The Ancient Concept of Progress - E. R. Dodds

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E R Dodds - The Ancient Concept of Progress


<ul><li><p>The Ancient Concept of Progress </p><p>and other Essays on Greek Literature and Belief </p><p>BY </p><p>E. R. DODDS </p><p>OXFORD AT THE CLARENDON PRESS </p><p>I973 </p></li><li><p>PREFACE </p><p>ALL the pieces in this collection originated as lectures, and most of them bear clear marks of their origin. The lectures were de-livered to audiences as various as the Cambridge Philological Society, the Society for Psychical Research, and the Sixth Form at Marlborough College, and in their written form they make correspondingly various demands on the reader. I have, how-ever, excluded pieces which are of concern only or chiefly to professional scholars and have limited my choice to subjects of fairly wide general interest. In the majority of these papers I have kept Greek quotation and Greek terminology to the inescapable minimum, in the hope that the book may be of some value to that increasingly important if ill-defined person, the Greekless 'general reader'. </p><p>I hope also that widely as the papers differ in their immediate purpose and in their date of composition they will nevertheless be found to reflect a certain underlying consistency of standpoint. Since boyhood my curiosity has been excited by the variety in unity of human behaviour, the different yet related ways in which men have responded at different periods to comparable stresses. Hence my interest in ancient representations of strong personalities in extreme situations, like those of Prometheus or Oedipus, Clytemnestra or Medea; my interest in periods when new questions were breaking through the crust of inherited answers and provoking new patterns of response, as in the life-time ofProtagoras or in that ofPlotinus; and finally, my interest in concepts which have shifted their ground and their meaning over the centuries, like the ambiguous notion of progress or the interpretation of those mysterious borderline phenomena we call 'supernormal'. </p><p>Papers which have been published previously, with the excep-tion of No. X, are here reprinted without alteration save for correction of misprints and of a few obsolete references: littera scripta manet. Two unpublished older lectures, Nos. 11 and VI, I have also kept substantially in their original form, since each is tied in various ways to its date of delivery. Elsewhere I have allowed myself some freedom of revision and expansion. </p></li><li><p>Vl Priface For permission to reproduce articles that have appeared-</p><p>or, in one case, will appear-elsewhere I am grateful to Messrs. Charles Scribner's Sons (I); the Cambridge Philological Society (Ill); the Clarendon Press and the Board of Management of Greece &amp; Rome (IV) ; the Clarendon Press and the Classical Journals Board (V); the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies (VII); the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies (VIII) ; and the Society for Psychical Research (X). </p><p>My grateful thanks are also due to Mr. D. A. Russell, who read most of the material for this book, and to Professor A. W. H. Adkins, who kindly helped me with the proof-reading. </p><p>Oxford August 1972 </p><p>E.R. D. </p></li><li><p>CONTENTS </p><p>I. The Ancient Concept of Progress </p><p>II. The Prometheus Vinctus and the Progress of Scholarship 26 </p><p>III. Morals and Politics in the Oresteia 45 </p><p>IV. On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex 64 </p><p>v. Euripides the Irrationalist 78 </p><p>VI. The Sophistic Movement and the Failure of Greek Liberalism 92 </p><p>VII. Plato and the Irrational Io6 </p><p>VIII. Tradition and Personal Achievement in the Philosophy ofPlotinus I26 </p><p>I x. The Religion of the Ordinary Man in Classical Greece 140 </p><p>x. Supernormal Phenomena in Classical Antiquity IS6 </p><p>Index of Passages Discussed 2 I I </p><p>General Index 2 I 2 </p></li><li><p>I </p><p>The Ancient Concept of Progress1 </p><p>THE title of this paper begs a question. 'The ancients had no conception of progress; they did not so much as reject the idea; they did not even entertain the idea.' So wrote Waiter Bagehot in the year 1872, and his assertion has often been echoed since. Yet it was possible for Sir Henry Maine a couple of years later to declare that it was precisely the Greeks who 'created the principle of Progress'; and for the late Ludwig Edelstein to affirm in his posthumous book, The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity (1967), that 'the ancients formulated most of the thoughts and sentiments that later generations down to the nineteenth century were accustomed to associate with the blessed or cursed word-"progress" '.2 How can we explain so flat a fac-tual contradiction? </p><p>I think the answer lies partly in the Greek vocabulary and the Greek habit of thought, partly in the slipperiness of the concept itself. It must be conceded to Bagehot that the Greeks of the classical age had no real word for progress. Edelstein's candidate, the word epidosis, will hardly do: it is too general a term, meaning merely 'increase', whether