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 civilisation of modern Europe has grown through a period of fifteen centuries and is still progressing.  The rate of progress has been slower than that of Greek civilisation, but on the other hand it has been continuous, uninterrupted, and we can see “the vista of an immense career.”

The effects of Guizot’s doctrine in propagating the idea of Progress were all the greater for its divorce from philosophical theory.  He did not touch perplexing questions like fatality, or discuss the general plan of the world; he did not attempt to rise above common-sense; and he did not essay any premature scheme of the universal history of man.  His masterly survey of the social history of Europe exhibited progressive movement as a fact, in a period in which to the thinkers of the eighteenth century it had been almost invisible.  This of course was far from proving that Progress is the key to the history of the world and human destinies.  The equation of civilisation with progress remains an assumption.  For the question at once arises:  Can civilisation reach a state of equilibrium from which no further advance is possible; and if it can, does it cease to be civilisation?  Is Chinese civilisation mis-called, or has there been here too a progressive movement all the time, however slow?  Such questions were not raised by Guizot.  But his view of history was effective in helping to establish the association of the two ideas of civilisation and progress, which to-day is taken for granted as evidently true.


The views of these eminent thinkers Cousin, Jouffroy, and Guizot show that—­quite apart from the doctrines of ideologists and of the “positivists,” Saint-Simon and Comte, of whom I have still to speak--there was a common trend in French thought in the Restoration period towards the conception of history as a progressive movement.  Perhaps there is no better illustration of the infectiousness of this conception than in the Historical Studies which Chateaubriand gave to the world in 1831.  He had learned much, from books as well as from politics, since he wrote the genius of Christianity.  He had gained some acquaintance with German philosophy and with Vico.  And in this work of his advanced age he accepts the idea of Progress, so far as it could be accepted by an orthodox son of the Church.  He believes that the advance of knowledge will lead to social progress, and that society, if it seems sometimes to move backward, is always really moving forward.  Bossuet, for whom he had no word of criticism thirty years before, he now convicts of “an imposing error.”  That great man, he writes, “has confined historical events in a circle as rigorous as his genius.  He has imprisoned them in an inflexible Christianity—­a terrible hoop in which the human race would turn in a sort of eternity, without progress or improvement.”  The admission from such a quarter shows eloquently how the wind was setting.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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