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.



The idea of Progress could not help crossing the Channel.  France and England had been at war in the first year of the eighteenth century, they were at war in the last, and their conflict for supremacy was the leading feature of the international history of the whole century.  But at no period was there more constant intellectual intimacy or more marked reciprocal influence between the two countries.  It was a commonplace that Paris and London were the two great foci of civilisation, and they never lost touch of each other in the intellectual sphere.  Many of the principal works of literature that appeared in either country were promptly translated, and some of the French books, which the censorship rendered it dangerous to publish in Paris, were printed in London.

It was not indeed to be expected that the theory should have the same kind of success, or exert the same kind of effect in England as in France.  England had her revolution behind her, France had hers before her.  England enjoyed what were then considered large political liberties, the envy of other lands; France groaned under the tyranny of worthless rulers.  The English constitution satisfied the nation, and the serious abuses which would now appear to us intolerable were not sufficient to awaken a passionate desire for reforms.  The general tendency of British thought was to see salvation in the stability of existing institutions, and to regard change with suspicion.  Now passionate desire for reform was the animating force which propagated the idea of Progress in France.  And when this idea is translated from the atmosphere of combat, in which it was developed by French men of letters, into the calm climate of England, it appears like a cold reflection.

Again, English thinkers were generally inclined to hold, with Locke, that the proper function of government is principally negative, to preserve order and defend life and property, not to aim directly at the improvement of society, but to secure the conditions in which men may pursue their own legitimate aims.  Most of the French theorists believed in the possibility of moulding society indefinitely by political action, and rested their hopes for the future not only on the achievements of science, but on the enlightened activity of governments.  This difference of view tended to give to the doctrine of Progress in France more practical significance than in England.

But otherwise British soil was ready to receive the idea.  There was the same optimistic temper among the comfortable classes in both countries.  Shaftesbury, the Deist, had struck this note at the beginning of the century by his sanguine theory, which was expressed in Pope’s banal phrase:  “Whatever is, is right,” and was worked into a system by Hutcheson.  This optimism penetrated into orthodox circles.  Progress, far from appearing as a rival of Providence, was discussed in the interests of Christianity by the Scotch theologian, Turnbull. [Footnote:  The Principles of Modern Philosophy, 1740.]

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