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.

England, said another writer, produced Bacon and Newton, the two philosophers “who first lent direction and force to the stream of industrial science; we have been the first also to give the widest possible base to the watch-tower of international progress, which seeks the formation of the physical well-being of man and the extinction of the meaner jealousies of commerce."[Footnote:  Edinburgh Review, loc. cit.]

These quotations show that the great Exhibition was at the time optimistically regarded, not merely as a record of material achievements, but as a demonstration that humanity was at last well on its way to a better and happier state, through the falling of barriers and the resulting insight that the interests of all are closely interlocked.  A vista was suggested, at the end of which far-sighted people might think they discerned Tennyson’s “Federation of the World.”


Since the Exhibition, western civilisation has advanced steadily, and in some respects more rapidly than any sober mind could have predicted—­civilisation, at least, in the conventional sense, which has been not badly defined as “the development of material ease, of education, of equality, and of aspirations to rise and succeed in life.” [Footnote:  B. Kidd, Social Evolution, p. 368.] The most striking advance has been in the technical conveniences of life—­ that is, in the control over natural forces.  It would be superfluous to enumerate the discoveries and inventions since 1850 which have abridged space, economised time, eased bodily suffering, and reduced in some ways the friction of life, though they have increased it in others.  This uninterrupted series of technical inventions, proceeding concurrently with immense enlargements of all branches of knowledge, has gradually accustomed the least speculative mind to the conception that civilisation is naturally progressive, and that continuous improvement is part of the order of things.

So far the hopes of 1851 have been fulfilled.  But against all this technical progress, with the enormous expansion of industry and commerce, dazzling to the man in the market-place when he pauses to reflect, have to be set the exploitation and sufferings of industrial workers, the distress of intense economic competition, the heavier burdens of preparation for modern war.  The very increase of “material ease” seemed unavoidably to involve conditions inconsistent with universal happiness; and the communications which linked the peoples of the world together modified the methods of warfare instead of bringing peace.  “Toutes nos merveilleuses inventions sont aussi puissantes pour le mal que pour le bien.” [Footnote:  H. de Ferron, Theorie du progres (1867), ii. 439.] One fact indeed might be taken as an index that humanity was morally advancing—­the abolition of slavery in America at the price of a long and sanguinary war.  Yet some triumphs of philanthropy hardly seemed to endanger the conclusion that, while knowledge

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