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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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"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 Walter Bagehot (Physics
and Politics
, p. 41) in the year 1872, and his assertion
bas often been echoed since. Yet it was possible for
the late Ludwig Edelstein, in his posthumous book The
Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity
(1967), to de-
clare 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' " (p. xxxiii);
and this is a view to which many contemporary
scholars would subscribe. The explanation of this
seeming conflict of opinion lies partly in the Greek


vocabulary and the Greek habit of thought, partly in
the ambiguity of the concept itself. It must be con-
ceded to Bagehot that classical Greek had no word
for progress: the nearest equivalent is προκοπὴ, literally
"pushing forward"; but this term appears to be a
Hellenistic coinage (though the corresponding verb is
older). It must also be conceded that if the idea of
progress be strictly defined, as suggested in 1935 by
A. O. Lovejoy and George Boas (p. 6), as "a general
and necessary law of progress" governing man's past,
present, and also future development, it would be
difficult to produce an ancient text which directly
disproved Bagehot's generalization. While speculation
about man's past is an important element in Greek
thought of all periods, speculation about his future is
surprisingly rare. As B. A. van Groningen bas posnted
out in an interesting essay, the typical Greek was a
backward-looking animal: the future was to him the
domain of total uncertainty (τύχη), to which man's only
guide was delusive expectation (ἐλπίς). He was there-
fore much inclined to follow the advice of the poet
Simonides: "Being but man, never try to say what
to-morrow brings." The chief exceptions, as we shah
see, are to be found among the scientiste, and their
predictions are usually confined to the field in which
they claim to 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 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 judgment. By what scale of values, then, is
progress to be measured? Is happiness to be the yard-
stick, or power over nature, or gross national product?
Is moral advance the true criterion, or is it the ad-
vancement 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
technological 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 be-
tween 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.

The idea of progress-even in the restricted sense
of technological progress-is 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 mean-
ing. Such societies may ascribe particular inventions
or discoveries to individual culture-heroes or culture-
gods, as popular Greek thought did from the Archaic
Age onwards; but they do not think of them as forming
a continuons ladder of 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 it must be remembered that
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 Kronos," by the
Romans the Saturnia regna or Golden Age-and the
myth of Eternal Recurrence. These are dealt with
elsewhere in this dictionary, but they must be men-
tioned here because of the distorting influence they
exerted, whether by way of competition or of confla-
tion, upon the development of the idea of progress.

Both of them would seem to have been already
known to Hesiod (ca. 700 B.C.), who was the first Greek
to generalize about man's past, present, and future. His
much-discussed tale of the Five Races (Works and Days
109-201) is a story of progressive though not uninter-
rupted 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-symbolizing four stages
of material and moral decline, which he appears to
have derived from an oriental source (see Gatz, pp.
7-27). He has combined this with an historical tradition
of the heroic world described in early Greek epic,
which interrupts the pattern of continuons decline. In
the oriental version the story usually ended with the
completion of a magnus annus and an abrupt return
to the Lost Paradise. And it seems likely that this was
so also in Hesiod's source; for he wishes that he had
either died before the present Age of Iron or been born
(174-75; cf. 180-81, where he foresees its end).
The cyclic interpretation of human history was not,
however, what interested Hesiod; his concern was to
emphasize the degeneracy of his own time. And later
poets followed his example: they have much to say
about the Lost Paradise but almost nothing, until
Vergil, about Paradise regained. The cyclic view is
most often found in the service of pessimism.

Xenophanes. How far the rest of archaic Greece
accepted Hesiod's gloomy prognosis 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: "Not from the
beginning did the gode reveal everything to mankind,
but in course of time by research men discover


improvements" (frag. 18, Diels-Kranz). This is a gen-
uine affirmation of progress: the writer conceives it as
a gradual process which extends into the present and
presumptively into the future, and ose which is
dependent on man's own efforts, sot on the arbitrary
gift of any "culture-god." We do sot 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 cul-
tural advances (we are told that he mentioned some-
where the invention of coinage by the Lydians, and
that he admired the astronomical discoveries of Thales).
It is 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 religions
beliefs are relative to the believer; it may also have
suggested the idea of man's slow and uneven upward
movement from barbarism to civilization.

Aeschylus. The pride in human achievement which
we cas 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 (Prometheus Vinctus 442-506). It is true
that Prometheus credits the achievement sot to man
but to himself: that was implicit in the dramatic situa-
tion. But the contrast between man as he once was
and man as he now is has never been more proudly
or 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 sot 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.

This passage has surprised some critics, and has even
been adduced as an argument against the authenticity
of the play. Wilhelm Schmid, who held that the play
was composed by an anonymous atheist some twenty
years after Aeschylus' death, saw in the speech on
progress "our earliest evidence for the existence of the
sophistic movement and its radicalism about the middle
of the fifth century" (pp. 95f.). This view rests on a
misconception. Considered as a piece of anthropology,
the speech is archaic in the extreme. There is no
attempt to mark the stages of evolution, no recognition
of the decisive influence of the food-producing tech-
niques (cattle-herding and agriculture), no reference
to the origins of community life. Technology takes a
very minor place: even the potter's wheel, which Attic
tradition associated especially with Prometheus, is left
out as too unimportant or too banal. What the poet
has choses to stress is man's intellectual progress: the
spur of economic necessity, which figures prominently
in later Greek accounts as ἀνάγκη or συμφέρον, receives
no emphasis from Aeschylus: instead, his hero under-
takes to relate "how I made men rational and capable
of reflection, who till then were childish." And the
science on which he dwells at greatest length is that
of divination, lovingly described in all its varions
branches. This is in keeping with Aeschylus' attitude
elsewhere, but would be very surprising in a pupil of

There has been much speculation about the "au-
thority" to whom Aeschylus owed his anthropological
notions. But perhaps no authority need be assumed.
The list of sciences was easy to make, and there is
nothing in the description of man's original unhappy
state which suggests special knowledge. If we ask how
the poet came to substitute the idea of progress for
the Hesiodic regress, part at least of the answer must
surely lie in the triumphant experience of political,
social, and cultural progress which fell to the lot of
Aeschylus and his generation. The influence of this
experience is equally apparent in the Eumenides (458
B.c.), where Athena's gift of law is the counterpart,
and the completion, of Prometheus' gift of reason. In
that play Aeschylus appears sot only to look back upon
his country's past but to look forward with confidence
to its present and its future. For contrast, he had avail-
able to him the reports of barbarian peoples brought
home by Greek travellers like Aristeas and Hecataeus,
and several passages in his work show him making free
use of them.

