☞ Ecclesiastes in the Age of Progress
In recent years, there has been lots of writing about the idea of progress, including within a burgeoning field of “progress studies.” One aspect of this is exploring the origins of the very idea of progress. Specifically, did this very idea need to be invented? And if so, when did the idea of progress first come about?
According to the historian Ada Palmer, there’s a straightforward answer: “In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.” Prior to Bacon, “None of these ancient thinkers speculate — as we do every day — about how the experiences of future generations might continue to change and be fundamentally different from their own. Quantitatively things might be different — Rome’s empire might grow or shrink, or fall entirely to be replaced by another — but fundamentally cities will be cities, plows will be plows, empires will be empires, and in a thousand years bread will still be bread.”
On the other hand, Francis Bacon argued (as per Palmer):
If we work together — said he — if we observe the world around us, study, share our findings, collaborate, uncover as a human team the secret causes of things hidden in nature, we can base new inventions on our new knowledge which will, in small ways, little by little, make human life just a little easier, just a little better, warm us in winter, shield us in storm, make our crops fail a little less, give us some way to heal the child on his bed. We can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own.
However, this is by no means the only view of this idea’s origins. I recently read an essay that makes the argument that Judaism (along with Christianity), is the origin of progress, or at the very least, linear time:
Judaism and Christianity, however—while incorporating seasonal observances into their ritual calendars—audaciously proposed that we are to aspire to more than just an endless perpetuation of the state of things; we are to work actively toward improving the world year after year, so that every generation which passes through the planet brings humanity one step closer toward a kingdom of heaven on earth.
I think there is something intriguing about this.
And yet, if one looks at the Book of Ecclesiastes, for example, there seems to be very little here that accords with the modern notion of progress, at least when it comes to technological, scientific, and economic advancement:
“Sometimes there is a phenomenon of which they say, ‘Look, this one is new!’—it occurred long since, in ages that went by before us. The earlier ones are not remembered; so too those that will occur later will no more be remembered than those that will occur at the very end.” (Ecclesiastes 1:10-11)
“I realized, too, that whatever God has brought to pass will recur evermore: Nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it…What is occurring occurred long since, and what is to occur occurred long since…” (Ecclesiastes 3:14-15)
Ecclesiastes is full of perennial wisdom on how to live life and how to think about meaning and purpose, and even these verses quoted above can be understood in a more generic way, outside of economic and technological progress. They are about a certain amount of modesty in the face of seeming novelty, forcing us to recognize that as much as we think things are now different or special—or that we ourselves are different or special—there is a certain unchanging nature to humanity, something that must be incorporated into how we think about society. People are people, no matter the time or place. As much as you might think your own situation and problems are unique, you are likely wrong.
Nevertheless, let’s choose to take these verses to also imply that Ecclesiastes might lack the ideas of scientific, economic, and technological progress. If so, where can we go from here? Specifically, given that we, as a society, need something like wisdom literature in our modern age, what might Ecclesiastes look like in an era steeped in the idea of progress? Or to put it more succinctly, what it would it look like when “nothing new under the sun” meets the forces of innovation? (with apologies to Matt Clancy)
I am still working this out, but one of the messages of Ecclesiastes is that of humility. This can even be seen in one of the quotations above: “Sometimes there is a phenomenon of which they say, ‘Look, this one is new!’—it occurred long since, in ages that went by before us.”
Perhaps that is what Ecclesiastes would be like if it were written in our modern times: it would be a proponent of humility in how we think about positive change. Part of this would involve the recognition that there is wisdom in old and forgotten innovations, that there are technologies worth revisiting, particularly in our age of profound ignorance of technological history.
But we can also think about humility in the face of progress even more broadly: we shouldn’t obsess only over world-shifting paradigms to the exclusion of anything else. Rather, there is wisdom in the recognition that small and incremental change over time yields meaningful progress over the long-term.
Do not chase after making a big splash, for it might be evanescent. Rather, be content to be part of a long and inter-generational process of progress (something I explored further in this essay). As per Rabbi Tarfon, from the Talmud: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” Or as the scientist Sonia Vallabh said, “Everyone loves the big idea that will change the world. But what about the small idea that makes a difference?”
Perhaps, in the end, Ecclesiastes tempered by the idea of Progress is simply recognizing that the world can change if we will it so, but with the caveat that “The race is not won by the swift.”
I recently wrote a short article about my mental framework for the new science and research organizations that I’ve been cataloging in the Overedge Catalog, titled “We need to create and foster new types of scientific organizations”:
There are many activities that are valuable for science. However, only a small subset of these are actually valued by scientific academia; in other words, there are only certain activities that will get you tenure (certain kinds of research, certain types of scientific publication).
As a result of this, we need to create and foster new types of scientific organizations, ones that make space for a broader set of research activities that are valuable for science, whether it’s allowing for more interdisciplinary science, undertaking longer-term research projects, or building software tools to spur further discovery.
Read the rest here.
And a few additional links worth checking out:
Until next time.