The Myth, or Delusion, of Progress

At all events, the error and the illusion are the same in both socioeconomic ideologies, namely the serious assumption that existential misery can be reduced to suffering in one way or another from material want, and to impoverishment due to a given socioeconomic system. They assume that misery is greater among the disinherited or the proletariat than among those living in prosperous or privileged economic conditions, and that it will consequently diminish with the “freedom from want” and the general advance of the material conditions of existence. The truth of the matter is that the meaning of existence can be lacking as much in one group as in the other, and that there is no correlation between material and spiritual misery. —Julius Evola

     Several years ago, when I was living in a cave in Burma, a friend in America sent me some books, and, my friend being a female person, the books were mostly “chick lit.” One of them was Jane Austen’s great novel Pride and Prejudice, which I read with interest; and one of the most striking things about it, for me anyway, was the portrayal of the English gentry of the Napoleonic era as being almost insufferably stiff, formal, and hard to please. Austen’s descriptions of balls (formal dances), for example, struck me as so stiff that it was hard to imagine many people actually enjoying them. It appeared to me that the primary purpose of them was not enjoyment, or even really dancing, but rather artificial image projection and social posturing. I remember thinking that savages leaping and whooping around a campfire would enjoy their dancing, and their leisure time in general, much more deeply than some upper-class English stuffed shirt.

     Which reminds me of the only University of Washington kegger I can remember ever attending, long ago when I was a student at a different university. At the time, and maybe now also, the UW was the most prestigious university in the state of Washington (Evergreen was a joke even back in the 1980s), and so the rich, ambitious kids tended to go there. The party, unlike parties at my own university, was similar to the Napoleonic cotillions: rich kids in their finest leisure wear stiffly postured, as though actually relaxing and having a good time was too plebeian, and somehow demeaning to their dignity. The experience was sufficient for me to lose interest in attending any more UW keg parties, and further decreased my already low opinion of snobbery and worldly ambition. Stone age cave people no doubt had parties that were much more fun.

     Or consider rural Burmese villagers. Most of them are subsistence farmers, and most people living in “poverty” in the USA would be considered rich by comparison. Three generations of a family might be living in a single room bamboo shack with no electricity, no running water, and furthermore no welfare state, in a village with barking dogs, chickens, dirt, rubbish, and goat turds all over the place. The men might take their bullocks out to plow in the morning, and young women and girls are required to balance a clay pot on their head and walk to the nearest well, pond, or river to get water for the family’s needs every day. But despite all this material poverty, I have seen, based on many years of experience, that the average Burmese villager experiences less suffering or dukkha than does the average American city dweller surrounded by luxuries hardly imagined by those villagers. They are cheerful, open-hearted people who smile a lot, much more than does the average westerner; and it is sincere smiling too, not faked. This is because of the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism, namely that all suffering is caused by desire, and the average Burmese villager obviously has less desire than the average westerner. (Also I may as well toss in that I’ve met more hundred-year-old Burmese people than hundred-year-old American people.) The stoicism and extreme patience of Burmese people has always amazed me.

     So, considering all this, I am very skeptical that modern progress—economic, scientific, technological, political, etc.—has really increased the happiness of the average person; and happiness really is the most important metric for human quality of life. My guess is that the average prehistoric cave person was no more miserable than, say, the average young, “woke” feminist working at a Starbucks, or just buying her coffee there. We live more comfortably, and arguably experience more sensual pleasure (some cave people slept on the ground and when they bathed, which might be seldom, the water was always cold), but psychologically the pluses and minuses still balance out in the long run. Our pain is less extreme maybe, but so is our happiness. And by the way, those cave people may have possessed more natural intelligence than us as well, considering that domesticated animals tend to be less intelligent than the wild type, and we’ve been domesticated ever since we stopped living in forests and became town dwellers tamed by centralized governments and increasingly civilized customs.

     Bertrand Russell once said, “…although our age far surpasses all previous ages in knowledge, there has been no correlative increase in our wisdom,” which is clearly true. And it is wisdom, not physical comfort or convenience, that is the true source of happiness, or at least of equanimity and a relative lack of misery.

     If the posturing gentry of Jane Austen’s novel were confronted with a meal of boiled beans and tough bread, and a thin mat to sleep on, they’d very probably feel as though some calamity had struck them (unless they were soldiers in the field, in which case they might accept the situation as a matter of masculine martial honor, though that too has gone into severe decline over the past century or so). I know from personal experience that a rough life is no guarantee of misery; one can be without possessions, without a home, without money, without family or close friends, and with an empty stomach and shivering with cold, and still be very happy—in fact a basic function of Buddhism is to teach its practitioners to be content regardless of outward circumstance. And one of the reasons for apparent increase in unhappiness in western culture is the loss of this sort of wisdom, and the adoption of utter superficiality in understanding how actually to be content in life. The primary difference between a chronically relatively happy person and a chronic malcontent is the mental states, not money or comfort or any material object.

