Within the last forty years nearly every civilised country has produced a large literature on social science, in which indefinite Progress is generally assumed as an axiom. But the “law” whose investigation Kant designated as the task for a Newton, which Saint-Simon and Comte did not find, and to which Spencer’s evolutionary formula would stand in the same relation as it stands to the law of gravitation, remains still undiscovered. To examine or even glance at this literature, or to speculate how theories of Progress may be modified by recent philosophical speculation, lies beyond the scope of this volume, which is only concerned with tracing the origin of the idea and its growth up to the time when it became a current creed.
Looking back on the course of the inquiry, we note how the history of the idea has been connected with the growth of modern science, with the growth of rationalism, and with the struggle for political and religious liberty. The precursors (Bodin and Bacon) lived at a time when the world was consciously emancipating itself from the authority of tradition and it was being discovered that liberty is a difficult theoretical problem. The idea took definite shape in France when the old scheme of the universe had been shattered by the victory of the new astronomy and the prestige of Providence, CUNCTA SUPERCILIO MOUENTIS, was paling before the majesty of the immutable laws of nature. There began a slow but steady reinstatement of the kingdom of this world. The otherworldly dreams of theologians,
ceux qui reniaient la terre pour patrie,
which had ruled so long lost their power, and men’s earthly home again insinuated itself into their affections, but with the new hope of its becoming a place fit for reasonable beings to live in. We have seen how the belief that our race is travelling towards earthly happiness was propagated by some eminent thinkers, as well as by some “not very fortunate persons who had a good deal of time on their hands.” And all these high-priests and incense-bearers to whom the creed owes its success were rationalists, from the author of the Histoire des oracles to the philosopher of the Unknowable.
In achieving its ascendency and unfolding its meaning, the Idea of Progress had to overcome a psychological obstacle which may be described as the illusion of finality.
It is quite easy to fancy a state of society, vastly different from ours, existing in some unknown place like heaven; it is much more difficult to realise as a fact that the order of things with which we are familiar has so little stability that our actual descendants may be born into a world as different from ours as ours is from that of our ancestors of the pleistocene age.