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.
them the secret of liberty.  They had no quarrel with the principle of the censorship, though they writhed under its tyranny; they did not want to abolish it.  They only complained that it was used against reason and light, that is against their own writings; and, if the Conseil d’Etat or the Parlement had suppressed the works of their obscurantist opponents, they would have congratulated themselves that the world was marching quickly towards perfection. [Footnote:  The principle that intolerance on the part of the wise and strong towards the ignorant and weak is a good thing is not alien to the spirit of the French philosophers, though I do not think any of them expressly asserted it.  In the following century it was formulated by Colins, a Belgian (author of two works on social science, 1857-60), who believed that an autocratic government suppressing liberty of conscience is the most effective instrument of Progress.  It is possible that democracy may yet try the experiment.]




The optimistic theory of civilisation was not unchallenged by rationalists.  In the same year (1750) in which Turgot traced an outline of historical Progress at the Sorbonne, Rousseau laid before the Academy of Dijon a theory of historical Regress.  This Academy had offered a prize for the best essay on the question whether the revival of sciences and arts had contributed to the improvement of morals.  The prize was awarded to Rousseau.  Five years later the same learned body proposed another subject for investigation, the origin of Inequality among men.  Rousseau again competed but failed to win the prize, though this second essay was a far more remarkable performance.

The view common to these two discourses, that social development has been a gigantic mistake, that the farther man has travelled from a primitive simple state the more unhappy has his lot become, that civilisation is radically vicious, was not original.  Essentially the same issue had been raised in England, though in a different form, by Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees, the scandalous book which aimed at proving that it is not the virtues and amiable qualities of man that are the cement of civilised society, but the vices of its members which are the support of all trades and employments. [Footnote:  The expanded edition was published in 1723.] In these vices, he said, “we must look for the true origin of all arts and sciences”; “the moment evil ceases the society must be spoiled, if not totally dissolved.”

The significance of Mandeville’s book lay in the challenge it flung to the optimistic doctrines of Lord Shaftesbury, that human nature is good and all is for the best in this harmonious world.  “The ideas he had formed,” wrote Mandeville, “of the goodness and excellency of our nature were as romantic and chimerical as they are beautiful and amiable; he laboured hard to unite two contraries that can never be reconciled together, innocence of manners and worldly greatness.”

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The Idea of Progress from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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