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.

Turgot also propounded two laws of development.  He observed that when a people is progressing, every step it takes causes an acceleration in the rate of progress.  And he anticipated Comte’s famous “law” of the three stages of intellectual evolution, though without giving it the extensive and fundamental significance which Comte claimed for it.  “Before man understood the causal connection of physical phenomena, nothing was so natural as to suppose they were produced by intelligent beings, invisible and resembling ourselves; for what else would they have resembled?” That is Comte’s theological stage.  “When philosophers recognised the absurdity of the fables about the gods, but had not yet gained an insight into natural history, they thought to explain the causes of phenomena by abstract expressions such as essences and faculties.”  That is the metaphysical stage.  “It was only at a later period, that by observing the reciprocal mechanical action of bodies hypotheses were formed which could be developed by mathematics and verified by experience.”  There is the positive stage.  The observation assuredly does not possess the far-reaching importance which Comte attached to it; but whatever value it has, Turgot deserves the credit of having been the first to state it.

The notes which Turgot made for his plan permit us to conjecture that his Universal History would have been a greater and more profound work than the Essay of Voltaire.  It would have embodied in a digested form the ideas of Montesquieu to which Voltaire paid little attention, and the author would have elaborated the intimate connection and mutual interaction among all social phenomena—­ government and morals, religion, science, and arts.  While his general thesis coincided with that of Voltaire—­the gradual advance of humanity towards a state of enlightenment and reasonableness,—­he made the idea of Progress more vital; for him it was an organising conception, just as the idea of Providence was for St. Augustine and Bossuet an organising conception, which gave history its unity and meaning.  The view that man has throughout been blindly moving in the right direction is the counterpart of what Bossuet represented as a divine plan wrought out by the actions of men who are ignorant of it, and is sharply opposed to the views, of Voltaire and the other philosophers of the day who ascribed Progress exclusively to human reason consciously striving against ignorance and passion.




The intellectual movement which prepared French opinion for the Revolution and supplied the principles for reconstituting society may be described as humanistic in the sense that man was the centre of speculative interest.

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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