What’s the Big Idea?
Whether or not they consider themselves politically “progressive,” many Americans reflexively expect their country to make robust progress along economic lines. Buoyed by decades of material growth, we expect GDP to rise and standards of living to improve indefinitely. If these trends stagnate—as they’ve begun to during the current recession—pundits on all sides point fingers, assuming that something has gone terribly wrong.
But according to John Dillon, former classics professor at Trinity College, Dublin, classical thinkers would have found this assumption misguided. “This concept of progress,” Dillon explains to Big Think, “is so deeply ingrained in our psyches that it is hard for modern man to comprehend a culture in which no such concept is present….[But] among Greek and Roman intellectuals, it was fully recognized that nations and societies had their ups and down, that empires rose and fell….It was universally accepted that change in the physical world was cyclical: some new inventions were made from time to time, predominantly in the area of warfare, populations might increase locally, and cities, such as Alexandria, Rome, or Constantinople, grow to great size…but all this would be balanced by a decline somewhere else.”
This recognition of natural balance was more than a shrug of philosophical acceptance. For thinkers like Plato, it was fundamentally relevant to the question of how societies could best be organized. In The Republic and The Laws, Plato sketches visions of an ideal state, but offers no prescriptions for ever-increasing prosperity. Rather, he portrays societies that have achieved a harmonious—and stable—equilibrium in their population, politics, and economy.
While cautioning that “I would not for a moment advocate a full dose of Platonism for a modern state,” Dillon does believe that contemporary society should embrace Plato’s ideal of stability as opposed to progress. He warns that we’ve already begun to witness the fruit of a growth-at-all-costs mentality: resource wars (including, in his view, Iraq) and untold environmental destruction. Accordingly, he advocates stringent worldwide anti-pollution laws and recommends “pay[ing] very serious attention” to Plato’s “insistence on limiting production…to necessities rather than luxuries.” Against the ideal of ever-increasing wealth, he suggests that citizens and their governments should espouse the Platonic vision “of a modest sufficiency of material goods.”
Fenton Communications CEO Lisa Witter would agree that capitalism’s promise of progress has become an article of faith—and a dangerous one. In a 2008 interview with Big Think she argued that global capitalism has “run amok,” and that the problem of how to “continue to have growth without using up all of our natural resources” is becoming unmanageable: