The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth

Author: John Bagnell Bury


The outbreak of the French Revolution evoked a sympathetic movement among English progressive thinkers which occasioned the Government no little alarm. The dissenting minister Dr. Richard Price, whose Observations on Civil Liberty (1776), defending the action of the American colonies, had enjoyed an immense success, preached the sermon which provoked Burke to write his Reflections; and Priestley, no less enthusiastic in welcoming the Revolution, replied to Burke. The Government resorted to tyrannous measures; young men who sympathised with the French movement and agitated for reforms at home were sent to Botany Bay. Paine was prosecuted for his Rights of Man, which directly preached revolution. But the most important speculative work of the time, William Godwin’s Political Justice, escaped the censorship because it was not published at a popular price. [Footnote: Godwin had helped to get Paine’s book published in 1791, and he was intimate with the group of revolutionary spirits who were persecuted by the Government. A good account of the episode will be found in Brailsford’s Shelley, Godwin, and their Circle.]

The Enquiry concerning Political Justice, begun in 1791, appeared in 1793. The second edition, three years later, shows the influence of Condorcet’s Sketch, which had appeared in the meantime. Godwin says that his original idea was to produce a work on political science to supersede Montesquieu. The note of Montesquieu’s political philosophy was respect for social institutions. Godwin’s principle was that social institutions are entirely pernicious, that they perpetuate harmful prejudices, and are an almost insuperable obstacle to improvement. If he particularly denounced monarchical government, he regarded all government as evil, and held that social progress would consist, not in the reformation of government, but in its abolition. While he recognised that man had progressed in the past, he considered history mainly a sequence of horrors, and he was incapable of a calm survey of the course of civilisation. In English institutions he saw nothing that did not outrage the principles of justice and benevolence. The present state of humanity is about as bad as it could be.

It is easy to see the deep influence which the teaching of Rousseau exercised on Godwin. Without accepting the theory of Arcadia Godwin followed him in unsparing condemnation of existing conditions. Rousseau and Godwin are the two great champions in the eighteenth century of the toiling and suffering masses. But Godwin drew the logical conclusion from Rousseau’s premisses which Rousseau hesitated to draw himself. The French thinker, while he extolled the anarchical state of uncivilised society, and denounced government as one of the sources of its corruption, nevertheless sought the remedy in new social and political institutions. Godwin said boldly, government is the evil; government must go. Humanity can never be happy until all political authority and social institutions disappear.

Now the peculiarity of Godwin’s position as a doctrinaire of Progress lies in the fact that he entertained the same pessimistic view of some important sides of civilisation as Rousseau, and at the same time adopted the theories of Rousseau’s opponents, especially Helvetius. His survey of human conditions seems to lead inevitably to pessimism; then he turns round and proclaims the doctrine of perfectibility.

The explanation of this argument was the psychological theory of Helvetius. He taught, as we saw, and Godwin developed the view in his own way, that the natures and characters of men are moulded entirely by their environment—not physical, but intellectual and moral environment, and therefore can be indefinitely modified. A man is born into the world without innate tendencies. His conduct depends on his opinions. Alter men’s opinions and they will act differently. Make their opinions conformable to justice and benevolence, and you will have a just and benevolent society. Virtue, as Socrates taught, is simply a question of knowledge. The situation, therefore, is not hopeless. For it is not due to the radical nature of man; it is caused by ignorance and prejudice, by governments and institutions, by kings and priests. Transform the ideas of men, and society will be transformed. The French philosopher considered that a reformed system of educating children would be one of the most powerful means for promoting progress and bringing about the reign of reason; and Condorcet worked out a scheme of universal state education. This was entirely opposed to Godwin’s principles. State schools would only be another instrument of power in the hands of a government, worse even than a state Church. They would strengthen the poisonous influence of kings and statesmen, and establish instead of abolishing prejudices. He seems to have relied entirely on the private efforts of enlightened thinkers to effect a gradual conversion of public opinion.

In his study of the perfectibility of man and the prospect of a future reign of general justice and benevolence, Godwin was even more visionary than Condorcet, as in his political views he was more radical than the Revolutionists. Condorcet had at least sought to connect his picture of the future with a reasoned survey of the past, and to find a chain of connection, but the perfectibility of Godwin hung in the air, supported only by an abstract theory of the nature of man.

It can hardly be said that he contributed anything to the theoretical problem of civilisation. His significance is that he proclaimed in England at an opportune moment, and in a more impressive and startling way than a sober apostle like Priestley, the creed of progress taught by French philosophers, though considerably modified by his own anarchical opinions.


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Chicago: John Bagnell Bury, "4.," The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth in The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1932), Original Sources, accessed March 20, 2019,

MLA: Bury, John Bagnell. "4." The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth, in The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1932, Original Sources. 20 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Bury, JB, '4.' in The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth. cited in 1932, The Idea of Progress: An Inguiry Into Its Origin and Growth, The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 March 2019, from