Progress has been so consistent over the last two centuries that it can seem inevitable, but that was not always the case. This article traces pessimistic thought throughout history and contrasts it with modern thinkers who celebrate human achievements and potential.
Today, progress has been so consistent that it can seem inevitable. Whether it’s new pharmaceuticals, better iPhones or cheaper holidays, people expect things to get better. But that was not always the case. In the past, people usually expected things to get worse.
The ancient Greeks, for example, produced some of the most admired thinkers of the ancient world, the ancient Romans constructed roads and aqueducts on an unprecedented scale, and medieval Europe witnessed the construction of increasingly ambitious, monumental and ornate cathedrals, the lofty architecture of which was designed to inspire an image of heavenly glory. Yet, none of those peoples generally believed in progress.
Hesiod’s “Works and Days” is one of the first attempts to conceptualise the flow of human affairs. Humanity’s finest days, Hesiod averred, fell within a golden age in which Gods lived among men. People “lived like gods without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief: miserable age rested not on them.”
The ages of men, as outlined by Hesiod, decayed from gold to silver, from silver to bronze and from bronze to iron. Hesiod believed that he was living in the “iron age”, which he characterised as a wretched era of misery and strife. He wrote that “for now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them.”
Hesiod acknowledged that even men of iron have some good in them. Overall, however, his outlook was pessimistic. The men of the iron era, he wrote, fought amongst each other, did not respect their parents, and the notion of “might makes right” prevailed over justice.
According to Plato, Hesiod’s ages corresponded to the rotation of the Earth first in one direction, then another. In the first rotation, the gods oversee humans and tend to their needs — for Plato, the golden age occurred in that period. When the Earth’s rotation changes, gods leave humans to manage their own affairs – with predictably chaotic results.
The ancient Greeks believed that temporary progress could occur through struggle. They maintained that their situation was akin to that of Prometheus, the mythical hero who was punished for stealing fire from the gods, thus enabling human progress and civilisation. Thucydides, for example, argued in the History of the Peloponnesian War that because of that war, Greece was more advanced in his time than it was during Homer’s time.
Ultimately, however, the Greeks believed that there was no way to escape from gloom. As Sophocles wrote, “time destroys all things; No one is safe from death except the gods; The earth decays, the flesh decays.” Given the Greeks’ generally pessimistic views, it is little wonder that the personification of time was Chronos — a man who ate his own children.
For the Roman historians, the contemporary period formed a part of an eternal spiral of moral decline that contrasted starkly with the glorious age of their virtuous ancestors. In the preface to his History of Rome, for example, Livy remarked that in his own time “we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies”. Remarks such as that are commonplace throughout Roman historiography.
Roman writers tended to emphasise the nobility of the “first people” who, as the Roman historian Tacitus noted, lived “for a time without a single vicious impulse, without shame or guilt, and, consequently, without punishment and restraints. Rewards were not needed when everything right was pursued on its own merits.”
The Hesiodic ages were still utilised by the Romans, but the latter added a new twist — the decline of men was caused by the emergence of laws and property. The Roman poet Ovid painted his contemporaries as struck by a “wicked love of possession.” Ovid described a communist-like society in which everything was held in common. In Ovid’s utopia there were no laws, because he believed that people are inclined to be good.
In his fourth Eclogue, Virgil introduced a new concept — a man of spectacular talents would arise, put an end to the misery of the current iron age and restore the golden age. He wrote, “with him shall hearts of iron cease and hearts of gold inherit the whole earth… Thus have the fates spoken, in unison with the unshakeable intent of destiny.” It is perhaps unsurprising that Virgil was the favourite poet of Caesar Augustus — Rome’s first emperor.
Under the reign of Nero, one of the most appalling emperors of Imperial Rome, the concept of a golden age was revived yet again by writers that included Lucan, Calpurnius Siculus and, most importantly, Seneca, young Nero’s tutor. Seneca wrote that people are wretched creatures who need a ruler to stop them from destroying themselves. Writing from the point of view of Nero, Seneca exclaims that “only my Peace stops thousands of swords from springing up against each other.”
The best that the Romans could achieve in a world governed by fate and time, it seems, was a temporary stopping of the clock by a powerful dictator who would whip his people back into shape.
Once Europe adopted Christianity, a new perspective on human affairs was formulated. Accordingly, all of history was seen to be moving linearly towards the day of judgement. By 1099, the soldiers of the First Crusade believed that they were approaching the end of days as they marched to besiege Jerusalem.
Such apocalyptic visions of the future are all the more surprising considering that by the 12th century, Europe had left behind what is commonly referred to as the “Dark Ages” that followed the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Universities were springing up throughout Europe, gorgeous Gothic churches were being built to heights taller than ever before, book production was in full swing, and medieval scholars were rekindling the study of philosophy.
Sadly, many medieval writers were their own worst critics. A language of decline was widely adopted. Contemporary writings are redolent with words such as decay, senility, corruption and collapse. Medieval scholars believed that the Earth was growing old and that things were deteriorating as the end drew closer.
Many medieval writers frequently assumed the supremacy of preceding generations (who in turn assumed the supremacy of generations that preceded them, etc.). William of Conche wrote in a letter to Geoffrey the Fair of Anjou about the masters of the present era who lacked the authority of the ancients. William noted that because masters lacked knowledge, students lacked discipline, and bishops sought only wealth. “All dignity and authority have perished,” he concluded.
This kind of language is typical of authors of the Medieval era, even when they were praising a contemporary figure. For example, Herbert of Bosham, after praising Thomas Becket, ends his praise by saying that “though such virtue lived in our time, it was not of our tepid age, which brings forth only self-loving, self-seeking men.” Similarly, when Aelred of Rievaulx praised Saint Ninian, he exclaimed that “when I think of the saintly ways of this saintly man, I am ashamed of our own inane stupidity and of the spinelessness of this wretched generation.”
Writings of the Ancient and Medieval periods are filled with self-deprecation. While some writers praised their own era, such optimists were rare and outnumbered by swathes of pessimists. Pessimism, then, seemed to have been the norm for much of written history. In that respect, modern people are exceptional. We demand and expect progress. We conceive of our own future without declinism, the need for a dictator to halt that decline, or an eventual apocalypse that will wipe away our wretchedness. That’s progress.