Is Progress Real?

The Roman writer Aulus Gellius relates an amusing story in his book Attic Nights (Noctes Atticae, IX.4).  Returning from Greece to Italy and stopping at the port of Brundisium, he decided to visit the local market and see what was available for sale.  Finding some bundles of old books by eminent Greek authors, and attracted by “their extraordinary and unexpected cheapness”, he purchased them with relish.  His enthusiasm was short-lived.  After examining them on two successive nights, he found them to be filled with childish fables, incredibilities, and myths masquerading as fact.  The authors assured readers, for example, that the Scythians consumed human flesh; that cyclopses existed in northern Europe; and that a race of men could be found whose feet were turned backward.


Gellius was further chagrined to find an apparently learned writer claiming that some Illyrians possessed two pupils in each eye and could kill a man by glaring at him; and that “in the mountains of the land of India there are men who have the heads of dogs, and bark, and that they feed upon birds and wild animals.”  He notes that his own countryman, Pliny the Elder, had occasionally related similar nonsense in his monumental Natual History (Historia Naturalis).  Reaching the limit of his endurance, Gellius says:  “These and many other stories of the kind I read; but when writing them down, I was seized with disgust for such worthless writings, which contribute nothing to the enrichment or profit of life.”

His contempt was understandable.  But perhaps Gellius was a bit too hard on Pliny and the other clueless scribblers. Man’s knowledge of the world was more limited than what we know today.  He forgot that those writers did the best they could with the information available to them at the time.  It is not that his predecessors were stupid.  It was just that they did not have the benefit of reliable travel reports, scientific instruments, and consistent ways to disseminate knowledge.  No doubt our remote descendants will laugh at our own pitiful ignorance of the solar system and its mysteries.  I hope that, as they smile over our own printed absurdities, they will extend us some measure of sympathy.


Have we progressed in knowledge and understanding since Gellius’s day?  There are many faces of knowledge, and progress in all these faces is uneven.  In science and technology, of course, we are far ahead of our ancestors.  But in morals, the training of character, and virtue, the answer is much less certain.  Our instrumentalities have become more advanced and complex, but our purposes and instincts remain the same as they always have been.  Seen in this light, “progress” amounts to little else than new ways of achieving old goals.  We fly around the world in dazzling times, and communicate with another at an instant; but have we really advanced beyond our ancestors in ethics and morals?  We sense, somehow, that ancient and medieval man may have been wiser than we in emphasizing art, spiritual values, and beauty, rather than the vulgar worship of the latest gadgets of science and technology.

Ancient historians, for example, often valued character and moral training over historical precision.  They recorded imaginary speeches, portents, and oracles, but there was a purpose behind these rhetorical exercises.  History was viewed as a teaching tool for character and moral development.  No modern writer can compete with, say, Plutarch, Livy, Quintilian, or Thomas a Kempis in moral training.  Contrast this with our own day, where education overemphasizes factual knowledge, but completely neglects training in leadership, character, and morals.  The results are obvious, and assault our senses every day.


So is progress real?  The French writer Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (1657-1757), in his Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes, made some important observations in this regard.  According to Fontenelle, there had been little or no progress since ancient times in poetry, literature, and art, but there had of course been considerable progress in science.  Moreover, each nation goes through stages of development.  In its infancy, a nation devote itself to pure survival; later it cultivates the works of imagination, like poetry and art; and in its old age, it devotes itself to science and technology.  For Fontenelle, progress was real and tangible.  Only a fool would doubt that man had made tremendous strides toward his perfectibility across the centuries.

There is much to be said for this view.  But perhaps I am that fool that Fontenelle speaks of.  Looking at world history since the beginning of the twentieth century, it is now clear that science is neutral, rather than a gateway to utopia.  It can kill us just as quickly as it can save us.  Reading the works of ancient and medieval man, and learning about their societies, shows that perhaps imagination truly is more important than knowledge.  Somewhere along the line, once the Age of Reason began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Western thought made a conscious decision to place its faith in science and technology, at the expense of its spiritual and imaginative heritage.

In doing so, it forgot the profound power of the imagination in opening the doors of perception.  The rejection of our spiritual heritage has cut us off from other ways of perceiving the world, ways that do not involve machines or mechanical intermediaries.  The Orientalist scholar Henry Corbin, who authored many books on Sufi mysticism, believed that the “imaginal world” was every bit as real as the physical world.  For Corbin, the mystic’s world of imagination was the “isthmus” or bridge that connected the corporeal world with the imaginal world of the Divine.  Without a cultivation of the imagination, he held, a man could never hope to achieve true enlightenment.  By polishing his soul, a man could achieve unique knowledge of the Divine Essence.  The West’s great intellectual mistake since the Age of Reason, he believed, was to place all its faith in technology and turn its back on its Eastern spiritual legacy, which spring from this “imaginal world.”