     So progress, so called, leads to greater comfort and convenience, but to less actual aliveness, on average, less depth of experience, and greater superficiality. Increased comforts and privileges lead to people being pampered, spoiled, and harder to please, if not simply numb like the debauched, soma-dependent sheeple of Huxley’s Brave New World.

     The roughness and occasional brutality of the ancient world added intensity and vitality to existence, and required strength of body and spirit, courage, and a philosophical acceptance of the inevitability of pain and death. As the saying goes, a coward dies a thousand deaths, and most people are cowards in the postmodern society of the progressive west.

     Despite all the increase in knowledge and relative material prosperity, spiritually we live in an age of mediocrity, of semi-life: there are fewer mass murderers, cannibals, and run-of-the-mill sociopaths, but also fewer saints. The best and the worst are eliminated by the same process. Sometimes I think the absolute zenith of human civilization occurred around 500BCE, when a kind of flowering of Spirit was sweeping over much of the “civilized” world (called the Axial Age by the philosopher Karl Jaspers), and manifested in India as a kind of dharmic miracle in which millions of people were actually concerned with breaking through the veils of illusion and attaining, or at least approaching, Ultimate Reality, and brought forth individuals like the philosopher Gotama of the Shakya clan. Though of course at the same time, in northern India and elsewhere, there were militaristic kings, bloody wars, bandits infesting forests and highways, public tortures and executions, and only the most rudimentary understanding of medicine. But still it was a miracle.

     One danger of progressivism, and of worldly progress in general, and no doubt a major cause of the existential lostness of so many western people, is that the more “progress,” the farther we deviate from a lifestyle in harmony with primordial human nature—of which, absurdly, the “progressive” left denies the very existence. We would probably be happier, or less spiritually sick, if we reverted to a more Amish-like approach to life, with some amenities, like electricity maybe, plus some of the miracles of modern medicine, but still more or less natural, more in tune with nature, including human nature. How many readers can say what phase the moon is in right now, or what stars and planets are in the evening sky lately, or even what direction their house faces? Even a lot of the “woke” environmentalist types couldn’t say. The more artificial our lifestyle, the more likely it is that we will be in a state of friction with it, consciously or subconsciously.

     On the other hand, just the increase of ideological chaos and uncertainty nowadays, as our erstwhile universal world view of modernism continues to implode, may cause us to become wiser, in the sense of being less attached to any samsaric world view. If the shit really hits the fan and our civilization is thrown into chaos and uproar (I mean even more than it already has), then maybe we’ll make some real progress. Consider the times when western civilization has undergone its greatest upsurges and resurgences: ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, and also the aforementioned social and spiritual ferment in northern India during the Buddha’s time; rampant murder and social anarchy appear to be the catalysts of the greatest progress and the greatest flowerings of genius (hail Darwin), though human nature is stubborn, and our actual wisdom may not change all that much, which is regrettable, I suppose, but it may just be the way it is.

     We may be stuck forever in a zero sum game of positive happiness and negative misery necessarily balancing out to nothing in the long run. Consequently we may have to make the traditional choice between the roller coaster ride of worldly sensuality, or the smooth sailing of dull, self-restrained neutrality. Although maybe the greatest progress for humanity would involve learning (or rather relearning) how to live life to the fullest, with all its pleasures and pains, without clinging to any of it, or refusing to accept any of it.



  1. Great article! This is much needed perspective. Thanks!

    The world cant be saved. It is what it is. Cycles dominate Samsara. We need to make like Surfers and balance ourselves on these ever changing waves. We get too stiff and we are bound to fall. We get too loose and we will never find our balance. We get caught in the waves and we are at their mercy. Maybe someday we will get tired of surfing and find the shore?

  2. Smooth seas never made a good sailor

  3. Dear Pannobhasso Bhikkhu Sir,
    (commenter Shaswata from the old blog here)..Do you think that proto-Rationalists and proto-Scientists of Ancient Greece/Rome physically shaped the nature of the Universe in such a way that supernatural powers of yogis are just not possible in the real world.....Or do you think the laws of the Universe were set in its birth moment, rendering any sort of mystical supernatural powers impossible till the death of the Universe...Are the supernatural feats that are claimed by the Buddha products of intense hallucination? If the proto-Rationalists unknowingly shaped the nature of Reality for all time to come, why could not the supernatural yogis of India and Israel (prophets) could not do the same? Sorry to be a bit impolte and terse here, but I want an honest answer from your deepest mental core and not some word sophistry that what is considered supernatural by scientists is considered part of natural physical laws by Yogis....Though admittedly you are always razor sharp to the point regarding my queries and never a sophist....

