Progress Awareness in History

An interesting question popped up in my head today. Were people 500 years ago, 1000 years ago, or even 2000 years ago aware of “progress”. Would your average person (or even middle-to-upper class educated person) be aware of the fact that people were, on average, more primitive in the past in their language, culture, and technology? Would be more advanced in the future?

I can understand that the entire premise can be a subject of a great debate, so here’s a second, much more specific question:

Were the people who lived during the renaissance aware that they were living in a different era? Were they aware of the dark ages? Would an uneducated illiterate peasant be aware of the concept of “history” other than his generational lines, those of his rulers and religious mythology?

Until approximately Renaissance times, the opposite was the case - people (in Western cultures) generally thought of themselves as living in a degraded state compared to previous times. Classical Greeks looked back to pre-classical times as a golden age, Romans to classical Greeks, Dark Ages Europeans to Romans, etc etc.

An “uneducated illiterate peasant” would not have been aware of history in any meaningful sense, apart from what he heard about in readings from from the bible.

Not just in Western cultures. Up until very recently, belief in a “golden age” was predominant in Arab, Chinese and Indian societies; I wouldn’t be surprised if it was still very common.

Progress is definatly a modern idea. Hell, you could argue having an idea of progess is the defining characteristic of “modern”. Did start in the Renaissance more or less. Although, well gee, just by the name…RE birth? they were looking back to a better time even then. Progress didn’t really take hold till the 1800’s.

And of course it made sense…it’s not like there was an inexorable march toward improvement. We did kinda move backwards from the Roman empire.

See, except that not so clearly true.

Well if you go back far enough it always is. Although I see your point. Were there ever periods when an entire group of people was not aware of the fact that the generations before them were in any way different (positive or negative) when they actually were? I can imagine some nomadic tribes still live pretty much the same way as they did for the past hundreds of years, and that’s not what I’m talking about.

Before Darwin, of course, few people envisioned humans as evolving from other animals, and there was no concept that such a thing as “cave men” had ever existed. The furthest baseline against which people could measure “progress” was the hunter-gatherers who existed around the fringes of civilization and the story of the Garden of Eden in the Bible.

The Bible represented the transition from Eden to civilization as punishment, not as progress. (And indeed, even today people debate whether agriculture and industry have added to the sum of human happiness.)

And while Europeans did view themselves as superior to hunter-gatherers, they ascribed their “superiority” to Christianity, not to better technology. They equated “progress” with the spread of Christianity. They weren’t entirely wrong, as far as the West was concerned, since after the fall of the Roman Empire the spread of Christianity and the spread of written civilization within Europe tended to be one and the same.

When Europeans looked back at the legacy of Greece and Rome, they had little with which to comfort themselves other than their Christianity. They saw a classical civilization strong enough to conquer the entire Mediterranean–which no Christian power could dream of doing in the Middle Ages or Renaissance–and art, architecture, and drama which were equal to and perhaps superior to their own. As Askance said, people tended to view more recent times as a “degraded state”.

The idea of progress as the natural state of human affairs finally took hold with the Industrial Revolution. It enjoyed its heyday in the decades leading up to World War I, stumbled with the calamities of the Twentieth Century, and seems to have regained its stride in recent decades.

One hallmark of this idea is the concept of “science fiction”–stories set either in a more technologically advanced future or on other planets which already have more advanced civilization. Jules Verne, writing in the late Nineteenth Century, is usually considered the father of science fiction.

Darwin’s works did result in the transmittal of the conception of evolution to virtually all educated people in western society. Being more educated than they were sophisticated, they immediately jumped to evolution=progress, because they themselves were the most progressed and therefore the most highly evolved. People are still having trouble with this one. :rolleyes:

So that definitively puts a latest date to when people became aware of progress.

Whether earlier peoples did or didn’t becomes a matter of philosophy. I’d say that those living in the Enlightenment at the end of the 18th century, in conjunction with those revolutionaries in America and France who overturned existing regimes, had a notion of progress that modern people today could identify with.

You might also argue that the Industrial Revolution in England earlier in the century laid a necessary foundation.

I would bet that enlightened (small e) Arabs in the golden years of Muslim science and invention entertained thoughts of progress not far from ours.

The problem with all these is that the notion of progress earlier than Darwin was always confined in some way, to a class, a region, a religion, a mindset. How you define the term and where you draw the lines will make all the difference.