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… [Progress] means that civilisation has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction” …

[John Bagnell Bury – 1920]

… but…

  • can one still believe/consider that our present civilisation – a civilisation tending to become, for the first time in Human’s History, a unique and global one – is really moving in such a “desirable direction”?

… in the present global situation,

  • shall one actually intend Man collectively going through an improving or a decaying process?
  • shall one assume that humanity is living in a time of progress or a time of regress?

  • … … …?

Despite the more or less favourable – or even globally disfavourable – opinion one may have about the present situation of our World/s and Civilisation/s we should not throughout the «Idea of Progress», as a whole, involving all its components and aspects – Technology, Economy, Social Welfare (Health, …), &c. – we must not through away the baby with the bath water.

“Das Kind nicht mit dem Bade ausschütten” – Thomas Murner Narrenbeschwörung (1512)


Once upon a long (very very long…) time, our anthropoid ancestors, aiming to have some sort of control over their lives and environments, started acting on this world using several different tools and developing the correspondent techniques.

Those proto-humans ascended then to the new status of homo faber [men able to make things] and since, within each environmental/historical context, more or less deep and rapid processes of technological improvement, social development and cultural enhancement started to occur.


Today, we are the result of such a slow and very long process of evolution of our human species, from primitive humanoids to the homo sapiens we are today; a process that involved physical complexion and aspect, brain size and mental capacities, social conditions and structures, cultural density and complexity and its means of expression and communication…

images by Zdenec Burian

Such a process affected almost every aspect of our lives and, retrospectively interpreted through our actual knowledge a significant amount of information gathered in a rationaly sustainable hypothesis , it shapes what we, today, call «Progress».

… Progress then is a theory which involves a synthesis of the past and a prophecy of the future. It is based on an interpretation of history which regards men as slowly advancing – pedetemtim progredientes – in a definite and desirable direction, and infers that this progress will continue indefinitely.

[John Bagnell Bury – 1920]

However, such a narrative has only been viable after the modern scientific interpretation of the remains of our pre-historic ancestors and their settings, a process manly developed after the XVIII century, supported on the discoveries and studies made since then by the new sciences of Astronomy, Geography, History, Geology, Paleontology, Archeology, &c.






William Blake – Newton (1795)



Before those modern times, in our European societies heavily marked by Judeo-Christian religion, only the dogmatic biblical description of creation (Genesis, Γένεσις) would be accepted.

God creator (medieval enluminure)

Genesis (madieval enluninure)


Biblical Genesis – medieval enlluminure

Jainist cosmographic drawing

Other cultural/religious traditions will have different mythical narratives to describe – in order to explain – the appearance of the Universe (stars, planets…) and plants and animals of Man on Earth.

A seminal book in my early 20’s

In 1972, when I was studying in Lisbon’s School of Architecture, a brief mention on some book I’ve read then called my attention to John Bagnell Bury‘s historical study published in 1920: THE IDEA OF PROGRESS; AN INQUIRY INTO ITS ORIGINS AND GROWTH:

1920 – 1st ed. (front page)

1928 – 3rd ed. (dust cover)

1932 – 1st ed. USA (dust cover)

Enough has been said to show that the Progress of humanity belongs to the same order of ideas as Providence or personal immortality. It is true or it is false, and like them it cannot be proved either true or false. Belief in it is an act of faith.
The idea of human Progress then is a theory which involves a synthesis of the past and a prophecy of the future. It is based on an interpretation of history which regards men as slowly advancing – pedetemtim progredientes – in a definite and desirable direction, and infers that this progress will continue indefinitely. And it implies that, as

the issue of the earth’s great business,

a condition of general happiness will ultimate be enjoyed, which will justify the whole process of civilisation; for otherwise the direction would not be desirable. There is also a further implication. The process must be the necessary outcome of the physical and social nature of man; it must not be at the mercy of any external will; otherwise there would be no guarantee of its continuance and its issue, and the idea of Progress would lapse into the idea of Providence.” …

[J. B. Bury – 1920]

