It is not easy for a new idea of the speculative order to penetrate and inform the general consciousness of a community until it has assumed some external and concrete embodiment or is recommended by some striking material evidence. In the case of Progress both these conditions were fulfilled in the period 1820 to 1850. In the Saint-Simonian Church, and in the attempts of Owen and Cabet to found ideal societies, people saw practical enterprises inspired by the idea. They might have no sympathy with these enterprises, but their attention was attracted. And at the same time they were witnessing a rapid transformation of the external conditions of life, a movement to the continuation of which there seemed no reason for setting any limit in the future. The spectacular results of the advance of science and mechanical technique brought home to the mind of the average man the conception of an indefinite increase of man’s power over nature as his brain penetrated her secrets. This evident material progress which has continued incessantly ever since has been a mainstay of the general belief in Progress which is prevalent to-day.
England was the leader in this material progress, of which the particulars are familiar and need not be enumerated here. The discovery of the power of steam and the potentialities of coal revolutionised the conditions of life. Men who were born at the beginning of the century had seen, before they had passed the age of thirty, the rapid development of steam navigation, the illumination of towns and houses by gas, the opening of the first railway.
It was just before this event, the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway, which showed how machinery would abbreviate space as it had sir Thomas more, or Colloquies on the progress of society (1829). There we see the effect of the new force on his imagination. “Steam,” he says, “will govern the world next, ... and shake it too before its empire is established.” The biographer of Nelson devotes a whole conversation to the subject of “steam and war.” But the theme of the book is the question of moral and social progress, on which the author inclines to the view that “the world will continue to improve, even as it has hitherto been continually improving; and that the progress of knowledge and the diffusion of Christianity will bring about at last, when men become Christian in reality as well as in name, something like that Utopian state of which philosophers have loved to dream.” This admission of Progress, cautious though it was, circumscribed by reserves and compromised by hesitations, coming from such a conservative pillar of Church and State as Southey, is a notable sign of the times, when we remember that the idea was still associated then with revolution and heresy.