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.

Buckle was convinced that social phenomena exhibit the same undeviating regularity as natural phenomena.  In this belief he was chiefly influenced by the investigations of the Belgian statistician Quetelet (1835).  “Statistics,” he said, “has already thrown more light on the study of human nature than all the sciences put together.”  From the regularity with which the same crimes recur in the same state of society, and many other constant averages, he inferred that all actions of individuals result directly from the state of society in which they live, and that laws are operating which, if we take large enough numbers into account, scarcely undergo any sensible perturbation. [Footnote:  Kant had already appealed to statistics in a similar sense; see above, p. 243.] Thus the evidence of statistics points to the conclusion that progress is not determined by the acts of individual men, but depends on general laws of the intellect which govern the successive stages of public opinion.  The totality of human actions at any given time depends on the totality of knowledge and the extent of its diffusion.

There we have the theory that history is subject to general laws in its most unqualified form, based on a fallacious view of the significance of statistical facts.  Buckle’s attempt to show the operation of general laws in the actual history of man was disappointing.  When he went on to review the concrete facts of the historical process, his own political principles came into play, and he was more concerned with denouncing the tendencies of which he did not approve than with extricating general laws from the sequence of events.  His comments on religious persecution and the obscurantism of governments and churches were instructive and timely, but they did not do much to exhibit a set of rigid laws governing and explaining the course of human development.

The doctrine that history is under the irresistible control of law was also popularised by an American physiologist, J. W. Draper, whose history of the intellectual development of Europe appeared in 1864 and was widely read.  His starting-point was a superficial analogy between a society and an individual.  “Social advancement is as completely under the control of natural law as a bodily growth.  The life of an individual is a miniature of the life of a nation,” and “particles” in the individual organism answer to persons in the political organism.  Both have the same epochs—­infancy, childhood, youth, manhood, old age—­and therefore European progress exhibits five phases, designated as Credulity, Inquiry, Faith, Reason, Decrepitude.  Draper’s conclusion was that Europe, now in the fourth period, is hastening to a long period of decrepitude.  The prospect did not dismay him; decrepitude is the culmination of Progress, and means the organisation of national intellect.  That has already been achieved in China, and she owes to it her well-being and longevity.  “Europe is inevitably hastening to become what China is.  In her we may see what we shall be like when we are old.”

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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