[Footnote: The ascendency of the idea of Progress at this epoch may be further illustrated by E. Pelletan’s Profession de foi du dix-neuvieme siecle, 1852 (4th ed., 1857), where Progress is described as the general law of the universe; and by Jean Reynaud’s Philosophie religieuse: Terre et ciel (3rd ed., 1858), a religious but not orthodox book, which acclaims the “sovran principle of perfectibility” (cp. p. 138). I may refer also to the rhetorical pages of E. Vacherot on the Doctrine du progres, printed (as part of an essay on the Philosophy of History) in his Essais de philosophie critique (1864).]
The author was then convinced that history has a goal, and that mankind tends perpetually, though in an oscillating line, towards a more perfect state, through the growing dominion of reason over instinct and caprice. He takes the French Revolution as the critical moment in which humanity first came to know itself. That revolution was the first attempt of man to take the reins into his own hands. All that went before we may call, with Owen, the irrational period of human existence.
We have now come to a point at which we must choose between two faiths. If we despair of reason, we may find a refuge from utter scepticism in a belief in the external authority of the Roman Church. If we trust reason, we must accept the march of the human mind and justify the modern spirit. And it can be justified only by proving that it is a necessary step towards perfection. Renan affirmed his belief in the second alternative, and felt confident that science—including philology, on the human bearings of which he enlarged,—philosophy, and art would ultimately enable men to realise an ideal civilisation, in which all would be equal. The state, he said, is the machine of Progress, and the Socialists are right in formulating the problem which man has to solve, though their solution is a bad one. For individual liberty, which socialism would seriously limit, is a definite conquest, and ought to be preserved inviolate.
Renan wrote this work in 1848 and 1849, but did not publish it at the time. He gave it to the world forty years later. Those forty years had robbed him of his early optimism. He continues to believe that the unfortunate conditions of our race might be ameliorated by science, but he denounces the view that men can ever be equal. Inequality is written in nature; it is not only a necessary consequence of liberty, but a necessary postulate of Progress. There will always be a superior minority. He criticises himself too for having fallen into the error of Hegel, and assigned to man an unduly important place in the universe.
[Footnote: Renan, speaking of the Socialists, paid a high tribute to Bazard (L’Avenir de la science, p. 104). On the other hand, he criticised Comte severely (p. 149).