We cannot be sure Corbin was wrong.  All around us, I think, is evidence that the great thinkers of the Age of Reason may have placed too much faith in “reason” as a cure-all for man’s woes.  We have access to more and more, but seem to perceive less and less.  We are drowning in information, but are more ignorant and unfulfilled than ever.  The breakdown in discipline is a direct result of the abandonment of our ancient moral code, which sprang from imaginative religion. Every untried youth of twenty now believes himself fit to pass judgment on the intellectual heritage of millenia.

Reason deceives as much as it enlightens.  As man becomes more and more aware of the failures of reason in advancing man’s progress, it may be that the social pendulum will swing back towards a greater emphasis on character, faith, spirituality, and ethical progress.  For progress to be real, we will eventually realize, it must take place across a wide spectrum of human knowledge, and this includes the imaginative world.  True and lasting progress means harnessing the imagination for creative endeavor, training the character and conduct to cope with the strains of earthly toil, and tapping into that hidden reservoir of potential that every man possesses, but few men use.

Even Gellius would have agreed with that assessment.

Read More:  Julius Caesar’s Gallic War

43 thoughts on “Is Progress Real?”

    1. Your comment highlights precisely everything he was speaking about in the article. If your post was to illustrate his point perfectly, then congratulations.

  1. Really good stuff, especially about education and culture now. There’s nothing regarding the building of a good, grounded identity. Reason is one-dimensional solipsism without further grounding. You see this with people and you see it in culture.

  2. The whole problem started when humans decided that the whole universe was created for their exclusive enjoyment. This is especially true for women, due to their childish levels of intelligence.

  3. We have access to more and more, but seem to perceive less and less. We are drowning in information, but are more ignorant and unfulfilled than ever.
    This sums up the whole situation now. Well said but I don’t think more culture is what we need, regardless of the emphasis it puts (reason or imagination, or both). More culture translates in less violence. Violence is an integral part of the evolutionary process. That violence is essential for the survival of the living organism.
    Less violence means low birth rates (see previous article). Men need violence. Women need violent, anal sex! LOL

  4. The biggest realization of my adult life has been realizing the limits of rationalism and that reason will only get you so far. There is so much more to life than our reason can explain, and the experience and intuition are in fact far more important for both happy and successful life. Too bad we have become slaves of our reasoning and prisoners of our very own perception.
    “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Einstein. He was a fucking genius, usually high IQ people are slaves of their own intellect, but not Einstein.

    1. The mistake is three-fold.
      One, the human being is not just mind, but mind and body.
      Two, the mind is distinct, but inseparable from the body.
      Three, the human being is mind and body in union.
      Rationalism makes the mistake of brushing aside what being human is, and installing in its place a golden calf of its own making.

      1. One of today great errors seems to be in treating people as determinate homogeneous variables in a mathematical equation. The belief is that you can socially engineer society through general, one size fits all rules, regulations and laws. You cannot. This is one of the great errors of states and the reason why they eventually collapse.
        Governments, and their mathematical approach to humanity are neither reasonable or rational.

    2. More importantly, too many guys believe that reason holds the solution to all things. This is why the feminists have gained such a foothold in public discourse. We need to realize that most people are emotional first, rational second, and try to sway them on that basis.

      1. There are differences between “reason holds the solution to many things” and “reason alone holds the solution to all things.”
        The reason that feminists have gained a foothold is not that guys hold that thing should be reasonable/rational, but that they had tried to reason with the unreasonable. In any verbal battle between the reasonable and the unreasonable, the latter wins by “virtue” of her unreasonableness.
        For feminists, do the rational thing, ignore them, grab your babe(s), and instead of reasoning with them. SHOW them that you know them for what they are: ugly, fat sows.

      2. that is part of the feminist critique of ‘male science’ / rationality etc. When feminists refer to ‘mansplanation’ this is partly what they mean: that emotion (or social factors) may ground (male) logic / reason without us being fully aware. When spirituality / religion finds itself at odds with reason / science, something similar may be going on. There is a tightrope to walk here if both spirituality and reason are necessary. Personally i would prefer reason rather than emotionality is predominant, even if one can become over-reliant on its sufficiency

  5. The role of science needs to be addressed; too often it is touted as the replacement for philosophy rather than the hand maiden of philosophy. It is interesting in itself that we have chosen to segment science and the humanities. This is antithetical to the classical view of learning where the lines between math, art, and literature are less distinct.

