HAS HUMANITY PROGRESSED?
D. R. Khashaba
Has there been progress in humanity during, let us say, the last three millennia? Of course it all depends on what we mean by progress and what we mean by humanity. So if you don't find yourself in agreement with what I will be saying, let us not quarrel, for we will be speaking about different things. In any case, I will not attempt to give a direct or definite answer to the question but will be, as it were, reconnoitring around its terms.
First, why the last three millennia? Because this is the period for which we have good records and that we can confidently compare with our condition in the present time.
Let us take an average man (to introduce women at this point would complicate the issue), living in one of the advanced countries of our present-day world, under fairly fortunate conditions, and ask, is the quality of life of such a man better than the quality of life of say, an Egyptian man living in one of the more peaceful and fairly prosperous periods of Egyptian history? Taking as criteria family life, filial and parental love, brotherly and sisterly sentiment, neighbourly goodwill, opportunities for enjoyment of beauty and the exercise of free thought, I do not think we can say that the one is superior to the other. (Taking shorter successive periods of time there will be found ups and downs; this only clouds the larger issue.)
Admittedly there has been advance in the treatment of disease, but perhaps this has been offset by the appearance of new ailments, and the harm that we have been inflicting on our natural environment probably has its toll. Can anyone confidently assert that the average present-day European or American citizen is more healthy than, or equally healthy with, the average Hellene in the millennium preceding the Christian era?
As recently as two-hundred years ago there was slavery all over the advanced and half-advanced countries. Here we can say we have taken a step forward. But only a hundred years ago the condition of the working class in England was, almost certainly, more pitiable than the average condition of slaves in classical Greece or Rome. More telling, present-day conditions in large populations in many parts of the world are miserable, and we cannot honestly say that this is unrelated to the economic system ruling in the advanced countries.
The poverty, suffering, and misery of very large sectors of humankind is a disgrace for present-day humanity. I do not claim to have knowledge of ancient conditions worldwide, but I will venture to suggest that the ancient world could be divided into, on the one hand, the centres of old civilizations, such as China, India, Persia, Egypt, Greece, etc., and, on the other hand, peoples who remained in primitive or near-primitive conditions. In the civilized countries, apart from slaves, people lived fairly well. In the more primitive areas people lived in tribes or clans leading a fairly satisfactory life.
In one respect I would assert that there has definitely been progress. The idea of a common humanity has been advancing and spreading at a very slow pace. Today most of us acknowledge it in theory. Our political leaders pay it lip-service. Yet in practice the policies of the advanced and half-advanced countries are self-centred, selfish and discriminatory; and on the level of individuals, only a Mother Teresa or a Gandhi or a Schweitzer have seen all humans as simply that, humans; most of us need an effort to regard humankind as a family.
One might ask: What about the stupendous advance in science and technology? All of that may have been necessary to make it possible for the seven billion members of the human race to subsist on our tiny planet. All of that may have made certain things easier for us. It may also have made our life more complicated and, at least in certain ways, more burdensome and less lively. I think we would be deceiving ourselves if we said it has improved the quality of human life.
I would gladly trade my life for the life of a simple Athenian contemporary of Sophocles.
Cairo, 10 November 2013.