The idea of progress—belief that the conditions of life can improve, and that history can in this sense get somewhere—originated in the West. Insofar as other peoples have come to this notion, they have acquired it from the West.
Striking as this fact is, it seems explicable. If we confine ourselves to the two other enduring civilizations—South Asian, centering in India, and East Asian, centering in China and its cultural offshoots—we find that there presiding outlooks were forged by people who were in power; in India these were the brahmins, and in China the literati. By contrast, the West’s outlook was decisively shaped in this matter by the Jews, who for most of their formative period were underdogs. Ruling classes may be satisfied with the status quo, but underdogs are not.
This is really marvelous. First, I like it because it affirms and explains my faith that Western religion is about justice for the down trodden. (Smith writes a little later, perhaps gilding the lily a bit, “The prophetic protest against social injustice is universally conceded to be without close parallel in the ancient world.) Second, I love this because it provides an explanation for why Eastern religions are so much more focused on the internal self.
I do cringe a little from overlooking the religions that originated in–you know–the other four populated continents. That notwithstanding, this really struck me as an eye-opening passage.