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.

Theories of Progress are thus differentiating into two distinct types, corresponding to two radically opposed political theories and appealing to two antagonistic temperaments.  The one type is that of constructive idealists and socialists, who can name all the streets and towers of “the city of gold,” which they imagine as situated just round a promontory.  The development of man is a closed system; its term is known and is within reach.  The other type is that of those who, surveying the gradual ascent of man, believe that by the same interplay of forces which have conducted him so far and by a further development of the liberty which he has fought to win, he will move slowly towards conditions of increasing harmony and happiness.  Here the development is indefinite; its term is unknown, and lies in the remote future.  Individual liberty is the motive force, and the corresponding political theory is liberalism; whereas the first doctrine naturally leads to a symmetrical system in which the authority of the state is preponderant, and the individual has little more value than a cog in a well-oiled wheel:  his place is assigned; it is not his right to go his own way.  Of this type the principal example that is not socialistic is, as we shall see, the philosophy of Comte.




The philosophical views current in Germany during the period in which the psychology of Locke was in fashion in France and before the genius of Kant opened a new path, were based on the system of Leibnitz.  We might therefore expect to find a theory of Progress developed there, parallel to the development in France though resting on different principles.  For Leibnitz, as we saw, provided in his cosmic optimism a basis for the doctrine of human Progress, and he had himself incidentally pointed to it.  This development, however, was delayed.  It was only towards the close of the period—­ which is commonly known as the age of “Illumination”—­that Progress came to the front, and it is interesting to observe the reason.

Wolf was the leading successor and interpreter of Leibnitz.  He constrained that thinker’s ideas into a compact logical system which swayed Germany till Kant swept it away.  In such cases it usually happens that some striking doctrines and tendencies of the master are accentuated and enforced, while others are suffered to drop out of sight.

So it was here.  In the Wolfian system, Leibnitz’s conception of development was suffered to drop out of sight, and the dynamic element which animated his speculation disappeared.  In particular, he had laid down that the sum of motive forces in the physical world is constant.  His disciples proceeded to the inference that the sum of morality in the ethical world is constant.  This dogma obviously eliminates the possibility of ethical improvement for collective humanity.  And so we find Mendelssohn, who was the popular exponent of Wolf’s philosophy, declaring that “progress is only for the individual; but that the whole of humanity here below in the course of time shall always progress and perfect itself seems to me not to have been the purpose of Providence.” [Footnote:  See Bock, Jakob Wegelin als Geschichtstheoretiker, in Leipsiger Studien, ix. 4, pp. 23-7 (1902).]

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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