    I say this because one thing spiritualists are loathe to admit even though they know it to be true....Although much about physics is not known in the molecular scale or the black hole, or UNIVERSAL scale...we know EVERYTHING about physics at the human or planetary scale.......

    The only blindspot of physics at the human scale seems to be Consciousness...Edward Witten the physicist claims that Consciousness would in all probablity remain unsolvable for all coming time

    So if supernatural powers are possible, it seems it can only be wielded through Consciousness and its manipulation

    Are supernatural powers rare because if one claims to have them, one would have to eventually convice 7 billion people through internet and scientific verification?

    this means breaking the Believablity matrix of 7 billion consciousness units by one single consciousness unit

    whereas in ancient times one could wield superpowers by breaking the consciousness units of only a handful of people

    Is there a limit to how many consciousness units a Yogi can break or bend? say a hogi flying into the air by just pointing his hand upwards like superman is unbelievable...if a yogi manages to do that in 2020 AD, he would have bend the beliefs of 7 billion..where as a Yogi in some backwater village in Indus Valley in 2020 BC would have to bend the beliefs of maybe 500 souls..and then they would disperse the stories to neighbouring villages who may already have sympathetic beliefs

    1. I have read some stuff suggesting that the first person to perceive something is the one who collapses the quantum uncertainty and causes whatever it is to settle on one distinct configuration. I think I mentioned this in the old Nippapanca blog post about Helmut Schmidt. Laws of physics may be similar, in that the first person to systematically examine and formulate it may lock it into place.

      On the other hand, it may be that the so-called laws of physics can be broken, especially if everyone around isn't locked into a materialistic world view. Like Jesus of Nazareth saying that the faith of a grain of mustard seed can perform miracles. So it may be that people vehemently believing materialism to be truth are decreasing the likelihood of psychic phenomena or "miracles." But more law and order and stability can increase the power of technology to perform the miracles.

    2. Thank you..this explains a lot....I would write more about this to you by the end of the year...

  4. This is article from Caltech physicist Sean Caroll as to why supernatural powers that break known and well set laws of physics are not possible

  5. My absolute frustration is the complete lack of mention of supernatural powers in ancient times in the only field that really matters------------->warfare

    Yes,we know that there are some mentions of supernatural weapons and arrows in Mahabharata, but Mahabharata is more mythological...I am talking of wars in civilizations that had better record keeping..Greeks,Romans,Egyptians,Mespotamians,Hittites,Chinese....The Chinese with all their Taoist superpowers could never stand up to Turks,Mongols,Jurchens and the plethora of other northern Horselords....still Chinese believed till the Boxer Rebellion that Taoist superpowers could stop western bullets and cannons...that is barely 120 years back

    Or is it that those wars with supernatural weapons did actually happen? and as our world became more rational, those wars dissappeared from our history and became the authentic chronology of our various civilizations in a parallel Earth...

    Recently I read the Battle of the Ten Kings from Rig Veda...This is a historical war that happened around 1500 BC among the Aryan tribes in modern day Punjab on the banks of the Ravi river...somewhere I guess around present-day Lahore...both sides were accompanied by Vedic priests...There is an "eye-witness" account of the battle, which is the main political event in the whole of Rig Veda....what the priest narrating the battle from "our" (Rig Vedic,Indo-Aryan) side mentions is that, the dykes were cut upstream which led to the enemies being washed away by the force of the river while mention of supernatural powers.......Mahabharata is considered the mythological version of this actual, more mundane battle ...VII.18 Rig Veda is where the battle is described in detail

    Loss in this battle led the alliance of Ten Kings (Ten KIngs were enemies of King Sudas) to diverge from the Vedic Fold which they already had started before the battle..This battle marks the final seperation of Indo-Iranians into Indo-Aryans and Iranians...when the Aryans arrived in North-West India, they still formed a single cultural continnum from Eastern Iran till Punjab...But after this Battle the losing side went onto establish Zoroastrianism very Zoriastrianism is almost as old as the Vedas ...

    I must also add there is still mention of some superpowers in relation to this battle..Rig Veda III.33 mentions the Vedic Priest singing hymns to the rivers Sutlej and Beas so that they may lower their depth and make themselves passable for King Sudas' army (which was on its way to meet the Ten King Alliance on the banks of Ravi further out West)

    Given the much more prosaic description of the battle in VII.18 I feel these verses at III.33 mention real supernatural powers, at least from the narrator's perspective...The river goddesses themselves talk to the priest when he is singing hymns entreating them to lower their depths


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