One difficult question remains: Did Aeschylus
actually believe that the arts of civilization were taught
to man by a divine being called Prometheus, or is his
Prometheus just a symbol of human reason? The ques-
tion may be thought illegitimate: so long as mythmak-
ing is a living mode of thought, to confront it with
this sort of brutal "either-or" is to force upon it a
choice which destroys its being. But later antiquity was
in no doubt about the answer. For all Greek writers
after Aeschylus, Prometheus is purely a symbol of
man's restless intelligence, to be admired or condemned
according to the author's outlook.

The earliest statement of this opinion appears in a
line from the comic poet Plato (frag. 136 Kock) which
in so many words equates Prometheus with "the humas
mind." But it is suggestive that the lise should have
occurred in a play called The Sophists. In view of this
and of the myth in Plato's Protagoras (sec below) it
is a natural guess that Protagoras was the man who


first made the symbolism explicit. But it can be argued
that in Aeschylus it is already implicit. So far as we
know, it was he who first made such an interpretation
possible, by crediting Prometheus not merely with the
gift of fire but with all the arts of civilization, including
some which are assigned to other culture-heroes by
other writers and even by Aeschylus himself in other
plays (cf. Kleingünther, pp. 78ff.). By thus transfiguring
the serio-comic trickster whom Hesiod had portrayed
(Theogony 510-616; Works and Days 42-89) he created
one of the great symbolic figures of European litera-
ture. The symbolism, however, was not for him, as it
was for Protagoras, something which could be stripped
away without loss of significance. The belief that man's
achievements are not purely his own but are the out-
come and the expression of a divine purpose was to
Aeschylus-at least in the present writer's view-a
basic religions postulate.

The Teleological View. After Aeschylus the literary
tradition branches in two opposed directions. The reli-
gious interpretation of progress as a manifestation of
divine providence (πρόνοια) appears in a speech that
Euripides in his Suppliants (195-218; ca. 424-420 B.C.)
put into the mouth of Theseus, the type of Athenian
conservative orthodoxy. To refute the view of those
who hold that there is more evil than good in human
life, Theseus lists the most obvious human assets and
achievements and asks if we should not be grateful to
the god who so ordered man's life, raising it from
incoherence and bestiality. He then proceeds to
reprove those persons who in their conceit of human
intelligence "imagine themselves wiser than the gods,"
Le., think they know better what is good for them.
This pretty certainly reflects some contemporary con-
troversy, not the personal views of the poet. The opin-
ions criticized may be those of the Sophist Prodicus;
the standpoint of the speaker is that of orthodox piety.
He singles out divination as man's crowning achieve-
ment, and he admits past progress only to enforce the
old Tesson that man should accept his station and be
content. This line of thought developed into the argu-
ment from design which Xenophon attributed to
Socrates, and issued ultimately in the Stoic and Chris-
tian conception of history as providentially guided.

The Humanistic View. The first full statement of
the opposing assumption, that man's achievements are
his own, is to be found, surprisingly enough, in
Sophocles. In a celebrated ode (Antigone 332-75), he
set forth man's conquest of earth and sea, of beasts,
birds, and fishes, of speech and thought and the arts
of communal life, representing these things not as a
providential endowment but as the result of man's own
efforts. This had led some scholars to speak of
Sophocles' "humanistic philosophy" and to conclude
that he is "tinged with the rationalism of his age." But
to draw that conclusion is to ignore the implications
both of the lyric as a whole and of the play as a whole.
The poet's praise of man's "cleverness" (δεινότης, a
morally ambiguous word) leads up to the warning that
cleverness can bring destruction as easily as it can
success; and the warning is reinforced in the next ode
(586-625), where the picture of man's achievement is
balanced by the companion picture of his utter help-
lessness when our human purposes corne into conflict
with the inscrutable purposes of God. Sophocles was
no humanist, and the Antigone is no Protagorean tract
for the times. We can, however, legitimately infer that
by the date of the play (441 B.C.) the humanistic inter-
pretation of progress was already carrent at Athens.
A much more radical assertion of this view appears
in a well-known fragment of the poet-politician Critias
where the speaker explains, after the manner of an
eighteenth-century philosophe, how "some wise man"
invented le gods as a prop to public morality. Among
later dramatists, Chaeremon (frag. 21, Nauck) echoes
in almost the came words the sentiment of Xenoph-
anes, and Moschion (frag. 6), describing man's progress
from cannibalism to civilization, treats Prometheus as
the mythological equivalent of "necessity" or "experi-
ence"-by then the accepted catchwords.

Fifth-Century Anthropology. It is evident that
behind these poetic utterances there lies a substantial
amount of serious anthropological speculation which
had excited public interest. And we know who the
leading figures in this movement were: the philosophers
Anaxagoras and Democritus, both of whom emphasized
the role of human intelligence in man's emergence
from the animal level; Anaxagoras' Athenian pupil
Archelaus, who described the origin of "leadership and
laws and skills and City states and the rest" (Diels-Kranz
60 A 4); and the Sophist Protagoras, reputedly the
author of a work "On Man's Original Condition"
(Diogenes Laërtius ix. 55). Unfortunately the writings
of all these men are lost, and what they had to say
ou this subject is represented only by the scantiest of
fragments. There are, however, two prose texts from
which scholars have thought to recover the fifth-
century doctrine of progress, though neither of them
belongs to that century.

The Platonic "Protagoras." The first of these is the
myth which Plato in his Protagoras (320C ff.) put into
the mouth of the great Sophist. The difficulty of using
this as evidence lies not so much in its mythical form
(which does not pretend to be more than allegory) as
in the impossibility of deciding with any precision how
much is Protagoras and how much Plato. Some scholars
have treated the passage as an exact report of
Protagoras' views, or even as a verbatim excerpt from


his alleged work "On Man's Original Condition." This
is unjustified: Plato was no scissors-and-paste composer;
the style (despite assertions to the contrary) is rot
notably different from that employed in other Platonic
myths, and certain of the ideas seem much more
Platonic than Protagorean. (See further Havelock's
critical bibliography, pp. 407-09.) The utmost that can
safely be inferred is that Protagoras did somewhere
express opinions on the origins of society; that in doing
so he emphasized the poverty of man's physical en-
dowment (of which design-mongers like Xenophon
made much) and insisted that early man owed his
survival ultimately to his capacity for communal life;
and that this in turn depended in his view on the
development of the social virtues, αἰδώς and δίκη-re-
spect for the feelings and the rights of others. Since
Protagoras also believed that virtue can be taught, this
may well have led him to take a rosy view of man's
prospects; Plato makes him claim (327C, D) that the
very worst citizen of modern Athens is already a better
man than any savage. In the saine spirit Democritus
seems to have held that man's natural endowment was
malleable and could be "re-shaped" by education (frag.
33). In the great days of the fifth century such optimism
was natural; by the time Plato wrote, faith in the
common heritage of αἰδώς and δίκη had been shattered
by the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath, and the
reproachful phantom of the "Noble Savage" was wait-
ing in the wings.

Anonymus Diodori. The other relevant text presents
even greater problems, which cannot be adequately
discussed here. It consiste of a cosmogony, a zoogony,
and an anthropology which Diodorus inserted into the
preface (1. 7-8) to his Universal History (ca. 60-30 B.c.)
on the authority, as he tells us, of "the most generally
recognized natural scientists" (φυσιολόγοι). It is distin-
guished from most other productions of its period both
by its consistently rationalist approach (no supernatural
agencies are invoked at any point) and by its consistent
use of terms and ideas characteristic of fifth-century
speculation. K. Reinhardt in 1912 argued ingeniously
that its ultimate source was Democritus; this view was
long accepted, and the passage still appears as fragment
5 among the fragments of Democritus in Kranz's col-
lection. But doubts have saine accumulated (most fully
summarized by Spoerri, pp. 1-33). The cosmogony is
nonatomist; the accourt of the origin of animal life
has closer parallels in other pre-Socratic texts than it
has in Democritus; some features of the anthropology
may be Democritean, but the author's reference to the
crucial significance of the human hand (8. 9), which
has made man the only tool-using animal, seems to go
back to Anaxagoras (Aristotle, De partibus animalium
687a 7; cf. also Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.4.11). A
possible view is that Diodorus or some Hellenistic
predecessor, being no philosopher, consulted one of
the current "doxographic" manuals and out of what
he found there put together a rot very up-to-date
precis in general terms of the opinions most often
attributed to rationalist thinkers. If this is so, any hope
of reconstructing in detail a "Democritean" anthro-
pology (as attempted most recently by Thomas Cole)
seems doomed to failure.

The Idea of Progress in the Professions. Whatever
may be the truth about the source used by Diodorus,
it is in any case fairly clear that at least in the latter
half of the fifth century the fact of man's gradual rise
from an animal (Φηριώδης) level was very widely
accepted. The cyclic view of history was rot dead (it
had been given a new interpretation by Empedocles)
and the dream of the good old days "under Kronos"
survived in the imagination of poets (e.g., Cratinus,
frag. 165 Kock; Sophocles, frag. 278). But the weight
of "scientific" opinion was against them, and so was
the continuing experience of progress, particularly in
the skilled professions (τέχναι). Plato represents
Socrates as agreeing with the Sophist Hippias that
there have been advances in all the τέχναι such that
"the old practitioners eut a poor figure in comparison
with to-days" (Hippias major 281D). Thucydides
makes his Corinthian envoy warn the conservative
Spartans that "In politics, as in any-τέχνη the latest
inventions always have the advantage" (1.71.3). The
professionals themselves were apparently full of con-
fidence, rot only about the present but about the

The author of the essay On Ancient Medicine (Littré
I. 570ff.), which is usually assigned to the last third
of the fifth century, asserts that "many splendid medi-
cal discoveries have been made over the years, and
the rest will be discovered if a competent man, familiar
with past findings, takes them as a basis for his
enquiries" (c. 2). The progress of medicine is for him
neither accidentai (c. 12) nor god-given (c. 14) but has
resulted from systematic research. In the saine spirit
the essay On the Art of Medicine (Littré VI. 2ff.), which
probably dates from the saine period, declares that "To
make new discoverees of a useful kind, or to perfect
what is only half worked out, is the ambition and the
task of intelligence." A similar but wider confidence
is expressed in the proposai of the architect
Hippodamus that a special award of merit should be
given to those "who discovered something of advantage
to the State" (Aristotle, Politics 1268a 6). The passion
for research had been awakened: Democritus was rot
unique in feeling that he had rather solve a single
problem than become King of Persia (frag. 118,


Limitations on Progress. But however buoyant the
expectations of the anthropologists and the specialists,
thoughtful minds in the fifth century were aware of
the limitations imposed on progress by the human
condition. Each of the two great historians expressed
this awareness in his own way. Each of them, it is true,
took pride in the past achievements of his people: for
Herodotus, the Greeks had long since outgrown the
"silly nonsense" associated with barbarism (1.60.3); and
Thucydides saw the past history of Greece as pursuing
a gradual upward course. But Herodotus writes "as one
who knows the instability of human prosperity" (1.5.4),
and this conviction haunts his imagination as it did that
of his friend Sophocles. He explains it in the old reli-
gious manner: man is at the mercy of a Power which
forbids him to rise above his station. Thucydides, on
the other hand, finds the limitation in the psychological
structure of man himself. Certain kinds of disaster, he
tells us, "occur and will always occur while human
nature remains the came" (3.82.2); and he adventures
the more general statement that "In all human proba-
bility events of much the same kind [as those he is
about to describe] will happen again in the future"
(1.22.4). It is a mistake to conclude from these passages
that Thucydides "finally adopted a cyclical view of
history very much like Plato's" (John H. Finley, Jr.,
Thucydides, p. 83; cf. A. Momigliano, pp. 11f.). His
expectation of recurrence is based not on cosmic cycles
but on the permanence of the irrational and unteach-
able elements in human nature. He also recognizes the
importance in history of sheer chance: "It is possible
for the fortunes of events to develop just as unpredict-
ably (ἀμαθω̂ς) as the designs of men" (1.140.1).

