Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
We live in an age that has lost its optimism. Polls show that people think the world is getting worse, not better. Children fear dying from environmental catastrophe before they reach old age. Technologists are as likely to be told that they are ruining society as that they are bettering it.
But it was not always so. Just a few centuries ago, Western thinkers were caught up in a wave of optimism for technology, humanity, and the future, based on the new philosophy of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment was many things, but in large part, it was a philosophy of progress.
At the end of the 18th century, the Marquis de Condorcet gave expression to this philosophy and its optimism in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In it, he predicted unlimited progress, not only in science and technology, but in morality and society. He wrote of the equality of the races and the sexes, and of peace between nations.
His optimism was all the more remarkable given that he wrote this while hiding out from the French Revolution, which was hunting him down in order to execute him as an aristocrat. Unfortunately, he could not hide forever: he was captured, and soon died in prison. Evidently, the perfection of mankind was slow in coming.
Material progress, however, was rocketing ahead. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and then the Civil War in America, the path was clear for technological innovation and economic growth: the railroad, the telephone, the light bulb, the internal combustion engine.
By the end of the 19th century, it was obvious that the world had entered a new age, and progress was its watchword. The naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (best known for his work on evolution with Darwin) titled his book about the 1800s The Wonderful Century. In it, he attributed 24 “great inventions and discoveries” to the 19th century, as compared with only 15 in all of human history preceding it. The boundless optimism of the early Enlightenment seemed to have been justified.
And if the material progress prophesied by Francis Bacon could be realized, perhaps the moral progress prophesied by Condorcet would come true as well. By the end of the 19th century, slavery had been ended in the West, and some hoped that the growth of industry and the expansion of trade would lead to and end to war and a new era of world peace.
They were wrong.
The 20th century violently shattered those naive illusions. The world wars were devastating proof that material progress does not inevitably lead to moral progress. Technology had not put an end to war—in fact, it had made war all the more terrible and deadly. In 1945, the nuclear bomb put a horrible exclamation point on this lesson: the most destructive weapon ever devised was the product of modern science, technology, and industry.
At the same time, other concerns were coming to the fore—including old ones like poverty and new ones like the environment. By the mid-20th century, the philosophy of progress had been dealt a severe challenge. The optimism at its foundation had been shaken. In its place, we saw the rise of radical social movements based on a deep distrust of technology and industry. Today, progress and growth are called an “addiction,” a “fetish,” a “Ponzi scheme,” or a “fairy tale.” Some even advocate a new ideal of “degrowth.”
It’s no wonder, then, that the last 50 years have seen relative stagnation in technological and industrial progress. Nuclear power was stunted, the Apollo program was canceled, the Concorde was grounded.
But now, in the 21st century, some people are starting to call attention to the problem: Peter Thiel, Tyler Cowen, Patrick Collison. There’s now a growing community that recognizes the threat of stagnation and the value of progress.
The 19th century philosophy of progress was naive. But the 20th century turn away from progress was no solution.
We need a new philosophy of progress for the 21st century. One that teaches people not to take the modern world for granted. One that acknowledges the problems of progress, confronts them directly, and offers solutions. And one that holds up a positive vision of the future.
This article was originally published on Roots of Progress. Reprinted with permission.