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 notions of development and continuity which were to control all departments of historical study in the later nineteenth century were at the same time being independently promoted by the young historical school in Germany which is associated with the names of Eichhorn, Savigny, and Niebuhr.  Their view that laws and institutions are a natural growth or the expression of a people’s mind, represents another departure from the ideas of the eighteenth century.  It was a repudiation of that “universal reason” which desired to reform the world and its peoples indiscriminately without taking any account of their national histories.


The search for A law of progress


Amid the intellectual movements in France described in the last chapter the idea of Progress passed into a new phase of its growth.  Hitherto it had been a vague optimistic doctrine which encouraged the idealism of reformers and revolutionaries, but could not guide them.  It had waited like a handmaid on the abstractions of Nature and Reason; it had hardly realised an independent life.  The time had come for systematic attempts to probe its meaning and definitely to ascertain the direction in which humanity is moving.  Kant had said that a Kepler or a Newton was needed to find the law of the movement of civilisation.  Several Frenchmen now undertook to solve the problem.  They did not solve it; but the new science of sociology was founded; and the idea of Progress, which presided at its birth, has been its principal problem ever since.


The three thinkers who claimed to have discovered the secret of social development had also in view the practical object of remoulding society on general scientific principles, and they became the founders of sects, Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Comte.  They all announced a new era of development as a necessary sequel of the past, an inevitable and desirable stage in the march of humanity, and delineated its features.

Comte was the successor of Saint-Simon, as Saint-Simon himself was the successor of Condorcet.  Fourier stands quite apart.  He claimed that he broke entirely new ground, and acknowledged no masters.  He regarded himself as a Newton for whom no Kepler or Galileo had prepared the way.  The most important and sanest part of his work was the scheme for organising society on a new principle of industrial co-operation.  His general theory of the universe and man’s destinies which lay behind his practical plans is so fantastic that it sounds like the dream of a lunatic.  Yet many accepted it as the apocalypse of an evangelist.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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