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.

Renan returned to speculation on the future in 1863, in a letter to M. Marcellin-Berthelot (published in Dialogues et fragments philosophiques, 1876):  “Que sera Ie monde quand un million de fois se sera reproduit ce qui s’est passe depuis 1763 quand la chimie, au lieu de quatre-vingt ans de progres, en aura cent millions?” (p. 183).  And again in the Dialogues written in 1871 (ib.), where it is laid down that the end of humanity is to produce great men:  “le grand oeuvre s’accomplira par la science, non par la democratic.  Rien sans grands hommes; le salut se fera par des grands hommes” (p. 103).]

In 1890 there was nothing left of the sentimental socialism which he had studied in 1848; it had been blown away by the cold wind of scientific socialism which Marx and Engels created.  And Renan had come to think that in this new form socialism would triumph. [Footnote:  He reckoned without the new forces, opposed to socialism as well as to parliamentary democracy, represented by Bakunin and men like Georges Sorel.] He had criticised Comte for believing that “man lives exclusively by science, or rather little verbal tags, like geometrical theorems, dry formulae.”  Was he satisfied by the concrete doctrine of Marx that all the phenomena of civilisation at a given period are determined by the methods of production and distribution which then prevail?  But the future of socialism is a minor issue, and the ultimate goal of humanity is quite uncertain.  “Ce qu’il y a de consolant, c’est qu’on arrive necessairement quelque part.”  We may console ourselves with the certainty that we must get somewhere.


Proudhon described the idea of Progress as the railway of liberty.  It certainly supplied motive power to social ideals which were repugnant and alarming to the authorities of the Catholic Church.  At the Vatican it was clearly seen that the idea was a powerful engine driven by an enemy; and in the famous syllabus of errors which Pope Pius ix. flung in the face of the modern world at the end of 1864, Progress had the honour of being censured.  The eightieth error, which closes the list, runs thus: 

Romanus Pontifex potest ac debet cum progressu, cum liberalismo et cum recenti civilitate sese reconciliare et componere.

“The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, be reconciled and come to terms with progress, with liberalism, and with modern civilisation.”

No wonder, seeing that Progress was invoked to justify every movement that offended the nostrils of the Vatican—­liberalism, toleration, democracy, and socialism.  And the Roman Church well understood the intimate connection of the idea with the advance of rationalism.




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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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