Progress and Primitivism in the Fourth Century.
When we pass from the fifth century to the fourth we
enter a recognizably different atmosphere. There is no
falling off in creative energy: the fourth century
produced the greatest philosophers and the greatest
orators of antiquity; it invented new art forms, prose
dialogue, and domestic comedy; it witnessed great
advances in mathematics and astronomy. Yet it is hard
to deny (as Edelstein does) that something at least of
the old confidence had been lost. The feeling of in-
security expressed itself in a variety of ways. Men
looked over their shoulders to a supposedly more stable
past, to the "ancestral constitution" or beyond that to
a state of primal innocence no longer to be found save
among remote peoples. Plato, as we shall see, cele-
brated the virtues of Stone Age man; Xenophon those
of the early Persians; the historian Ephorus discovered
such virtues among the Scythians, while Ctesias
attributed them to the Indians.
Alternatively, the dream could be projected as a
blueprint for the future, one of those "rational Utopias"
of which Plato's Republic is only the most famous
example. Utopas of this kind are less a sign of confi-
dence in the future than of dissatisfaction with the
present; their authors seldom have much to say about
the practical steps by which Utopia is to be achieved.
Others took a more radical line. Starting from the ideal
of "self-sufficiency" (ἀυτάρκεια) which Socrates had
commended, the Cynics preached rejection of all social
conventions and a return to the simple life in its crudest
form. They were the "beatniks" or "hippies" of
antiquity: they had opted out not only from the rat
race but from civilization itself. Like their modern
counterparts they were an unrepresentative minority,
but like them they were symptomatic of a social
malaise, something which was to become widespread
in the Hellenistic Age. Primitivism was not "on the
wane" (Edelstein [1967], p. 69); it was on the way to
a revival.

The Theory of Recurrent Catastrophes. The myth
of the Eternal Return was also on its way to revival,
assisted by Babylonian astrology. The doctrine of the
Great Year had been imported from the East by the
Pythagoreans together with its sister doctrine of iden-
tically recurrent world periods separated by recurrent
catastrophes. Both Plato (Timaeus 39D) and Aristotle
(Meteorologica 352a 28) know about the Great Year
and attach some importance to it, but they reject the
idea of total world destruction and identical recurrence
(which excludes all free will). In its place both of them
postulate partial natural catastrophes which have
destroyed and will destroy successive civilizations
without destroying mankind.
This theory appears first in the dialogues of Plato's
old age (Timaeus, Critias, Laws); whether it was his
own invention is uncertain (see Cole, p. 100 n. 5). The
myths of Deucalion and Phaethon may have suggested
it, but its value for Plato and Aristotle lay in enabling
them to retain their metaphysical belief in the endless
duration of the human race while recognizing that
civilization, at any rate in Greece, was of compara-
tively recent origin (cf. Plato, Laws 677C, D). The
theory allowed for temporary and limited progress
between catastrophes: the fifth-century picture of hu-
manity's upward struggle need not be completely
jettisoned. But it led Aristotle to the discouraging
conclusion that "In all likelihood every skill and every
philosophy has been discovered many times over and
again perished" (Metaphysica 1074b 10).

The Theory of Forms. A more fundamental limita-
tion on the idea of progress was imposed by the theory
of Forms, both in the Platonic and in the Aristotelian
version. For Plato, all progress consists in approxi-
mation to a preexisting model; the model has been and
will be there to all eternity, in the unchanging world


of transcendent Forms. There is thus, strictly speaking,
no open future and no such thing as invention; what
we call invention is but "recollection" of a reality
which is already there: nothing entirely new can ever
come into being. For Aristotle, again, progress can
never be more than the actualization of a Form which
was already present potentially before the progress
began. He traces, for example, the development of
tragedy from rude beginnings to its contemporary
state; but once it has "attained its natural Form" de-
velopment ceases, apparently forever (Poetics 1449a
14). Similarly in Nature his doctrine of immutable
Forms excluded any possibility of biological progress:
in the absence of any concept of evolution his scala
is a static sequence, not a ladder of ascent.

Plato and the Noble Savage. Despite this, Plato bas
recently been claimed as a believer in the idea of
progress (Edelstein [1967], pp. 102-18). This is hard
to accept. The passage in the Politicus (299B ff.) where
he defends the autonomy of the professional skills
against meddlesome dictation by democratic politicians
is not really relevant, and is in any case cancelled out
by the very severe restrictions which he himself sug-
gests imposing on these skills in the Laws. More sig-
nificant are his speculations about the emergence of
civilization, playfully sketched in his theoretical pic-
ture of "the genuine and healthy city" in Republic II
(368E-372E) and more seriously described, on rather
different lines, in Laws III. Plato was no literal believer
in the Lost Paradise, though he repeatedly toyed with
the idea on a mythical level (Cratylus 398A, Politicus
271C-272D, Laws 713A-714A, and the Atlantis myth
in the Critias). Up to a point he accepted the view
of the fifth-century anthropologists that the emergence
of civilization had been slow and difficult. But just as
Engels projected his utopian vision of the future on
to the remote past in the form of an imaginary "primi-
tive communism," so Plato projected on to the earliest
human society certain features of his Ideal State: the
same simplicity of living which he would impose on
his Guardians; the came absence of wealth and poverty
which is his recipe for avoiding internal conflict; the
same freedom from the corruptiog influence of foreign
trade. The experience of these early men was incom-
plete, since they were innocent alike of the vices and
the virtues of city life (Laws 678A, B), but they were
simpler, more courageous, more self-controlled, and in
all ways more righteous than men are to-day (679E,
cf. Philebus 16C). With these words the aged Plato
ushers in the Noble Savage. Subsequent history appears
to him in this passage as a story of technical progress
combined with moral regress-a pattern which we
shall find constantly reasserted later. Elsewhere in the
Laws he sees human history as largely chance-directed,
for "practically all human affairs are matters of
chance," even though this "chance" may serve the
mysterious ends of Providence (709A-C). Thus it is that
one society grows better over the years while another
deteriorates (6760): there is no consistent direction of
change. (See further Lovejoy and Boas, Ch. V; Have-
lock, pp. 40-51.)