    1. Science is actually a product of philopsophy. The scientific method came out of the early thoughts of philopsophers.

      1. I’m amazed the RoK readership pointed this out so quickly, here I was getting ready to say exactly exactly that. Science is a logical way of interpreting data, therefore logic precedes science.

      2. That’s true, but what is your reason for saying so? It seems to me that this strengthens Mjolnir’s point, but I couldn’t tell if you were citing it in order to agree, or to contradict him.

      3. And its a tragedy that so many in the humanities have ceased to champion perhaps their greatest achievement. Science is the outcome of humanity’s long project to answer the question “How does the physical world work”?

  6. I think for western civilization needs ‘progress’ today. Not on a technological front, but on a moral front. The material progress of Europe began after the Crusades, and during the interaction with Moslem Spain (around 1000 years back, Cordova was where people used to travel to perfect their studies, just like how everyone travels to the States today to do so.) It could be very well argued that Europeans adopted the material aspect of the Sharia law, which focuses on education for both genders ( immortalized by the famous quotes of the Prophet: ” Seek for science it may be in China”, ” It is obligatory on every Muslim and Muslimah to seek education”, “Who are the learned? Those who practice what they know.”, “Learn to know thyself.”, “Riches are not from an abundance of wordly goods but from a contented mind.” and many more), etc which spurned the Arabs of that time to intellectual and material progress at that time, which thus also contributed to the Renaissance in Europe later.
    But only adoption of the material aspect of the Sharia, without the moral aspects is what contributes to the ultimate decadence of an affluent society, as seen in the western world, and also in westernized parts of the Arab world today. Caliph Omar was said to have cried when the treasures and riches from the conquest of Persia where brought to his humble court in Medina, and he remarked, “I see the future degeneration of my people in these riches.” Austerity and reason are the real factors for spiritual, moral and intellectual progress. Prophet Mohammed, Jesus, Buddha, Newton, Caliph Omar, Baltasar Gracian and many influential personalities in history have all stressed on this. Omar famously said, “When it comes to matters of the people, fear God. But when it comes to matters of God, do not fear the people”. What you see today in the modern world, is a revulsion for God and His laws , whether the Christian or Islamic versions of it.
    Either ways, revulsion for divine laws- either Christian or Muslim (as seen in the morally decadent affluent societies of the western world today) is what constitutes lawlessness and anarchy, which ultimately destroys the progress attained by adherence to these laws, effectively rendering the whole process of attaining this progress useless, very much like the efforts of Sisyphus.
    That’s why the question arises “Is progress real?”. Well it is, but it is often destroyed when humanity disregards the mind (reason), and focuses on the flesh.
    “God hath not created anything better than Reason, or anything more
    perfect, or more beautiful than Reason the benefits which God giveth are
    on its account and understanding is by it, and God’s wrath is caused by
    disregard of it.”
    – Prophet Muhammad

  7. We as westerners are so ignorant (and proudly so) of science and understanding of the interrelationships between ourselves and the underlying laws of nature and economics (the two are closely related. Economics is primarily a behavioral science, a study in animal instinct. The fact that this surprises people certainly lends credence to my point). Our educated, even our elite classes, exist with profound ignorance, and proudly display an inability to apply the harsh lessons we’ve learned as a species in regards to employing critical thinking.
    We embrace faith healing and fake cures for imagined ailments- snake oils are a multibillion-dollar industry. You need to do a cleanse? Spent $40 to get diarheaa? Seems legit. Like hitting yourself in the face repeatedly with a rock, you just feel so GOOD when it stops. Need a detoxifying skin cream or supplement? No such thing. Well, a bellyful of charcoal dust can bind bad things you’ve just swallowed, but once they’re digested, they’re going to to what they’re going to do, and nothing short of extreme medical intervention will help.
    We still trade in magic amulets (magnets and crystals), and a large portion of our population believe that the geometry of the visible light portion of distant clouds of burning hydrogen determine the course of our every interaction, right up to how our personalities are formed AND you can use the position of these burning pockets of gas to form a predictive model of a persons personality, based on where they were in relation to an arbitrary point set by some curry-stinking savage 4,000 years ago.
    No, in many ways, we haven’t progressed at all. We’re still proudly ignorant, and will go to great lengths to stay that way.

    1. If what you’ve said is any indication, you’d probably like Martin Armstrong’s writings on economics and political cycles.

  8. Part of the “Western Civilization had a good run…” attitude that influences my political nihilism relies on the lack of classical education and critical thinking in our modern educational systems.

