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.

It is to be noted that there was a general feeling of complacency as to the condition of learning and intellectual pursuits.  This optimism is expressed by Rabelais.  Gargantua, in a letter to Pantagruel, studying at Paris, enlarges to his son on the vast improvements in learning and education which had recently, he says, been brought about.  “All the world is full of savants, learned teachers, large libraries; and I am of opinion that neither in the time of Plato nor of Cicero nor of Papinian were there such facilities for study as one sees now.”  It is indeed the study of the ancient languages and literatures that Gargantua considers in a liberal education, but the satisfaction at the present diffusion of learning, with the suggestion that here at least contemporaries have an advantage over the ancients, is the significant point. [Footnote:  Rabelais, Book ii. chap. 8.] This satisfaction shines through the observation of Ramus that “in one century we have seen a greater progress in men and works of learning than our ancestors had seen in the whole course of the previous fourteen centuries.” [Footnote:  Praefat.  Scholarum Mathematicarum, maiorem doctorum hominum et operum proventum seculo uno vidimus quam totis antea 14 seculis maiores nostri viderent. (Ed. Basel, 1569.)] [Footnote 1.  Guillaume Postel observed in his De magistratibus Atheniensium liber (1541) that the ages are always progressing (secula semper proficere), and every day additions are made to human knowledge, and that this process would only cease if Providence by war, or plague, or some catastrophe were to destroy all the accumulated stores of knowledge which have been transmitted from antiquity in books (Praef., B verso).  What is known of the life of this almost forgotten scholar has been collected by G. Weill (De Gulielmi Postelli vita et indole, 1892).  He visited the East, brought back oriental MSS., and was more than once imprisoned on charges of heresy.  He dreamed of converting the Mohammedans, and of uniting the whole world under the empire of France.]

In this last stage of the Renaissance, which includes the first quarter of the seventeenth century, soil was being prepared in which the idea of Progress could germinate, and our history of it origin definitely begins with the work of two men who belong to this age, Bodin, who is hardly known except to special students of political science, and Bacon, who is known to all the world.  Both had a more general grasp of the significance of their own time than any of their contemporaries, and though neither of them discovered a theory of Progress, they both made contributions to thought which directly contributed to its subsequent appearance.




It is a long descent from the genius of Machiavelli to the French historian, Jean Bodin, who published his introduction to historical studies [Footnote:  Methodus ad facilem historiarum cognitionem, 1566.] about forty years after Machiavelli’s death.  His views and his method differ widely from those of that great pioneer, whom he attacks.  His readers were not arrested by startling novelties or immoral doctrine; he is safe, and dull.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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