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.
of history is to be found in “the principles of social progress.” [Footnote:  Op. cit. ii, p. 194, sqq.] These principles are three:  the hidden ways of Providence emancipating the human race; the freewill of man; and the power which God permits to the agents of evil,—­principles which Bossuet could endorse, but the novelty is that here they are arrayed as forces of Progress.  In fact, the point of von Schlegel’s pretentious, unilluminating book is to rehabilitate Christianity by making it the key to that new conception of life which had taken shape among the enemies of the Church.


As biological development was one of the constant preoccupations of Goethe, whose doctrine of metamorphosis and “types” helped to prepare the way for the evolutionary hypothesis, we might have expected to find him interested in theories of social progress, in which theories of biological development find a logical extension.  But the French speculations on Progress did not touch his imagination; they left him cool and sceptical.  Towards the end of his life, in conversation with Eckermann, he made some remarks which indicate his attitude. [Footnote:  Gesprache mit Goethe, 23 Oktober 1828.] “’The world will not reach its goal so quickly as we think and wish.  The retarding demons are always there, intervening and resisting at every point, so that, though there is an advance on the whole, it is very slow.  Live longer and you will find that I am right.’

“‘The development of humanity,’ said Eckermann, ’appears to be a matter of thousands of years.’

“‘Who knows?’ Goethe replied, ’perhaps of millions.  But let humanity last as long as it will, there will always be hindrances in its way, and all kinds of distress, to make it develop its powers.  Men will become more clever and discerning, but not better nor happier nor more energetic, at least except for limited periods.  I see the time coming when God will take no more pleasure in the race, and must again proceed to a rejuvenated creation.  I am sure that this will happen and that the time and hour in the distant future are already fixed for the beginning of this epoch of rejuvenation.  But that time is certainly a long way off, and we can still for thousands and thousands of years enjoy ourselves on this dear old playing-ground, just as it is.’”

That is at once a plain rejection of perfectibility, and an opinion that intellectual development is no highroad to the gates of a golden city.




The failure of the Revolution to fulfil the visionary hopes which had dazzled France for a brief period—­a failure intensified by the horrors that had attended the experiment—­was followed by a reaction against the philosophical doctrines and tendencies which had inspired its leaders.  Forces, which the eighteenth century had underrated or endeavoured to suppress, emerged in a new shape, and it seemed for a while as if the new century might definitely turn its back on its predecessor.  There was an intellectual rehabilitation of Catholicism, which will always be associated with the names of four thinkers of exceptional talent, Chateaubriand, De Maistre, Bonald, and Lamennais.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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