  9. Almost all western people today have access to at least some goods that would be inconceivable absent advances in science. But at the same time, people in general are no more scientific in their outlook than earlier generations. In fact, they are perhaps less so.
    Science, as in scientific method empiricism, is no more than a systematic way of discovering and/or disproving rules of thumb for making sense of the physical environment. It is not a faith, nor a philosophy, nor much of anything giving life meaning. Just a more systematic way of cataloguing and disseminating experiences.
    Which is something I suspect fewer people do today than at most other times and places. Instead, what passes for being “scientific” today, is to mindlessly denounce the experiences of others, particularly religious ones. Not because they have been found particularly wnating by anything resembling a scientific method, but siomply because some authority say they are outmoded. IOW, what peole do today is simply replacing Gods that have stood the test of time, with ones just spouting off on TV.
    Newton once spoke of standing on the shoulders of giants. What today’s culture drivers generally do, is jump off the shoulders of those that brought them where they are, choosing t instead crawl around on the floor denouncing those big guys as outmoded and old fashioned.

  10. Quintus, have you read JL Borges? I think you will find his short stories and reflections very interesting.

  11. Good article. An appreciation of the wisdom of the past, of the need to reclaim the canon, is a theme in ROK I fully subscribe to. In some senses we can see this as traditionalism, as a way of countering the iconoclasm and institutional vandalism of certain aspects of the modern or post-modern age (or whatever we are supposed to be living in now).
    I think there is some danger though to finding ourselves ‘positioned’ by those we are responding to. Part of the problem at the moment is that there are some – liberal elites / progressives – who have carefully positioned themselves – as representing and being on the side of progress.
    I think a first consideration here is to examine the claims these people, the social justice warriors, change agents, humanists, the ‘human rights activitists’ (now a political identity rather than requiring any kind of Samaritan like determination to help the wretched etc.) are making, and to examine in particular whether those claims are justified.
    Firstly they are allying with a word, concept, notion that in the public mind has positive association, particularly when you think of its antonyms (i.e. backwardness,
    medieval, reactionary). The very fact that they can claim this word ‘progress’ for themselves requires scrutiny. In the first instance they are claiming a tradition (the enlightenment idea of progress ) for themselves and in doing so, they are attempting to pull off a rhetorical coup. If you debate on any ‘progressive’ issues on ‘progressive’ websites for example, if you don’t toe the politically correct line, eventually ‘progressives’ will start calling you ‘reactionary’, ‘on the wrong side of history’, ‘backward’, ‘medieval’ ‘neanderthal’, or that you are living in the 50s or something. This is something they should not be allowed to get away with. There is no justification for these people when they claim they are ‘on the side of history’.
    Equality for instance is increasingly growing suspect as a creed that can keep giving given the massive cracks and fissures that are beginning to show). As such they could soon be associated with the absurdities of a risible past (imagine Blackadder satirising the political correctness of the early 21st century!)
    Much of the above does seek to tie itself into the kind of ‘objective’ progress represented by science and technology, but it is arguable whether there is any necessary relationship, except to the extent that certain innovations may require an ethical response to the circumstances those innovations create. After all Hume’s guillitine requires a distinction between facts (such as science may represent) and the oughts & imperatives of ethics, such as arguably shape the social justice / idea of progress.
    A further point is that progress, as progress, is also profoundly disputed. Most scientists for example, are not only rationalists , but are also (obviously) realists of some sort and hold many of the ontological claims of postmodernist & poststructuralists to be absurd, corrupt and untenable, and it is the latter rather the former who tend to be spearheading most progressive movements. Moreover there some like Rupert Sheldrake who are reputable scientists (depending on who you speak to) and who reject the kind of reductive materialism that seems naturally to ally with atheistic or humanist causes.
    Wikipedia provides a good source for the ‘idea of progress’ – – and points out amongst other things that the idea of progress can be found amongst the greeks, but also amongst jewish / christian millenialism – the idea (probably true for many people today) that we are just round the corner of some earth-shattering changes for the better (as opposed to the worse) – it also mentions Seneca’s take on this which is interesting as it seems he separated innovation from moral improvement on the grounds that technological progress inclines people towards ‘luxury and vice’.
    My point in the above is that I agree whole-heartedly that the iconoclasm of our age gives too many a completely false ‘progress’ based sense of superiority over the past, and at the cost of accumulated wisdom of history, but maybe what we should be doing is to seek to commandeer ‘the idea of progress’, and to derail the juggernaut of materialism, new-ageism, & post-modernity by calling it out
    on its manifold failures and absurdities.
    Finally I would add that if we can address the above, then present and past do not have to be at war as such, or be presented as alternatives. If we are going to look to the past wisdom in order to inform our politics and conduct, then why not do so in the name of progress as we define it, taking what is good, and discarding what is evil. That is separate the wheat from the chaff.

