To a person alive today it is hard to fathom that the ancient Greeks regarded themselves as living in an age of decline. These are the people who gave us the philosophers Socrates and Plato, the playwrights Sophocles and Euripides, the mathematician Pythagoras, the scientist and polymath Archimedes, and the first person to formulate atomic theory, Democritus. These are the people who designed and built the Parthenon and created the sculpture we so admire today in our museums. And yet, the ancient Greeks believed that the Golden Age, a period of unprecedented peace, prosperity, and cultural achievement, already lay deep in the past.

A friend recently asked if we who are alive today could bear to live in such an age. Our modern lives are premised on the idea that tomorrow will not only be different, but also better. He said this attitude has made us inattentive. We feel we don’t have to pay attention to the details of life because we know their destination in advance, namely, progress.

In the sciences we speak of progress – greater knowledge, better instruments, new investigatory techniques, more comprehensive theories. But we rarely speak of progress in the arts. We tend to believe that art changes, while science advances. We do not think of James Joyce’s novels as new and improved versions of Thomas Hardy’s. We simply say that they are different.

Can we imagine an existence in which tomorrow may be different from yesterday, but may not necessarily represent an advance? Can we imagine a whole lifetime of such days? And, perhaps the most vexing question of all: Is it possible that we have actually been living in such a world without knowing it?

This question, of course, begets another one: What do we mean by progress? Generally speaking, we are offered the following metrics: more people living longer, healthier lives and enjoying greater material prosperity year after year (that is, ever increasing per capita consumption). We may also be told that our knowledge of the natural and social worlds is growing rapidly and that this knowledge is part of the reason for our prosperity.

When speaking of progress, we tend to leave out the side effects – some of them very dangerous – such as climate change, toxic pollution, soil erosion, fisheries collapse, species extinction, and myriad other ongoing environmental cataclysms that have the potential to destroy our civilization.

To contain our anxiety we tell ourselves that this is the price of progress. The politicians ask,”Which would you rather save, your jobs or some obscure species of fish?” Of course, the predicament we face is not so easily dismissed.

Another friend pointed out the disconnect between the United Nations’ recent announcement that world population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, up from 7.5 billion today, while the organization also warns of the devastating consequences of climate change for world food supplies in the future. Might not billions die of malnutrition and hunger before 2050 arrives as climate change continues to move faster than we have previously estimated?

And yet, the news is filled with predictions of fantastic leaps forward in artificial intelligence, robotics, and biotechnology without reference to the dangers we face – both from these fields themselves and from our environmental problems – that could put an end to and even reverse what we call progress.

One of the world’s most prominent climate scientists, Tim Garrett, believes that our economic system simply cannot bring about the emissions reductions needed to stop climate change. Economic activity and carbon emissions are too closely linked.

This is just another way of saying that the idea of progress is embedded in the social and economic system, and that we cannot attack carbon emissions without attacking the idea of progress itself. Here is the question Garrett is really posing: If the progress we’ve made since the beginning of industrial civilization only leads to a complete reversal of all our supposed gains in the long run, can we really call what is happening progress?

And so, we must ask: Could we live in a world in which the idea of progress is abandoned? Could we stand the thought that tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that might feel endlessly the same, our personal power neither increasing nor diminishing – or worse yet, possibly diminishing somewhat over time.

Living without the hope of progress didn’t stop the ancient Greeks from creating art, architecture, literature and philosophy that we still admire and learn from today. Could humans once again learn to value change without demanding that it be progress? In truth, our fate depends on the answer to that question.

Image: Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens  by Rafael.  Plato (left in the center of the picture), is pointing up to the ideals, and Aristotle (to his right), is reaching out towards the physical world. Via Wikimedia Commons.