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 not indeed a matter of fundamental importance how we classify these men who stood on the border of two worlds, but it must be recognised that if in many respects Bacon is in advance of contemporaries who cannot be dissociated from the Renaissance, in other respects, such as belief in astrology and dreams, he stands on the same ground, and in one essential point—­which might almost be taken as the test of mental progress at this period—­Bruno and Campanella have outstripped him.  For him Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo worked in vain; he obstinately adhered to the old geocentric system.

It must also be remembered that the principle which he laid down in his ambitious programme for the reform of science—­that experiment is the key for discovering the secrets of nature—­was not a new revelation.  We need not dwell on the fact that he had been anticipated by Roger Bacon; for the ideas of that wonderful thinker had fallen dead in an age which was not ripe for them.  But the direct interrogation of nature was already recognised both in practice and in theory in the sixteenth century.  What Bacon did was to insist upon the principle more strongly and explicitly, and to formulate it more precisely.  He clarified and explained the progressive ideas which inspired the scientific thought of the last period of the European Renaissance, from which he cannot, I think, be dissociated.

But in clearing up and defining these progressive ideas, he made a contribution to the development of human thought which had far-reaching importance and has a special significance for our present subject.  In the hopes of a steady increase of knowledge, based on the application of new methods, he had been anticipated by Roger Bacon, and further back by Seneca.  But with Francis Bacon this idea of the augmentation of knowledge has an entirely new value.  For Seneca the exploration of nature was a means of escaping from the sordid miseries of life.  For the friar of Oxford the principal use of increasing knowledge was to prepare for the coming of Antichrist.  Francis Bacon sounded the modern note; for him the end of knowledge is utility. [Footnote; The passages specially referred to are:  De Aug.  Sc. vii. i; Nov.  Org. i. 81 and 3.]


The principle that the proper aim of knowledge is the amelioration of human life, to increase men’s happiness and mitigate their sufferings—­commodis humanis inservire—­was the guiding star of Bacon in all his intellectual labour.  He declared the advancement of “the happiness of mankind” to be the direct purpose of the works he had written or designed.  He considered that all his predecessors had gone wrong because they did not apprehend that the finis scientarum, the real and legitimate goal of the sciences, is “the endowment of human life with new inventions and riches”; and he made this the test for defining the comparative values of the various branches of knowledge.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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