Progress is necessary: all ecologies, and thus technologies, get exhausted, or exhausting. Civilization rides a bicycle, and cannot long stop anywhere.
Progress does not happen out of the blue. It is instigated by the love of wisdom (philosophy). The progress of humanity is propelled by exerting a mind, one mind, at the highest level, first, and find a new idea, or emotion. And then to make that new wisdom blossom, and propagate throughout society. How exactly this happened can help figure out how it may happen again.
The explosion of philosophy in Ancient Greece was not sparked by Socrates (contrarily to legend). The reason for the veneration of the trio constituted by Socrates, his student Plato, and Aristotle, student of the latter, is rather sinister. Socrates launched a weasel denunciation of Direct Democracy. demolishing it because of technicalities. That turned into the Politically Correct justification of more than 20 centuries of fascism (“monarchies”) from Eire to India.
Thus Socrates was a sort of famous counter-revolutionary. He helped demolish what he profited from, Athenian civilization (Aristotle did much worse, he demolished democratic civilization itself, promoting instead a fascist plutocracy led by his most intimate friends). The ascent of wisdom and progress was fully evident by the age of Pericles, decades before. Pericles’ top advisers, including his wife, were top philosophers. They promoted the concept of “Open Society“ (lauded in Pericles’ Funeral Oration). Arguably, the concept of Open Society, and the progress of mind it brought, was important than the entire work of Socrates.
But to understand the rise of wisdom in Greece, one has to go much earlier than Pericles’ generation. The great legislator Solon, a bit more than a century before Pericles, replaced the draconian Draco style of legislation with the opposite orientation.
Solon was born around 638 BCE. He was also a poet and war leader (he secured to Athens the possession of the island of Salamis through battle and Sparta’s arbitrage). Solon replaced systematic execution for any crime, by subtle and appropriate laws. More controversially, he erased debts (the ones in the know, his friends, profited from it).
Solon launched Athens into that Open Society managed around ideas and progress. Solon was a great traveller, and left Athens for more than a decade. Even earlier, Homer played an important role, with his tales of how the deepest emotions mess up with the world, or lift it beyond heavens.
So why was Greece so wise? Because that’s how it rose to prominence.
Similarly, the renewed rise of wisdom in the European Middle Ages did not happen just in the famed “renaissance” around 1450 CE. It had started much earlier. A full millennium earlier, when the Franks founded their civilization on tolerance. By 650 CE, the Merovingian Franks, by then the great power of Europe, thanks to their control of Gallia and Germania, outlawed slavery (under Bathilde, the slave who became queen). That was followed by nationalization of the Catholic church, fighting off three massive Islamist invasions, mandatory education, total religious tolerance, and a “renovation of the Roman empire”. By then all religious establishment had to teach everybody secularly, founding the university system.
The Economist wrote a critique of “The Dream of Enlightenment” (by Anthony Gottlieb) “on some of the great Enlightenment thinkers, including Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Rousseau and Voltaire…
They were freelance philosophers working independently of the universities, criticising mainstream views and liberating thought from its academic straitjacket and neo-Aristotelian dogmatism. They were dangerous thinkers all, one publication away from exile, imprisonment or worse for their radical views on religion, politics and morality. Spinoza was the subject of a cherem, the equivalent of excommunication from the Amsterdam Sephardic synagogue; Locke disguised his authorship… spent a number of years in self-imposed exile; Hume chose to publish his “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” posthumously; and Rousseau fled to England when persecuted in mainland Europe”.
One cannot underestimate the terror generating new thinking brings. Most of the top thinkers where on the run, or in terrible trouble, fleeing here and there, from Giordano Bruno to Kepler, Galileo, to Descartes, Hobbes, etc. In “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), Immanuel Kant used the motto Sapere aude (“Dare to know”)
This all started five centuries earlier. By 1100 CE, the great philosopher, lover and songwriter Abelard was called “our Aristotle” by Peter the Venerable, head of Cluny (the largest religious establishment). Abelard fought Saint Bernard. Cathars and later Vaudois appeared in short order. Abelard got excommunicated, then readmitted to the Church (?), etc.
It was even worse under Islam. A bit after the war between Abelard and Saint Bernard, the famous Ibn Rushd (“Averroes” in Western historiography), an Islamist judge, philosopher and doctor to Caliph (of Spain) was banned, and his books destroyed for writing “The Incoherence of the Incoherence” against a religious fanatic who had attacked philosophy in The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Ibn Rushd got rehabilitated, shortly before his death, after a great victory of Caliph Al Mansour).
In the next five centuries, many thinkers would be legally executed. Executed for offenses such as printing books; the Sultan Francois Premier of France (soon imitated by the Sultan of Turkey) outlawed printing for a while, under the penalty of death, some of Rabelais’s friends and printers were burned alive; Rabelais himself, a well-connected top doctor, was not touched, but implicitly threatened. This courage is what the Enlightenment was built on.
Bringing people together on yesterday’s consensus is easy. Politicians love to do that. Philosophers, the real ones, do the opposite: they bring people asunder, down to the bottom of their souls, to establish tomorrow’s consensus, with superior, yet unborn ideas. The greatest leaders were definitively either advised by philosophers (for example, Charlemagne, and the US Founding Fathers) or philosophers themselves (Cicero, Caesar, Clovis, Solon, Pericles, Queen Bathilde, etc.)
We are the thinking species. Yet thinking means creation, anew. And creation means destruction, at least neurologically speaking. Loving is giving, yet the gift of really truly new thinking, is a gift of destruction. This is definitively a paradox, common people have a hard time embracing the concept and the mood behind it, as they rather embrace the mood that being a sheep in the flock is much safer.
No wonder humanity is ambivalent about real philosophers, except when they are safely dead already.