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 work (1839), was entitled REVUS des progres.  The political question as to the due limits between government and individual freedom was discussed in terms of Progress:  is personal liberty or state authority the efficient means of progressing?  The metaphysical question of necessity and freewill acquired a new interest:  is Progress a fatality, independent of human purposes, determined by general, ineluctable, historical laws?  Quinet and Michelet argued vigorously against the optimism of Cousin, who with Hegel held that history is just what it ought to be and could not be improved.


Among the competing theories of the time, and sharply opposed to the views of Comte, was the idea, derived from the Revolution, that the world is moving towards universal equality and the obliteration of class distinctions, that this is the true direction of Progress.  This view, represented by leaders of the popular movement against the bourgeois ascendency, derived powerful reinforcement from one of the most enlightened political thinkers of the day.  The appearance of de Tocqueville’s renowned study of American democracy was the event of 1834.  He was convinced that he had discovered on the other side of the Atlantic the answer to the question whither the world is tending.  In American society he found that equality of conditions is the generating fact on which every other fact depends.  He concluded that equality is the goal of humanity, providentially designed.

“The gradual development of equality of conditions has the principal characteristics of a providential fact.  It is universal, it is permanent, it eludes human power; all events and all men serve this development. . . .  This whole book has been written under the impression of a sort of religious terror produced in the author’s soul by the view of this irresistible revolution which for so many centuries has been marching across all obstacles, and which is to-day seen still advancing in the midst of the ruins it has made. ...  If the men of our time were brought to see that the gradual and progressive development of equality is at once the past and the future of their history, this single discovery would give that development the sacred character of the will of the sovran master.”

Here we have a view of the direction of Progress and the meaning of history, pretending to be based upon the study of facts and announced with the most intense conviction.  And behind it is the fatalistic doctrine that the movement cannot be arrested or diverted; that it is useless to struggle against it; that men, whatever they may do, cannot deflect the clock-like motion regulated by a power which de Tocqueville calls Providence but to which his readers might give some other name.


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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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