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.

But the outstanding fame of these great reactionaries must not mislead us into exaggerating the reach of this reaction.  The spirit and tendencies of the past century still persisted in the circles which were most permanently influential.  Many eminent savants who had been imbued with the ideas of Condillac and Helvetius, and had taken part in the Revolution and survived it, were active under the Empire and the restored Monarchy, still true to the spirit of their masters, and commanding influence by the value of their scientific work.  M. Picavet’s laborious researches into the activities of this school of thinkers has helped us to understand the transition from the age of Condorcet to the age of Comte.  The two central figures are Cabanis, the friend of Condorcet, [Footnote:  He has already claimed our notice, above, p. 215.] and Destutt de Tracy.  M. Picavet has grouped around them, along with many obscurer names, the great scientific men of the time, like Laplace, Bichat, Lamarck, as all in the direct line of eighteenth century thought.  “Ideologists” he calls them. [Footnote:  Ideology is now sometimes used to convey a criticism; for instance, to contrast the methods of Lamarck with those of Darwin.] Ideology, the science of ideas, was the word invented by de Tracy to distinguish the investigation of thought in accordance with the methods of Locke and Condillac from old-fashioned metaphysics.  The guiding principle of the ideologists was to apply reason to observed facts and eschew a priori deductions.  Thinkers of this school had an influential organ, the Decade philosophique, of which J. B. Say the economist was one of the founders in 1794.  The Institut, which had been established by the Convention, was crowded with “ideologists,” and may be said to have continued the work of the Encyclopaedia. [Footnote:  Picavet, op. cit. p. 69.  The members of the 2nd Class of the Institut, that of moral and political science, were so predominantly Ideological that the distrust of Napoleon was excited, and he abolished it in 1803, distributing its members among the other Classes.] These men had a firm faith in the indefinite progress of knowledge, general enlightenment, and “social reason.”


Thus the ideas of the “sophists” of the age of Voltaire were alive in the speculative world, not withstanding political, religious, and philosophical reaction.  But their limitations were to be transcended, and account taken of facts and aspects which their philosophy had ignored or minimised.  The value of the reactionary movement lay in pressing these facts and aspects on the attention, in reopening chambers of the human spirit which the age of Voltaire had locked and sealed.

The idea of Progress was particularly concerned in the general change of attitude, intellectual and emotional, towards the Middle Ages.  A fresh interest in the great age of the Church was a natural part of the religious revival, but extended far beyond the circle of ardent Catholics.  It was a characteristic feature, as every one knows, of the Romantic movement.  It did not affect only creative literature, it occupied speculative thinkers and stimulated historians.  For Guizot, Michelet, and Auguste Comte, as well as for Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, the Middle Ages have a significance which Frenchmen of the previous generation could hardly have comprehended.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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