Aristotle and his Pupils. Deeply interested in the
history of culture, they made large collections of mate-
rial bearing on it. There are unfortunately lost, and
outside the field of social organization dealt with in
the Politics Aristotle's view of human development has
to be inferred from one or two passing allusions. His
account of the growth of society from the individual
household through the clan to the city-state (Politics
1.2) follows the lines of fifth-century anthropology and
is free from the equivocations of Plato's version. His
interpretation of it is teleological: only in the city-state
does man become what Nature intended him to be,
a "civic" animal, and only there can he live the good
life. There is no suggestion of a Lost Paradise: on the
contrary, early man was "in all probability similar to
ordinary or even foolish people today," and this is
confirmed by the foolishness of such remnants of an-
cient custom as still survive (Politics 1268b 38-1269a
8). In this latter passage Aristotle also mentions the
great advances which have been achieved in sciences
like medicine "and in general in all professional skills
and abilities." As we have seen, however, a limit is
set to any advance by the attainment of "the appro-
priate Form." The city-state was for Aristotle such a
Form; he never envisaged any wider type of social
organization, though a wider society was in fact in
process of emergence in his own day. And if we can
believe Cicero (Tusculanae Quaestiones 3.69) philoso-
phy had in his opinion made such progress in recent
years that it would within a short time be "completely
worked out (plane absolutam)," i.e., would have
reached its appropriate Form (see, however, the doubts
of I. Düring, Aristotle's Protrepticus [1961], pp.
229-31). Progress on this showing is real enough, but
it is the fulfillment of a predetermined and limited
possibility-one which has been fulfilled many times
before and will be fulfilled many times again. Aristotle's
pupils Theophrastus and Dicaearchus shared his inter-
est in cultural history but idealized early man in a way
which would surely have surprised their master.
Theophrastus, writing on vegetarianism, traced the
origin of corruption to the discovery of fire, which led
to animal and human sacrifice and ultimately to war.
Dicaearchus, rationalizing Hesiod, asserted that "the
ancients" were the best endowed by nature and lived
the best life, "so that they were considered a Golden
Race compared with the men of to-day" (frag. 49,


Wehrli). In this shift of emphases they reveal themselves
as true children of the Hellenistic Age. A similar com-
bination of open-minded enquiry and backward-
looking sentiment appears later in Agatharchides.

The Philosophies of Resignation. The great social
changes which accompanied the advent of the
Hellenistic Age reinforced the new attitudes towards
both the past and the future whose emergence is
already foreshadowed in the fourth century. The
loosening of the traditional political and religions bonds
which had attached the citizen to his small city-stage,
and the development of vast monarchies bureau-
cratically administered, left the individual with an
increased sense of isolation and helplessness and forced
his thoughts inwards upon himself and his personal
salvation. At the same time the new conditions of urban
life, with the widening gap between rich and poor and
the development of artificial wants stimulated by com-
mercial greed, induced a nostalgia for a simpler and
less "civilized" existence which found literary expres-
sion in the Idylle (third century B.c.) of Theocritus,
while its counterpart on the mythical level appears in
Aratus' description of the Golden Age and in the
utopian accounts of distant or imaginary lands pre-
sented by writers like Onesicritus, Megasthenes, and
Iambulus. Its application to real life was enforced by
Cynic, Stoic,' and Epicurean preachers, who saw them-
selves as psychiatrists confronted with the tank of heal-
ing a sick culture. Since ail else was subordinated to
the aim of inducing freedom from anxiety (ἀταραξία),
they had little interest in promoting scientific advance
save insofar as it might contrebute tu this aim. Zeno
is said to have considered "the ordinary education" (τὴν
ἐγκύκλιον παιδείαν
) useless (Diogenes Laërtius 7.32),
and Epicurus expressed a frank contempt for science
as such (Epistola 1.79, 2.85; frags. 163, 227). The Stoics,
moreover, were systematic determinists, and most of
them accepted the theory of identically recurrent
world periods, which excluded ail genuine human
initiative. It is therefore rot surprising that the idea
of progress played little part in early Stoic teaching.
For Epicurean views on the subject our only substantial
source is Lucretius (see below).

The Expectation of Scientific Progress. This, how-
ever, is only half the story. Despite the philosophers'
contempt, the period between the death of Alexander
and the Roman conquest of Greece was the greatest
age of scientific discovery that Western man was to
know until the Renaissance; and the scientiste speak
with another voice than the philosophers. The greatest
among them were rot only proudly conscious of past
and present progress; they expected it to continue.
Thus Archimedes wrote that by using his method "I
apprehend that some either of my contemporaries or
of my successors will be able to discover other
theorems in addition, which have rot yet occurred to
me" (Method; Heiberg, Archimedis opera, 11, 430). And
the great astronomer Hipparchus (second century)
compiled a list of all the fixed stars known to hem in
order that future astronomers might be able to compare
his observations with their own and thus determine
what changes if any had occurred in the population
of the heavens (Pliny, Natural History II. 95; cf.
Edelstein [1967], pp. 140-55). Nor was this confidence
entirely confined to scientific specialists. Polybius notes
contemporary advances in technology and expects
further improvements (10.43-47). He also expects his
own historical work to be of practical value tu future
generations (3.31), e.g., by providing posterity with the
material for a final judgment on Roman rule (3.4). And
while holding (at least sometimes) a cyclic view of
history he nevertheless describes the origins of civili-
zation in terms which make no concession to primitiv-
ism. Starting like Plato from the theory of recurrent
partial catastrophes, he offers an accourt of the gene-
alogy of morals which is much more tough-minded
than Plato's: man is distinguished from the other ani-
mais only by his intelligence, which causes him to
develop elementary ideas of right and wrong in the
interests of self-preservation (6.5-7).