  12. Atheists worship science as a replacement for religion. I think that finds them (atheists) wanting….
    Aspergy people are usually not successful because they are so socially inept. Intellect + Wisdom + Social Graces + Knowledge of Philosophy make the most successful and happy people.

  13. Live in a Third-World country for an extended period and you’d quickly appreciate the progress modern society has made.

  14. “it may be that the social pendulum will swing back towards a greater emphasis on character, faith, spirituality, and ethical progress.”
    I sure hope so.
    There is a book coming out that I look forward to reading.
    It is called, “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” by Sam Harris. Perhaps it can help with this swinging pendulum.
    Your post was written wonderfully.
    Thanks for sharing. -dcl

  15. Progress in terms of what the human consciousness can do in scientific and technological terms is absolutely real, so yes. However and a big one at that, there are certain eternal spiritual and biological truths that do not “progress” at least in the liberal dystopian universe that currently exists. Humans may evolve, but evolution is a brutal and nasty business. Try and turn the women into men and or allow the women to control their own reproductive rates in society as they seek to become men or “compete” with men (with the generous aid of the state), and watch that human variant, quickly self-annihilate itself (Japanese, West Europeans etc). No matter how much you wish things were a different way, they won’t be in terms of the ethereal and biological. Modern liberalism, and it’s extreme cousin, communism is a refusal of nature, a war against nature and thus God. Hierarchy exists, the gazelle is not above the lion, the child is not above the parent, and woman is not above man. In this latter sense, progress will never be “real” in the sense of altering humanity to what particular humans desire it to be. Russia had learnt the hard way and America and Europe at our rates will soon follow suit.

  16. From a purely physiological aspect the technological progress has made people too Yin.
    Yin refers to a quality of matter that tends to be colder, more expanded or disintegrated, centrifugal in nature (which means moving outwardly and sometimes upward), often more feminine in nature, tending to be damp or more watery, more flaccid and softer.
    The simple analogy of a hard, erect penis (yang) compared to an open, moist vagina (yin) may help one recall some of the major qualities of yang and yin.
    Politically, yin disease manifests as the “entitlement mentality”, support for the welfare state, support for large, intrusive government to “even the playing field”, “fairness”, “social justice”, communism and socialism.
    Sexuallly. Those who are too yin are often sexually loose.
    The military. Those who are very yin almost all dislike and distrust the military.
    Attitudes can make one very yin. For example, on RooshV forum I read that posters there complain that the commentators here are mostly right wing.
    I can only assume that most of young PUA artists posts on the forum and more mature men post here. Young highly sexed men are usually quite Yin despite their increase sexual appetite because they dip their dick way too often in the moist vagina and thus absorb her Yin juices.

  17. Interesting post. Personally I think progress is real through accomplishment. When men feel pride in what they do they are progress. Pride is what is missing in this world.

  18. Really great explanation of a topic that I think about time and time again. I know when I was introduced to the sphere awhile back, I think I made the mistake of relying a bit too much on the information I got from from many of the blogs instead of relying more on my intuition and imagination. Those will help you to grow more than anything.

  19. It might be that ancient writers emphasized moral character but is that really necessary today? Has it not already “been done” and today we are simply refining these ideas? I am not familiar with the writers the author mentions but there are brilliant writers in recent times who cover ethics (such as von Mises and Rothbard) quite well in my opinion.
    I think there is a danger here that we are comparing the average person of today with the genius of yesterday. I think that if we went to ancient Rome we would be appalled at the behavior of the average person (whose idea of entertainment was watching Christians being slaughtered by lions).
    I think that there is no doubt that we have progressed ethically over time. We only have to compare the criminal justice system and punishments meted out today versus ancient times to see an example of this. It can be difficult to see this if we allow ourselves to be caught up in the minutiae of day to day life. There is nothing wrong with enjoying modern gadgets and comforts and no need to feel guilty about it.

  20. “They recorded imaginary speeches, portents, and oracles, but there was a purpose behind these rhetorical exercises.”
    You know why the scholastics had that “How many angels can dance of the head of a pin” thing? Answering it it was an exercise that you give to schoolkids – much like a zen koan – to help them gasp the notion that a thing can be *located* without its necessarily being *extended* (eg: the memories in my brain).
    It’s a common conceit to suppose that the ancients were stupid. Of such conceit are the aliens who must have built the pyramids born.

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