The Idea of Progress eBook

J.B. Bury
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 354 pages of information about The Idea of Progress.

Let us hope for the amelioration of man’s lot as a consequence of the progress of the enlightenment (des lumieres) and labours of the educated (des gens instruits); let us trust that the errors and even the injustices of our age may not rob us of this consoling hope.  The history of society presents a continuous alternation of light and darkness, reason and extravagance, humanity and barbarism; but in the succession of ages we can observe good gradually increasing in ever greater proportion.  What educated man, if he is not a misanthrope or misled by vain declamations, would really wish he had lived in the barbarous and poetical time which Homer paints in such fair and terrifying colours?  Who regrets that he was not born at Sparta among those pretended heroes who made it a virtue to insult nature, practised theft, and gloried in the murder of a Helot; or at Carthage, the scene of human sacrifices, or at Rome amid the proscriptions or under the rule of a Nero or a Caligula?  Let as agree that man advances, though slowly, towards light and happiness.

But though the most influential writers were sober in speculating about the future, it is significant of their effectiveness in diffusing the idea of Progress that now for the first time a prophetic Utopia was constructed.  Hitherto, as I have before observed, ideal states were either projected into the remote past or set in some distant, vaguely-known region, where fancy could build freely.  To project them into the future was a new thing, and when in 1770 Sebastien Mercier described what human civilisation would be in A.D. 2440, it was a telling sign of the power which the idea of Progress was beginning to exercise.


Mercier has been remembered, or rather forgotten, as an inferior dramatist.  He was a good deal more, and the researches of M. Beclard into his life and works enable us to appreciate him.  If it is an overstatement to say that his soul reflected in miniature the very soul of his age, [Footnote:  L. Beclard, Sebastien Mercier, sa vie, son oeuvre, son temps (1903), p. vii.] he was assuredly one of its characteristic products.  He reminds us in some ways of the Abbe de Saint-Pierre, who was one of his heroes.  All his activities were urged by the dream of a humanity regenerated by reason, all his energy devoted to bringing about its accomplishment.  Saint-Pierre’s idea of perpetual peace inspired an early essay on the scourge of war.

The theories of Rousseau exercised at first an irresistible attraction, but modern civilisation had too strong a hold on him; he was too Parisian in temper to acquiesce for long in the doctrine of Arcadianism.  He composed a book on The Savage to illustrate the text that the true standard of morality is the heart of primitive man, and to prove that the best thing we could do is to return to the forest; but in the process of writing it he seems to have come to the conclusion that the whole doctrine was fallacious. [Footnote: 

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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