and dangers inherent in both rationalism and liberalism.
The present volume consists of twelve papers, the first written in 1929, the last in 1971, covering a wide range of subjects. This makes the task of a reviewer very difficult, since each chapter deserves a review to itself.
Progress is a term with many different meanings. Before men can conceive of progress or decadence, they must have had personal experience of change. Thus primitive tribes, living by hunting or agriculture, whose way of life has remained the same for generations can have no idea of progress and usually credit such inventions as fire, weapons, agricultural tools either to a god or to a cultural hero.
Objectively speaking, there is only progress if B supersedes A. Thus, in the arts, though there are periods of flowering and sterility, there is no such thing as progress, only change. The plays of Shakespeare do not supersede the plays of Aeschylus, or the music of Mozart the music of Monteverdi. In the sciences, on the other hand, there is progress: the cosmos of Copernicus superseded the cosmos of Ptolemy, as the discoveries of modern astronomy have superseded Copernicus. In the case of the pure sciences, I think one can say that this progress is also an intellectual and moral good. In the case of technology this is not necessarily so. The modern camera and automobile improve upon their predecessors in that they are more efficient at what they set out to do, but one can think, as I do, that both are evil implements which should never have been invented. In recent years we have learned that discoveries in the pure sciences can have disastrous technological applications: we now realize better than our forebears did the truth of Goethe’s dictum, “We need a categorical imperative in science as much as we need one in ethics.”
It is only in social and political history that progress must mean a moral change for the better, which is why there are few times—the early fifth century in Athens, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England and France—when people have been able to believe in it. It is much easier to believe in a lost paradise, either the golden age of Hesiod or the fall of Adam in Genesis, and in the myth of eternal …