There is an ancient Egyptian poem, written in the 19th century BC, which translates to:
Had I unknown phrases
Sayings that are strange
Novel, untried words
Free of repetition
Not transmitted sayings
Spoken by ancestors.
I wring out my body for what it holds,
Sifting through all my words;
For what has just been said is just repetition,
What has been said has been said...
-The complaints of Khakheperre-seneb
There are two distinctly interesting aspects to the above poem. The first is the fact that it represents complex ideas similar to what a modern person might have. My notion of ancient languages like the Egyptian hieroglyph was that of a bare-boned, simple linguistic architecture - one which is very utilitarian in nature and hence is very limiting in expressiveness. But the real fact, as attested by philologists, is that the ancient languages and the ones which are used by small tribal communities are much more complex and structured than any language which might be considered modern by our standards. This obviously doesn't mean that they automatically translate into more emotionally poignant passages and verdant verses; that quality depends upon the perception and talents of the writer, and this brings me to the other fascinating point of the poem above. The poet, 4000 years ago, is talking about the triteness of common ideas and he seems to have a condescending attitude towards hackneyed expression. He is lamenting the unimaginative use of language and wishes for novel ideas and words. And here we are, 4000 thousand years hence, all using the same beaten down expressions over and over again without blinking an eyelid. It's not hard to imagine that among us all there might be a poet who dies a little everytime an oft repeated cliche is repeated once more.
What really has changed in the last 4000 years? It is a scientific fact that the size and hence the potential analytical capacity of the human brain has remained a constant for roughly the last 100,000 years. It's vanity to assume that our emotional experiences are qualitatively much different now than they were 5000 thousand years ago. Some of our grandest and most imaginative literature dates back several thousand years (take the example of any religious text or mythology), and yet, and yet, is it just conceit to think that we live in a progressed society? Surely, scientific progress is one reliving metric that indicates that we have progressed. The light bulb in my room gives more than just light - it's a reassuring symbol of the modern age. But beyond the certain boundaries of scientific hegemony, I find it really hard to say if we have progressed. If postmodern human expression in nonscientific domains is taken out of context and presented under an anonymous authorship, it is easy to confuse it with the babbling of a savage and underdeveloped mind. So maybe what progress really means is the intent and vision of a work and not the work itself. Surely, Monalisa is not as grand as the vision of Leonardo da Vinci when he painted it - and John Cage's 4'33" is all about the statement he wanted to make. We measure progress relative to an existing datum. It therefore necessarily has to be aware of history. It has to be about a statement, a stand, a counterpoint to all our existing knowledge. And it has to be destabilizing in nature. So when the Egyptian poet lamented the existing ennui, his stand had the germs of progress - much like the attempts of humans to shake off the dust of historical baggage in any age. There is no qualitative difference between these attempts but progress is indicated by their historical awareness. We might not be emotionally more sensitive than our ancestors but we have progressed in the sense of being aware of history. When we lament on the hackneyed use of language (for example) and wish for something novel, we are actually wishing for something that has not been done in the last 50, 100, 1000, 5000 years. When we (and by 'we' I actually mean 'they' because I don't protest for anything) protest for gay rights, we do it because the protests for the rights of 'left handed people' (I'm not kidding) have already been done...