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.
Mercier thought that the moral effect would be immense.  “The public system of government is the true education of moral man.  Regis ad exemplum totus componitur orbis.” [Footnote:  The particulars of the Physiocratic doctrine as to the relative values of agriculture and commerce which Adam Smith was soon to criticise do not concern us; nor is it necessary to repeat the obvious criticisms on a theory which virtually reduced the science of society to a science of production and distribution.]

While they advocated a thorough reform of the principles which ruled the fiscal policy of governments, the Economists were not idealists, like the Encyclopaedic philosophers; they sowed no seeds of revolution.  Their starting-point was that which is, not that which ought to be.  And, apart from their narrower point of view, they differed from the philosophers in two very important points.  They did not believe that society was of human institution, and therefore they did not believe that there could be any deductive science of society based simply on man’s nature.  Moreover, they held that inequality of condition was one of its immutable features, immutable because it is a consequence of the inequality of physical powers.

But they believed in the future progress of society towards a state of happiness through the increase of opulence which would itself depend on the growth of justice and “liberty”; and they insisted on the importance of the increase and diffusion of knowledge.  Their influence in promoting a belief in Progress is vouched for by Condorcet, the friend and biographer of Turgot.  As Turgot stands apart from the Physiocrats (with whom indeed he did not identify himself) by his wider views on civilisation, it might be suspected that it is of him that Condorcet was chiefly thinking.  Yet we need not limit the scope of his statement when we remember that as a sect the Economists assumed as their first principle the eudaemonic value of civilisation, declared that temporal happiness is attainable, and threw all their weight into the scales against the doctrine of Regress which had found a powerful advocate in Rousseau.


By liberty the Economists meant economic liberty.  Neither they nor the philosophers nor Rousseau, the father of modern democracy, had any just conception of what political liberty means.  They contributed much to its realisation, but their own ideas of it were narrow and imperfect.  They never challenged the principle of a despotic government, they only contended that the despotism must be enlightened.  The paternal rule of a Joseph or a Catherine, acting under the advice of philosophers, seemed to them the ideal solution of the problem of government; and when the progressive and disinterested Turgot, whom they might regard as one of themselves, was appointed financial minister on the accession of Louis XVI., it seemed that their ideal was about to be realised.  His speedy fall dispelled their hopes, but did not teach

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