Posidonius and the Philosopher Kings. The revived
interest in human beginnings which shows itself in this
passage of Polybius appears in the first century B.C.
in the work of the Stoic Posidonius and the Epicurean
Lucretius, both of whom have been acclaimed by some
scholars as champions of the idea of progress.
Posidonius is the greatest polymath of antiquity, at
once philosopher, historian, geographer, and natural
scientist. He may also be called the first true field
anthropologist. His interest in cultural origins seems
to have arisen out of his personal studies among the
semi-civilized Celts of Gaul and the barbarous tribes
of Lusitania, in whose way of life he saw a clue to
the original condition of mankind (Reinhardt [1921],
pp. 397-99). The rather odd picture of human devel-
opment which resulted is known to us from Seneca's
Ninetieth Letter, where these views are quoted and
criticized. Posidonius knew too much about the ways
of contemporary "primitives" to treat man's earliest
days as a Golden Age. But at some stage of the devel-
opment (it is rot clear just where) he postulated the
emergence of wise philosophers (sapientes) who in-
vented the useful arts and ruled the people for their
good, rot out of a lest for power but, like Plato's
philosopher kings, out of a sense of duty; this was the
true Golden Age (90.5), when men were, in a phrase
which echoes Plato, "fresh from the hands of the gode"
(a dis recentes, 90.44; cf. Plato, Philebus 16C, and


Sextus Empiricus, Adversus physicos 1.28). Later,
however, tyrannies arose, and thus the need for laws
to hold them in check; these too were the work of
wise men like the Seven Sages of Greece, but for
Posidonius, as for Plato, the rule of law is only a second-
best (90.6). His further account seems to have been
largely taken up (to Seneca's disgust) with a detailed
description of the growth of the various practical skills,
such as house-building (where his ideas found an echo
in Vitruvius), weaving, milling, etc. This interest in
technology, nourished by his ethnographie observa-
tions, is a welcome change from the usual Greek con-
tempt for manual occupations. But it hardly justifies
us in crediting either Posidonius or his predecessor
Panaetius with a belief in "the idea of endless progress"
(Edelstein [1967], p. 169). No doubt, like the Alex-
andrine scientiste, Posidonius expected a continuing
increase in professional skills, but morally his own age
seems to have represented for him a decline from the
ideal standards of his primitive sapientes. Whether
these were originally suggested to him by Plato's
philosopher kings, or by the "learned men" to whom
Democritus (frag. 30, Diels-Kranz) had ascribed the
origin of religion, or by hie own encounters with
Gaulish druids, they show that for all his scientific
empiricism he never completely liberated himself ei-
ther from the myth of the Lost Paradise or from the
moralizing tendencies of his school.

Progress and Regress in Lucretius. The tension be-
tween the idea of technological progress and the idea
of moral regress appears in an even more acute form
in the fifth book of Lucretius, the fullest account of
prehistory which bas come down to us from antiquity.
How much of it goes back to Epicurus or beyond him
to Democritus, how much is Lucretius' own contri-
bution, is not easy to determine with any certainty.
As a good materialist Lucretius refuses to sec the hand
of providence at any point in the story: the human
race is the product of accident, and its achievements
are its own, brought about in response to the spur of
necessity by "men who excelled in understanding and
were strong in mind" (5.1107). Progress in al] the skills
of civilization has been steady and gradual (pedetemp-
, 5.1453); some are still advancing (5.332-37), but
in general they are said to have attained their perfec-
tion (summum ... cacumen, 5.1457). AU this is very
much in the spirit of Democritus. But civilization has
brought with it the seeds of corruption. Where neces-
sity was once the mother of invention, invention has
now become the mother of necessity: every fresh
invention creates a new need (5.1412-15), whereas the
only true riches is "to live frugally with a contented
mind" (5.1118f.). Worse still, modern society offers new
opportunities to senseless ambition (5.1120ff.), includ-
ing what Lucretius had experienced in his own lifetime,
the opportunity of large-scale war (5.999f., 1434f.).
Thus he plays off morals against technology, Epicurus
against Democritus and against Hellenistic scientiste.
On one point the two conflicting currents in his
thought appear to land him in flat self-contradiction.
In one place (5.330f.) we are told that the world is
still in its first youth, with the implication that it still
bas great possibilities before it; yet elsewhere we learn
that Nature is now worn out, like a woman past the
age of childbearing, so that for all his modern tools
the (armer can scarcely wring a livelihood from the
soil which once yielded crops spontaneously and in
abundance (2.1150-74; 5.826f.). The idea that the
generative powers of the earth have diminished was
a traditional one (Diodorus 1.7.6, it can no longer
generate large animals as it must once have done), but
it is here given an alarmist turn which is seemingly
new. Despite certain critics, Lucretius was no whole-
hearted apostle of progress (it would have been a
little surprising if he had been, considering the times
he lived in). See further Robin, and Edelstein (1967),
pp. 160-65.