of good or evil, and whether by human agency or otherwise. A closer equivalent is prokope, 'pushing forward', which Cicero translates by progressus or progressio; but this term appears to be a Hellenistic coinage, though the verb </p><p>1 A revised and extended version of the Frazer Lecture delivered in the Univer-sity of Glasgow in 1g6g. A slightly different version will appear in the Dictionary of the History of Ideas, to whose publishers, Charles Scribner's Sons (New York), I am indebted for permission to include this paper in the present volume. </p><p>2 The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity, xxxiii. Frequent occasions of disagree-ment must not obscure my considerable debt to this important though unfortunately unfinished book, especially in connection with the medical and scientific writers on whom Edelstein was an acknowledged authority. Other recent works which I have found particularly helpful include those of Gatz, Havelock and Spoerri, Guthrie's In the Beginning (chap. 5), and Mme de Romilly's paper on 'Thucydide et l'idee de progres', Annali di Pisa (1g66), 143-91, which covers more ground than its title suggests. I must also thank Geoffrey de Ste Croix for valuable advice on several points. </p></li><li><p>2 The Ancient Concept of Progress prokoptein is older. And this linguistic fact seems in turn to reflect a psychological attitude. The idea of progress involves a specu-lative view of the future as well as the past; and in the classical age of Greece, as van Groningen has pointed out, 1 while specula-tion about the past was abundant, explicit pronouncements about the future are surprisingly rare. Most people seem to have fol-lowed the advice of the poet Simonides : 'Being but man, never try to say what tomorrow brings.' The chief exceptions are to be found among the scientists, and their predictions are usually confined to the field in which they have expert knowledge. For the others we can as a rule do no more than infer their expecta-tions about the future from their attitude to the past and the present-a legitimate procedure up to a point but seldom a secure one. </p><p>A further difficulty lies in the inherent ambiguity of the concept of progress. Progress implies a goal, or at any rate a direction ; and a goal or direction implies a value judgement. By what scale of values, then, is progress to be measured? Is happiness to be the yardstick, or power over nature, or gross national product? Is moral advance the true criterion, or is it the advancement of learning? On this question the ancients were no more unanimous than men are today, and different criteria suggested conflicting conclusions. Then as now, the field in which past progress was most obvious was that of technology; but the view that tech-nological advance has been accompanied by moral failure or moral regress was, as we shall see, at least as widely held in antiquity as it is at present. Some went further and posited a direct causal relation between the two : for them technological advance had actually induced moral decay, and was thus not a blessing but a curse-a line of thought which issued logically in an extreme form of primitivism. </p><p>The idea of progress, even in the restricted sense of techno-logical progress, is in any case not one which comes early or easily to men. In primitive societies, custom-bound as they are and lacking historical records, progress does not readily develop a generalized meaning. Such societies may ascribe particular inventions or discoveries to individual culture-heroes or culture-gods, as popular Greek belief did from the Archaic Age onwards ; but they do not think of them as forming a continuous ladder of </p><p>1 B. A. van Groningen, In the Grip of the Past (1953). </p></li><li><p>The Ancient Concept of Progress 3 ascent, and still less do they conceive such a ladder as extending into the present and the future. It is therefore not surprising that the idea of progress should be missing from the oldest Greek literature. And when it did emerge it found the field already occupied by two great anti-progressive myths which threatened to strangle it at birth, the myth of the Lost Paradise-called by the Greeks 'the life under K.ronos', by the Romans the Saturnia regna or Golden Age-and the myth of Eternal Recurrence. The wide diffusion of these two myths, far beyond the limits of the Greco-Roman world, and their astonishing persistence through-out Antiquity and even down to our own day-one remembers how they fascinated Y eats-suggest that they must have deep unconscious roots in human experience : in the one case, perhaps, the individual experience of early infancy, when life was easy, nature supplied nourishment, and conflict did not exist; in the other, the eternally repeated drama of the recurrent seasons on which all agricultural life depends. </p><p>The first of these myths and probably the second also were already known to Hesiod about 700 B.o. His much-discussed tale of the Five Races1 is a story of increasing though not uninterrupted degeneration, starting from the Lost Paradise 'under Kronos' and extending into the present and the future. Its backbone is the myth of the