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.
is indefinitely progressive, there is no good reason for sanguine hopes that man is “perfectible” or that universal happiness is attainable.  A thoughtful writer observed, discussing Progress in 1864, that the innumerable individual steps in the growth of knowledge and business organisation have not been combined, so far, to produce a general advance in the happiness of life; each step brings increase of pressure. [Footnote:  Lotze, Microcosmus (Eng. tr.), vol. ii. p. 396.]

Yet in spite of all adverse facts and many eminent dissenters the belief in social Progress has on the whole prevailed.  This triumph of optimism was promoted by the victory of a revolutionary hypothesis in another field of inquiry, which suddenly electrified the world. [Footnote:  Against Lotze we might set many opinions which do not seem to have been influenced by the doctrine of evolution.  For instance, the optimism of M. Marcellin-Berthelot in a letter to Renan in 1863.  He says (Renan, Dialogues, p. 233) that one of the general results of historical study is “the fact of the incessant progress of human societies in science, in material conditions, and in morality, three correlatives. ...  Societies become more and more civilised, and I will venture to say more and more virtuous.  The sum of good is always increasing, and the sum of evil diminishing, in the same measure as the sum of truth increases and the sum of ignorance diminishes.”

In 1867 Emerson delivered an address at Harvard on the “Progress of Culture” (printed in his Letters and Social Aims), in which he enumerates optimistically the indications of social advance:  “the new scope of social science; the abolition of capital punishment and of imprisonment for debt:  the improvement of prisons; the efforts for the suppression of intemperance, vice, etc.,” and asks:  “Who would live in the stone age, or the bronze, or the iron, or the lacustrine?  Who does not prefer the age of steel, of gold, of coal, petroleum, cotton, steam, electricity, and the spectroscope?”

The discursive Thoughts on the Future of the Human Race, published in 1866, by W. Ellis (1800-81), a disciple of J. S. Mill, would have been remarkable if it had appeared half a century earlier.  He is untouched by the theory of evolution, and argues on common-sense grounds that Progress is inevitable.]




In the sixties of the nineteenth century the idea of Progress entered upon the third period of its history.  During the first period, up to the French Revolution, it had been treated rather casually; it was taken for granted and received no searching examination either from philosophers or from historians.  In the second period its immense significance was apprehended, and a search began for a general law which would define and establish it.  The study of sociology was founded, and at the same time the impressive results of science, applied to the conveniences of life, advertised the idea.  It harmonised with the notion of “development” which had become current both in natural science and in metaphysics.  Socialists and other political reformers appealed to it as a gospel.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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