The Idea of Progress eBook

J.B. Bury
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 296 pages of information about The Idea of Progress.

Peace is an advantageous condition for the progress of reason, but especially when it is the result of the exhaustion of peoples and their satiety of fighting.  Frivolous ideas disappear; political bodies, like organisms, have the care of self-preservation impressed upon them by pain; the human mind, hitherto exercised on agreeable objects, falls back with more energy on useful objects; a more successful appeal can be made to the rights of humanity; and princes, who have become creditors and debtors of their subjects, permit them to be happy in order that they may be more solvent or more patient.

This is not very lucid or convincing; but the main point is that intellectual enlightenment would be ineffective without the co-operation of political events, and no political events would permanently help humanity without the progress of knowledge.

Public felicity consists—­Chastellux follows the Economists—­in external and domestic peace, abundance and liberty, the liberty of tranquil enjoyment of one’s own; and ordinary signs of it are flourishing agriculture, large populations, and the growth of trade and industry.  He is at pains to show the superiority of modern to ancient agriculture, and he avails himself of the researches of Hume to prove the comparatively greater populousness of modern European countries.  As for the prospect of peace, he takes a curiously optimistic view.  A system of alliances has made Europe a sort of confederated republic, and the balance of power has rendered the design of a universal monarchy, such as that which Louis XIV. essayed, a chimera. [Footnote:  So Rivarol, writing in 1783 (OEuvres, i. pp. 4 and 52):  “Never did the world offer such a spectacle.  Europe has reached such a high degree of power that history has nothing to compare with it.  It is virtually a federative republic, composed of empires and kingdoms, and the most powerful that has ever existed.”] All the powerful nations are burdened with debt.  War, too, is a much more difficult enterprise than it used to be; every campaign of the king of Prussia has been more arduous than all the conquests of Attila.  It looks as if the Peace of 1762-3 possessed elements of finality.  The chief danger he discerns in the overseas policy of the English—­auri sacra fames.  Divination of this kind has never been happy; a greater thinker, Auguste Comte, was to venture on more dogmatic predictions of the cessation of wars, which the event was no less utterly to belie.  As for equality among men, Chastellux admits its desirability, but observes that there is pretty much the same amount of happiness (le bonheur se compense assez) in the different classes of society.  “Courtiers and ministers are not happier than husbandmen and artisans.”  Inequalities and disportions in the lots of individuals are not incompatible with a positive measure of felicity.  They are inconveniences incident to the perfectibility of the species, and they will be eliminated only when Progress reaches its final term.  The best that can be done to remedy them is to accelerate the Progress of the race which will conduct it one day to the greatest possible happiness; not to restore a state of ignorance and simplicity, from which it would again escape.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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