Growth of Anti-Progressive Sentiment. The age of
civil war and corruption which destroyed the Roman
Republic had a lasting effect on men's valuation of the
past and present and on their expectation of the future;
it reinforced existing anti-progressive tendencies and
stimulated new ones. The immediate reaction was
conveyed by Horace when he compressed into eleven
lapidary words the advancing moral decline of four
generations, of which the last and worst was still to
come (Odes III.6.46ff.). This is "crisis poetry"
(Edelstein [1962], p. 54; cf. Eduard Fraenkel, Horace
[1957], pp. 286-88): we should not read into it a gen-
eral philosophy of history. But the mood of depression
strengthened existing doubts about the values of Greek
civilization. We see this in the popularity of the sup-
posed Letters of Anacharsis (one of which is quoted
by Cicero, Tusculanae quaestiones 5.90); in Strabo's
view (after Posidonius?) that the Greek way of life has
corrupted even the neighboring barbarians (7.3.7); in
the opinion of Pompeius Trogus that Nature has donc
more for the Scythians than philosophy has for the
Greeks (Justin, Epitome 2.2); in the judgment of Dio
Chrysostom that Prometheus was rightly punished for
introducing man to the arts of civilization (6.25).
Others, influenced by the prevailing belief in astrol-
ogy, saw in the disturbing events of their time the
symptoms of a Weltwende, a fresh turn of the Great
Year. This could be interpreted in an optimistic sense:
Vergil believed or half believed the Sibylline prophecy
which announced the immediate return of the Golden
Age (Eclogues iv. 4ff.; cf. Aeneid 6. 791ff.). To the


Greco-Roman world this was, so far as we know, a
novel idea: cyclic theories implied an eventual recur-
rence of the Golden Age, but no pre-Vergilian text
suggests that it is imminent. And the vision soon faded
to a formula; it became a standard form of flattery
to describe the rule of the existing Emperor as a Golden
Age (Seneca applied the term to Nero's reign,
Apocolocyntosis 4.1). At the opposite extreme, Juvenal
can find no metal base enough to symbolize man's
present condition (13.28-30), and Lucian thinks that
"the Race of Lead" would be too flattering a descrip-
tion (Saturnalia 20). This is rhetorical hyperbole. More
seriously meant is the apocalyptic passage in Seneca's
Natural Questions (111.27-30) where the displaced and
disappointed ex-minister, using oriental sources, con-
templates with something unpleasantly like glee the
prospect of "the single day which shall destroy the
human race" (111.29.9).

That such a day must come was traditional Stoic
doctrine, and probably troubled believers no more
seriously than the eventual cooling of the earth
disturbed the optimism of nineteenth-century thinkers
(Guthrie, p. 78). What is new, as in the case of Vergil,
is Seneca's conviction that the day is not far off
(111.30.5); this and his gloating description of it in terme
which suggest modem visions of atomic destruction:
"Cities that an age has built an hour destroys"
(111.27.2). To this expectation of evil two other senti-
ments made their contribution. One was the belief
which we have already met in Lucretius that the earth
itself is growing old and losing its vigor; it reappears
in Seneca (Epistolae 90.40,44) and in many later
writers. The other was the more specific feeling that
the might of Rome-which good patriots from Vergil
onwards declared to be eternal-had in fact like all
things mortal its fixed life span and was already declin-
ing into impotent old age. This too goes back in princi-
ple to Seneca (see Lactantius, Divinarum institutionum
libri vii.
7.15.14ff.), though his language is prudently
obscure, and perhaps beyond him to the age of civil
war (cf. Häussler, and Gatz, pp. 108-13). Already
Cicero in a similar vein had likened the Roman State
to an old and faded picture which through neglect had
lost its color and even its outline (De republica 5.2).

Testimony of the Roman Scientists. Where senti-
ments of this sort prevail little interest in the idea of
progress can logically be expected. Even the mystical
faith in the eternity of Rome to which many clung
for support in good times and bad, from Vergil (Aeneid
1.279, etc.) down to the fath-century poet Rutilius
Namatianus (De reditu suo 1.133ff.), did not carry with
it any necessary belief in progress; it was essentially
a faith in the perpetuation of a static present. Such
testimony to progress as we find in the Roman Imperial
Age comes, as in the Hellenistic period, chiefly from
the scientists and technologists. Vitruvius (first century
s.c.) in hie book on architecture and Manilius in hie
poem on astronomy describe the gradual rise of their
respective sciences from crude beginnings in terms
which exclude any hint of a past Golden Age. Manilius
shares Lucretius' pride in scientific achievement with-
out his moral despondency. "Man's capacity for learn-
ing," he tells us (Astronomica 1.95ff.), "has by effort
vanquished every difficulty, and did not count its task
finished until reason had scaled the heavens and
grasped the deep nature of things and seen in its
causes all that existe." As for the future, the elder Pliny
-again in an astronomical context (Natural History
11.62)-remarks that no one should lose hope that the
ages will continually make progress.

But the most confident pronouncements come,
surprisingly, from that same Seneca who predicted the
early demise of the present world. Elsewhere in the
Natural Questions (VII.25) he declares that science is
still in its infancy: "The day will come when time and
longer study will bring to light truths at present hidden
... when our descendants will be astonished at our
ignorance of what to them is obvions." The saure
expectation of indefinite progress appears in other
passages of Natural Questions (VI.5.3; VII.30.5) and
in Letter 64.7, where we are assured that "No one born
a thousand ages hence will lack the opportunity to add
to the store of knowledge." But Seneca's enthusiasm
is limited to pure science, whose aim is simply "the
knowledge of Nature" (Natural Questions VI.4.2); ap-
plied science he thinks positively harmful (Epistolae
90.7ff.); the liberal arts he judges in the old Stoic
manner as worthless save insofar as they conduce to
moral improvement (ibid., 88). And in his own day he
sees only decadence: far from advancing, science and
philosophy arc actually on the retreat (Natural Ques-
VII.32). The question of his sources and of his
consistency is too complex for discussion here (see the
references in Edelstein [1967], Ch. IV, notes 80, 81).

