In historiography and the philosophy of history, progress represents the idea that the world can become an increasingly better place through the advancement of science, tehnology, quality of life, social rights – like freedom and equality. Many great thinkers believed that through progress and knowledge societies could reach social Nirvana, the utopical society in which all the industries flourish. Others, like Michel Foucault, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw progress as a trap, arguing that it only gives us the illusion of advancement.

Both Kant and Rousseau saw that progress was inevitable. Kant argued that where there is freedom, there will be progress and enlightenment. Rousseau thought that the first discoveries, which he believed to be accidental, like fire or metallurgy, and the fact that people were eventually  forced to live in communities led to an unavoidable series of findings, like commerce, the first languages, property, laws etc.

The difference between the two philosophers lies in their thoughts on the role of historical progress. Kant claimed that it was the culmination of the human ability to reason, which, as a natural property of human beings, must be perfected. He thought that only through wars will the leaders see the benefits of perpetual peace and eventually will increase the freedoms of their citizens, which will make them more productive.[1]

Rousseau, on the other hand, thought that progress was a crime against the natural state of mankind. He believed that the arts and sciences create the need for a luxury that doesn’t free the people from the yoke of their leaders, but merely disguises it.[2] He also argued that the uprooting of the natural man is what made him sensitive to illness and evils, like crime and inequality:

The more the mind was enlightened, the more industry perfected itself. […] This was the age of a first revolution which led to the establishment and differentiation of families, which introduced a form of property, and from which perhaps arose many quarrels and fights. […] But from the moment a man had need of someone else’s help, from the time they noticed that it was useful for one man alone to have provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became necessary, and the vast forests were changed into smiling fields, which had to be watered with men’s sweat and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow along with the crops. Metallurgy and agriculture were the two arts whose invention produced this great revolution. For the poet what has civilized men and ruined the human race is gold and silver, but for the philosopher it is iron and wheat.[3]

Kant stated that freedom leads to progress: Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.[4] This liberty to use one’s reason, one’s knowledge is what leads to education and this is what Kant called for. Through education, people will be enlightened and society will come close to perfection. Rousseau, while vehemently opposing the idea of progress, understood that there was no way of going back. He believed that the great institutions should impose a standard for the men of arts, letters and sciences, a moral conduct based on virtue and a certain excellency in their work.

Whilst Kant thought that progress was not only unavoidable, but magnificent, his motto being dare to know, Rousseau believed it was the source of mankind’s downfall. But even though their views on the role of historical progress were diametrically opposed, their solutions were, in the end, identical – education is primordial in order for the world to be a better place.

Emerson’s view on society is similar to Rousseau’s, who claimed, in Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Men, that the progress of society means the weakening of Man. Emerson stated that As our Religion, our Education, our Art look abroad, so does our spirit of society. All men plume themselves on the improvement of society, and no man improves.[5] He further explained how society never truly advances – It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. What he means is that no matter how blooming one aspect of a certain society may be, there will always be one that’s withering. A highly military state will lack culture, for example. A very religious, peaceful nation will concentrate on the spiritual, not the economical. Where science is cherished, faith will not be. However hard mankind might try, there will always be branches in the tree that never touch each other – some domains simply can’t exist together, in symmetry.

Emerson believed that Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts.[6] Man finds himself in one of the following two hypostasis – the educated man living in an advanced community or the savage man living under the shelter of the trees. Each stance has its weakness; the first physical, the second intellectual. But compare the health of the two men, and you shall see that the white man has lost his aboriginal strength. If the traveller tell us truly, strike the savage with a broad axe, and in a day or two the flesh shall unite and heal as if you struck the blow into soft pitch, and the same blow shall send the white to his grave.[7] Rousseau gives a kindred example in his Second Discourse, where he speaks of the original strength that is lost to the advanced man.

Michel Foucault’s take on progress is quite interesting. His work Madness and Civilization is a complex analysis on the role of madness in the Western Society. It begins with the great uneasiness that arose around the concept of madness. The Great Confinement followed in the classical period, when madmen were held prisoners along with the wicked. In the nineteenth century a shift occurred – confinement was condemned and seen as both an economical error and a humanitarian issue. The discovery that madness was a disease, which could, in some cases be treated, lead to an attempt to get people back on the track to normality.

The scorn that conformity awakened in some of the greatest thinkers was immense. Emerson’s essay, Self-Reliance, is centered around the idea that man should not be complacent, should not strive to be normal, approved by society, understood by all, but simply immerse himself in his true being, in his essence. Foucault’s thoughts are along the same lines. By analyzing society’s reaction to madness, he saw that with progress came the fear of the intelligent, the weird, the mad – the different. Because with uniqueness comes great power. He does not think that the need to cure the madmen came from compassion, but from fear.

Progress is tricky. It makes our lives easier; but take away our technology and we will find that we don’t possess the skills to survive anymore. We are no longer the powerful men and women from Antiquity. Progress gives us the illusion of freedom, but it actually crushed individuality, it created the paradox of being unique whilst being the same as everyone – we go to school, we get a job, we start a family, just like everybody else, but we claim we do it our way.

We still don’t know whether progress is a good thing for humanity or whether it will lead to its downfall. We have to accept that it exists, that it made our lives more complex, but at the same time weakened us, that it drove us far away from our natural, original state. We have to understand that normality and uniqueness aren’t absolute – it’s not something bad to be normal and it’s not something bad to be different, as long as we are true to ourselves. It’s all in the attitude. As Foucault said: I wonder whether we may not envisage modernity rather as an attitude than as a period of history. And by “attitude,” I mean a mode of relating to contemporary reality; a voluntary choice made by certain people; in the end, a way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task.[8]


[1] Kant, Immanuel, Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View
[2] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences: [the sciences, letters and the arts] spread garlands of flowers over the iron chains which weigh men down, snuffing out in them the feeling of that original liberty for which they appear to have been born, and make them love their slavery by turning them into what are called civilized people.
[3] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Men
[4] Kant, Immanuel, What is Enlightenment?
[5] Emerson, Ralph Waldo – Self-Reliance
[6] op.cit.
[7] idem
[8] Foucault, Michel – The Foucault Reader – What is Enlightenment?

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