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.

[Footnote:  Bacon quotes Seneca:  See Opus Majus, i. pp. 37, 55, 14.

Much has been made out of a well-known passage in his short Epistle de secretis operibus artis et naturae et de militate magiae, c. iv. (ed.  Brewer, p. 533), in which he is said to predict inventions which have been realised in the locomotives, steam navigation, and aeroplanes of modern times.  But Bacon predicts nothing.  He is showing that science can invent curious and, to the vulgar, incredible things without the aid of magic.  All the inventions which he enumerates have, he declares, been actually made in ancient times, with the exception of a flying-machine (instrumentum volandi quod non vidi nec hominem qui vidisset cognovi, sed sapientem qui hoc artificium excogitavit explere cognosco).

Compare the remarks of S. Vogl, Die Physik Roger Bacos (1906), 98 sqq.]


Thus Friar Bacon’s theories of scientific reform, so far from amounting to an anticipation of the idea of Progress, illustrate how impossible it was that this idea could appear in the Middle Ages.  The whole spirit of medieval Christianity excluded it.  The conceptions which were entertained of the working of divine Providence, the belief that the world, surprised like a sleeping household by a thief in the night, might at any moment come to a sudden end, had the same effect as the Greek theories of the nature of change and of recurring cycles of the world.  Or rather, they had a more powerful effect, because they were not reasoned conclusions, but dogmas guaranteed by divine authority.  And medieval pessimism as to man’s mundane condition was darker and sterner than the pessimism of the Greeks.  There was the prospect of happiness in another sphere to compensate, but this, engrossing the imagination, only rendered it less likely that any one should think of speculating about man’s destinies on earth.



The civilised countries of Europe spent about three hundred years in passing from the mental atmosphere of the Middle Ages into the mental atmosphere of the modern world.  These centuries were one of the conspicuously progressive periods in history, but the conditions were not favourable to the appearance of an idea of Progress, though the intellectual milieu was being prepared in which that idea could be born.  This progressive period, which is conveniently called the Renaissance, lasted from the fourteenth into the seventeenth century.  The great results, significant for our present purpose, which the human mind achieved at this stage of its development were two.  Self-confidence was restored to human reason, and life on this planet was recognised as possessing a value independent of any hopes or fears connected with a life beyond the grave.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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