Eclipse of the Idea of Progress. All the writers
quoted in the preceding paragraph belong to the Ear-
ly Empire. The two centuries which followed were
the final period of consolidation and unification in all
the sciences: thus medicine was unified and systema-
tized by Galen, geography and astronomy by Ptolemy,
Roman law by Papinian and Ulpian, and lastly philos-
ophy by Plotinus. But in all these fields consolidation,
necessary and valuable though it was, gradually turned
to petrifaction (Edelstein [1962], p. 56). Men stood with
their backs to the future; all wisdom was in the past,
that is to say in books, and their only task was one
of interpretation. Even Motions, the most original mind
of the period, saw himself as a schoolman rather than
a creative thinker: his doctrines, he says, "are no
novelties, no inventions of to-day"; he can prove their


antiquity by Plato's own testimony (5.1.8). Where men
can build their systems only out of used pieces the
notion of progress can have little meaning-the future
is devalued in advance. And in the hands of the philos-
ophers the devaluation was gradually extended to cover
almost every aspect of man's activity except the con-
templative, of which mundane action is merely the
outward shadow (Plotinus 3.8.4); thus history is re-
duced to a puppet-play (Marcus Aurelius 7.3; Motions
3.2.15-18), so that future and past alike arc emptied
of significance. "In a sense," says Marcus Aurelius, "the
man who has lived for forty years, if he has any intelli-
gence at all, has seen all that has been and all that
will be, since all is of one kind" (11.1). This is the
epitaph on the ancient idea of progress.

Conclusions. The reader has been warned of the
difficulty of generalization in this field. But a few
simple conclusions may be thought to emerge from the
evidence we have presented.

1. It is untrue that the Idea of progress was wholly
foreign to antiquity. The earliest trace of it appears
at the close of the Greek Archaic Age (Xenophanes),
and there is reason to think that it became widespread
in the course of the fifth century, though our evidence
for this is incomplete and largely indirect. At all pe-
riods the most explicit statements of it refer to scientific
progress and corne from working scientiste (Ancient
, Archimedes, Hipparchus) or from writers on
scientific subjects (Lucretius, Pliny, Seneca).

2. After the fifth century B.C. the influence of all
the major philosophical schools was in varying degrees
hostile to, or restrictive of, the idea of progress. In
particular, all save the Epicureans held cyclic views
of one type or another; and a belief in moral regress
was common to Cynics, Stoics, Epicureans, many
Platonists, and some Aristotelians.

3. The tension between acceptance of scientific or
technological advance and acceptance of moral regress
is perceptible in many ancient writers (most acutely
in Plato, Posidonius, Lucretius, Seneca).

4. There is a broad correlation between the expec-
tation of progress and the actual experience of progress.
Where culture is advancing on a wide front, as in the
fifth century, faith in progress is widely diffused; where
progress is mainly evident in specialized sciences, as
in the Hellenistic Age, faith in it is largely confined
to scientific specialists; where progress cornes to a
virtual halt, as in the last centuries of the Empire, the
expectation of further progress vanishes.


Primary sources. The most important texts, in the original
and in translation, are collected in the fundamental book
of A. O. Lovejoy and G. Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas
in Antiquity
(Baltimore, 1935). Fragments, etc., are quoted
from the following standard collections: H. Diels, Die
Fragmente der Vorsokratiker
, 7th ed., ed. by W. Kranz,
referred to as Diels-Kranz (Berlin, 1954); T. Kock,
Comicorum Atticorum Fragmenta (Leipzig, 1880); É. Littré,
Oeuvres complètes d'Hippocrate (Paris, 1839); A. Nauck,
Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, 2nd ed., (Leipzig, 1888);
A. C. Pearson, The Fragments of Sophocles (Cambridge,
1917); F. Wehrli, Dikaiarchos (Basel, 1944).

Secondary literature. J. Baillie, The Belief in Progress
(Oxford, 1950). J. B. Bury, The Idea of Progress (London,
1920). T. Cole, Democritus and the Sources of Greek An-
(A.P.A. Monograph 25, 1967). L. Edelstein, "The
Greco-Roman Concept of Scientific Progress," Ithaca (1962);
The Idea of Progress in Classical Antiquity (Baltimore, 1967).
B. Gatz, Weltalter, Goldene Ait und sinnverwandte Vorstel-
(Hildesheim, 1967). B. A. van Groningen, In the Grip
of the Past
(Leiden, 1953). G. Grossmann, Promethie und
(Heidelberg, 1970), 111-27. W. K. C. Guthrie, In
the Beginning
(London, 1957). R. Haussler, "Vom Ursprung
und Wandel des Lebensaltervergleichs," Hermes, 92 (1964),
313-41. E. A. Havelock, The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics
(London, 1957). A. Kleingünther, Ηρω̂τος Εὑρετής (Leipzig,
1933). F. Lämmli, Homo Faber (Basel, 1968). A. Momigliano,
"Time in Ancient Historiography," History and Theory,
Beiheft 6 (1966). K. Reinhardt, "Hekataios von Abdera und
Demokrit," Hermes, 47 (1912), 492-513; repr. Vermächtnis
der Antike
(Göttingen, 1960), pp. 114-32; Poseidonios(Mu-
nich, 1921). L. Robin, "Sur la conception épicuréenne du
progrès," Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale, 23 (1916),
697ff.; reprinted in La pensée hellénique (Paris, 1942), pp.
525-52. Jacqueline de Romilly, "Thucydide et l'idée de
progrès," Annali Pisa, 35 (1966). Wilhelm Schmid, Unter-
suchungen zum Gefesselten Prometheus
(Stuttgart, 1929).
E. E. Sikes, The Anthropology of the Greeks (London, 1914).
W. Spoerri, Späthellenistische Berichte über Welt, Kultur
und Götter
(Basel, 1959). E. N. Tigerstedt, "The Problem
of Progress in Literature in Classical Antiquity," in P.
Demetz, T. Greene, and L. Nelson, Jr., The Disciplines of
... (New Haven, 1968). W. von Uxkull-
Gyllenband, Griechische Kultur-Entstehungslehren (Berlin,
1924). R. Vischer, Das Einfache Leben (Göttingen, 1965).
Translations are by the author of the article.


[See also Astrology; Chance; Christianity; Cycles;
Epicureanism; Humanism; Myth; Nature; Necessity;
Platonism; Pre-Platonic Conceptions; Primitivism; Progress
in the Modern Era
; Pythagorean ...; Rationality; Utopia.]