The Idea of Progress eBook

J.B. Bury
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 296 pages of information about The Idea of Progress.

But in discarding medieval naivete and superstition, in assuming a freer attitude towards theological authority, and in developing a new conception of the value of individual personality, men looked to the guidance of Greek and Roman thinkers, and called up the spirit of the ancient world to exorcise the ghosts of the dark ages.  Their minds were thus directed backwards to a past civilisation which, in the ardour of new discovery, and in the reaction against medievalism, they enthroned as ideal; and a new authority was set up, the authority of ancient writers.  In general speculation the men of the Renaissance followed the tendencies and adopted many of the prejudices of Greek philosophy.  Although some great discoveries, with far-reaching, revolutionary consequences, were made in this period, most active minds were engaged in rediscovering, elaborating, criticising, and imitating what was old.  It was not till the closing years of the Renaissance that speculation began to seek and feel its way towards new points of departure.  It was not till then that a serious reaction set in against the deeper influences of medieval thought.


To illustrate the limitations of this period let us take Machiavelli, one of the most original thinkers that Italy ever produced.

There are certain fundamental principles underlying Machiavelli’s science of politics, which he has indicated incidentally in his unsystematic way, but which are essential to the comprehension of his doctrines.  The first is that at all times the world of human beings has been the same, varying indeed from land to land, but always presenting the same aspect of some societies advancing towards prosperity, and others declining.  Those which are on the upward grade will always reach a point beyond which they cannot rise further, but they will not remain permanently on this level, they will begin to decline; for human things are always in motion and therefore must go up or down.  Similarly, declining states will ultimately touch bottom and then begin to ascend.  Thus a good constitution or social organisation can last only for a short time. [Footnote:  Machiavelli’s principle of advance and decline:  Discorsi, ii.  Introduction; Istorie fiorentine, v. ad init.  For the cycle of constitutions through which all states tend to move see Discorsi, ii. 2 (here we see the influence of Polybius).]

It is obvious that in this view of history Machiavelli was inspired and instructed by the ancients.  And it followed from his premisses that the study of the past is of the highest value because it enables men to see what is to come; since to all social events at any period there are correspondences in ancient times.  “For these events are due to men, who have and always had the same passions, and therefore of necessity the effects must be the same.” [Footnote:  Discorsi, iii. 43.]

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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