four metals-gold, silver, bronze, and iron-sym-bolizing four stages of material and moral decline, which he appears to have borrowed from an oriental source.2 He has combined this with a historical tradition of the heroic world described in early Greek epic, which interrupts the pattern of continuous decline, and also (as Goldschmidt3 has emphasized) with an aetiology of certain semi-divine beings who derive severally from the Golden, Silver, and Heroic Races. His story ends with the gloomy forecast of an increasingly corrupt and bitter future, very much in the style of an oriental apocalypse. But the poet's wish that he had either died before the present Iron Race or been born later4 seems to betray the fact that the oriental myth was cyclic, ending with the completion of a Great </p><p>1 Works and Days 106-201. 2 R. Reitzenstein, Studien zum antiken Synkretismus ( 1 926), 45; B. Gatz, Weltalter, </p><p>Goldene Zeit unci sinnuerwanclte Vorstellungen (1967), 7-27. 3 V. Goldschmidt, R.E.G. 63 (1950), 33-g. I disregard here J. P. Vernant's </p><p>sixstage interpretation, which seems to me to lack support in the text. 4 Works ancl Days 174-5; cf. 180 f. where he foresees the end of the Iron Age. </p></li><li><p>4 The Ancient Concept of Progress Year and an abrupt return to the Lost Paradise. The cyclic interpretation of human history was not, however, what in-terested Hesiod ; his concern was to emphasize the growing degeneracy of his own time. To a poet who lived the poverty-stricken life of a Boeotian peasant while his inner vision was filled with the glories of the heroic past no other view was really pos-sible. And later poets who saw history in cyclic terms tended to follow Hesiod's example : they have much to say about the Lost Paradise, but almost nothing, until Virgil, about Paradise Re-gained. The cyclic theory is most often found in the service of pessrmtsm. </p><p>How far Hesiod's contemporaries accepted his despairing pro-gnosis we have no sure means of knowing. All we can say is that the first explicit statement to the contrary appears at the end of the Archaic Age in two well-known lines of the Ionian poet-philosopher Xenophanes : </p><p>Not from the beginning did the gods reveal everything to mankind, But in course of time by research men discover improvements. 1 </p><p>This is a genuine affirmation of progress : the writer conceives it as a gradual process which extends into the present and pre-sumptively into the future, and one which is dependent on man's own efforts, not on the arbitrary gift of any 'culture-god'. The first line looks rather like an echo of Hesiod's saying, 'The gods have hidden men's livelihood from them' ;2 the second line looks like an answer to Hesiod. We do not know whether the couplet was a casual obiter dictum or formed part of a fuller historical statement. It may well have been prompted by Xenophanes' observation of recent cultural advances (we are told that he mentioned the recent invention of coinage by the Lydians and that he admired the astronomical discoveries of Thales). And it is perhaps also relevant to recall that he was a much-travelled man who took an interest in the red-haired gods of the Thracians and the snub-nosed gods of the Ethiopians. Such comparison of different cultures suggested to him, we know, the idea that religious beliefs are relative to the believer; it may also have sug-</p><p>1 Xenophanes, frag. 18 Diels-Kranz. Xenophanes did not, however, anticipate enriless progress. Having personally observed marine fossils on dry land, he inferred that the sea had once covered the earth and expected it one day to do so again, temporarily destroying all human life (A 33 Diels-K.ranz). </p><p>2 Works and Days 42. </p></li><li><p>The Ancient Concept of Progress 5 gested the idea of man's slow and uneven upward movement from barbarism to civilization. </p><p>The pride in human achievement which we can feel in the few words of Xenophanes found more vivid expression a generation later in the great speech which Aeschylus put into the mouth of Prometheus. 1 It is true that Prometheus credits the achievement not to man but to himself: that was implicit in the dramatic situation. But the contrast between man as he once was and man as he now is has never been more eloquently expressed. Man is no exile from a Lost Paradise. On the contrary, he has come up from a state in which he was not yet capable of coherent thought but drifted aimlessly through life 'like a figure in a dream', unable to interpret the message of eyes and ears, his only shelter a cave. And consider him now! Not only has he set the animals to work for him, conquered the sea, discovered the secret mineral wealth of the earth, but he has learned to record his own achievements and has mastered difficult sciences-astronomy, arithmetic, medicine, divination. </p><p>This passage has surprised some critics, and has even been adduced as an argument against the authenticity of the play on the ground that it betrays sophistic influence.2 That view rests on a misconception, as Reinhardt3 and others have pointed out. Considered as a piece of anthropology, the speech is decidedly archaic and prett...</p></li></ul>