… if we accept the reasonings on which the dogma of Progress is based, must we not carry them to their full conclusion? In escaping from the illusion of finality, is it legitimate to exempt that dogma itself? Must not it, too, submit to its own negation of finality? Will not that process of change, for which Progress is the optimistic name, compel “Progress” too to fall from the commanding position in which it is now, with apparent security, enthroned? ’Έσσεται ήμαρ όταν … A day will come, in the revolution of centuries, when a new idea will usurp its place as the directing idea of humanity. Another star, unnoticed now or invisible, will climb up the intellectual heaven, and human emotions will react to its influence, human plans respond to its guidance. It will be the criterion by which Progress and all other ideas will be judged. And it too will have its successor.
In other words, does not Progress itself suggest that its value as a doctrine is only relative, corresponding to a certain not very advanced stage of civilisation; just as Providence, in its day, was an idea of relative value, corresponding to a stage somewhat less advanced? Or will it be said that this argument is merely a disconcerting trick of dialectic played under cover of the darkness in which the issue of the future is safely hidden by Horace’s prudent god?

[J. B. Bury – 1920]


“Progress, perhaps the fundamental secular belief of modern Western society, has come under heavy fire recently because, after three centuries, advances in science and technology seem increasingly to bring problems in their wake: alienation, environmental degradation, the threat of nuclear destruction. The idea of progress is brought into question by postmodern critique, attacking the notion of science as truth. Yet no other meaningful organization of humankind’s sense of time looms on the horizon.”

[Leo Marx & Bruce Mazlish – “Progress: Fact or Illusion”, Ann Arbor, 1996]

In the turbulent period between 1870 and 1930, the contours of modernity were taking shape, especially the connections between technology, politics and aesthetics. The trilogy “The Nihilist Order” traces the genealogy of the nihilist-totalitarian syndrome. Until now, nihilism and totalitarianism were considered opposites: one an orderless state of affairs, the other a strict regimented order. On closer scrutiny, however, a surprising affinity can be found between these two concepts that dominated the history of the first half of the twentieth century. Starting with Nietzsche’s philosophy, this book traces the development of an intellectual school characterised by the paradoxical dual purpose of a wish to destroy, coupled with a strong desire to create imposing structures. This explosive combination of nihilist leanings together with a craving for totalitarianism was an ideal of philosophers, cultural critics, political theorists, engineers, architects and aesthetes long before it materialised in flesh and blood, not only in technology, but also in fascism, Nazism, bolshevism and radical European political movements. Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, the Italian Futurists, led by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and Ernst Junger were all well-known intellectual and cultural figures. Here they are seen and understood in a different light, as creators of a modern political mythology that became a source of inspiration for belligerent ideological camps. Among the ideas propagated by this school, and later adopted by totalitarian regimes, were historical nihilism, a revolt against the rationalistic and universalistic pretensions of the Enlightenment, an affirmation of the dynamism of modern life, and the replacement of the traditional Judeo-Christian values of good and evil by other dualities such as authenticity and decadence. Concurrently there took place affirmation of the technological era, the creation of a ‘new man’ and a violent order, and the birth of a new political style in place of traditional world-views. When channeled into the political sphere, these aesthetic nihilist ideas paved the way for the rise of totalitarianism.



Raoul Vion (1904)

In their practice, architects and engineers have to evaluate (to measure, to represent, to model, to analyse, &c.), in quite some detail, each piece of land where they intend to intervein, in order to simulate different possible solutions and finally to draw a plan, calculate each and every constitutive element involved and determine its costs before building there any specific construction.




I believe it is quite comprehensible that nobody should start a building process without a (more or less detailed) project establishing the main objectives to achieve, setting up a previous design of its desired (and possible) dimensions and form, and dressing the best working solutions for the ensemble of problems locally detected.


people should constantly evaluate their past and present situation in order to idealise what they aim (dream) to do with their individual and collective lives, in the short, medium and long-term.


Quite similar to the practice of an architect or an engineer evaluating (measuring and analysing) a concrete piece of land and projecting an intervention plan before building a specific house in that field – establishing the main objectives to achieve through the desired construction, setting up a previous design of the possible answers to and dressing solutions to the ensemble of problems detected –, people should constantly evaluate their past and present situation in order to idealise what they aim (dream) to do with their individual and collective lives, in the short, medium and long-term.


“Das Kind nicht mit dem Bade ausschütten” – Thomas Murner Narrenbeschwörung (1512)

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