The Idea of Progress

George S. Painter
American Journal of Sociology
Vol. 28, No. 3 (Nov., 1922), pp. 257-282
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Page Count: 26
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The Idea of Progress


1. Origin of the idea of progress. It arose in Greek thought from the changes and processes in nature and life. But the notion of regress was opposed to it These conflicting views result from the different types of minds. 2. Brief historical survey. The views of progress and regress are traced in Greek and Roman thought, throught early Christianity and the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the eighteenth century. The theory of evolution in the nineteenth century made progress a necessary law of nature and gave the doctrine its first conscious scientific form. But criticism shows that it fails like its predecessors. 3. Possibilities and limitations of progress. Only in Psychical nature of man has there been real progress. Intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical progress have been unquestionable. Every science and art have been advanced. 4. The actual progress of human intelligence. This is seen in the improved art of living mechanical inventions, and division of labor. But industrial evolution has brought with it new dangers. Material progress does not necessarily better man's own nature. 5. True progress concerns man himself. Aesthetic betterment is desirable and possible. But the ethical problem is the supreme difficulty. Morality rests in freedom and can be brought under control only by the individual himself. Intelligence simply, magnifies the power for good or evil. Man is both better and worse than ever before. The rationalizing of life is the only road to true progress. 6. Social progress. Forms of government are merely conditions of social opportunity. The Versailles Treaty was a step backward. The United States is drifting on uncharted seas. But civilization is in no danger of relapse. The printing-press has built a storehouse for knowledge that precludes a recrudescence of the Dark Ages. Man has advanced along the lines of his desires and finds happiness in their realization. The whole history of science and philosophy is on the record of a ceaseless progress.