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

Author: John Bagnell Bury


It is characteristic that the Abbe de Saint-Pierre’s ideas about Progress were a by-product of his particular schemes. In 1773 he published a Project to Perfect the Government of States, and here he sketched his view of the progressive course of civilisation. The old legend of the golden age, when men were perfectly happy, succeeded by the ages of silver, bronze, and iron, exactly reverses the truth of history. The age of iron came first, the infancy of society, when men were poor and ignorant of the arts; it is the present condition of the savages of Africa and America. The age of bronze ensued, in which there was more security, better laws, and the invention of the most necessary arts began. There followed the age of silver, and Europe has not yet emerged from it. Our reason has indeed reached the point of considering how war may be abolished, and is thus approaching the golden age of the future; but the art of government and the general regulation of society, notwithstanding all the improvements of the past, is still in its infancy. Yet all that is needed is a short series of wise reigns in our European states to reach the age of gold or, in other words, a paradise on earth.

A few wise reigns. The Abbe shared the illusion of many that government is omnipotent and can bestow happiness on men. The imperfections of governments were, he was convinced, chiefly due to the fact that hitherto the ablest intellects had not been dedicated to the study of the science of governing. The most essential part of his project was the formation of a Political Academy which should do for politics what the Academy of Sciences did for the study of nature, and should act as an advisory body to ministers of state on all questions of the public welfare. If this proposal and some others were adopted, he believed that the golden age would not long be delayed. These observations—hardly more than obiter dicta—show that Saint-Pierre’s general view of the world was moulded by a conception of civilisation progressing towards a goal of human happiness. In 1737 he published a special work to explain this conception: the Observations on the Continuous Progress of Universal Reason.

He recurs to the comparison of the life of collective humanity to that of an individual, and, like Fontenelle and Terrasson, accentuates the point where the analogy fails. We may regard our race as composed of all the nations that have been and will be—and assign to it different ages. For instance, when the race is ten thousand years old a century will be what a single year is in the life of a centenarian. But there is this prodigious difference. The mortal man grows old and loses his reason and happiness through the enfeeblement of his bodily machine; whereas the human race, by the perpetual and infinite succession of generations, will find itself at the end of ten thousand years more capable of growing in wisdom and happiness than it was at the end of four thousand.

At present the race is apparently not more than seven or eight thousand years old, and is only "in the infancy of human reason," compared with what it will be five or six thousand years hence. And when that stage is reached, it will only have entered on what we may call its first youth, when we consider what it will be when it is a hundred thousand years older still, continually growing in reason and wisdom.

Here we have for the first time, expressed in definite terms, the vista of an immensely long progressive life in front of humanity. Civilisation is only in its infancy. Bacon, like Pascal, had conceived it to be in its old age. Fontenelle and Perrault seem to have regarded it as in its virility; they set no term to its duration, but they did not dwell on future prospects. The Abbe was the first to fix his eye on the remote destinies of the race and name immense periods of time. It did not occur to him to consider that our destinies are bound up with those of the solar system, and that it is useless to operate with millennial periods of progress unless you are assured of a corresponding stability in the cosmic environment.

As a test of the progress which reason has already made, Saint- Pierre asserts that a comparison of the best English and French works on morals and politics with the best works of Plato and Aristotle proves that the human race has made a sensible advance. But that advance would have been infinitely greater were it not that three general obstacles retarded it and even, at some times and in some countries, caused a retrogression. These obstacles were wars, superstition, and the Jealousy of rulers who feared that progress in the science of politics would be dangerous to themselves. In consequence of these impediments it was only in the time of Bodin and Bacon that the human race began to start anew from the point which it had reached in the days of Plato and Aristotle.

Since then the rate of progress has been accelerated, and this has been due to several causes. The expansion of sea commerce has produced more wealth, and wealth means greater leisure, and more writers and readers. In the second place, mathematics and physics are more studied in colleges, and their tendency is to liberate us from subjection to the authority of the ancients. Again, the foundation of scientific Academies has given facilities both for communicating and for correcting new discoveries; the art of printing provides a means for diffusing them; and, finally, the habit of writing in the vulgar tongue makes them accessible. The author might also have referred to the modern efforts to popularise science, in which his friend Fontenelle had been one of the leaders.

He proceeds, in this connection, to lay down a rather doubtful principle, that in any two countries the difference in enlightenment between the lowest classes will correspond to the difference between the most highly educated classes. At present, he says, Paris and London are the places where human wisdom has reached the most advanced stage. It is certain that the ten best men of the highest class at Ispahan or Constantinople will be inferior in their knowledge of politics and ethics to the ten most distinguished sages of Paris or London. And this will be true in all classes. The thirty most intelligent children of the age of fourteen at Paris will be more enlightened than the thirty most intelligent children of the same age at Constantinople, and the same proportional difference will be true of the lowest classes of the two cities.

But while the progress of speculative reason has been rapid, practical reason—the distinction is the Abbe’s—has made little advance. In point of morals and general happiness the world is apparently much the same as ever. Our mediocre savants know twenty times as much as Socrates and Confucius, but our most virtuous men are not more virtuous than they. The growth of science has added much to the arts and conveniences of life, and to the sum of pleasures, and will add more. The progress in physical science is part of the progress of the "universal human reason," whose aim is the augmentation of our happiness. But there are two other sciences which are much more important for the promotion of happiness—Ethics and Politics—and these, neglected by men of genius, have made little way in the course of two thousand years. It is a grave misfortune that Descartes and Newton did not devote themselves to perfecting these sciences, so incomparably more useful for mankind than those in which they made their great discoveries. They fell into a prevailing error as to the comparative values of the various domains of knowledge, an error to which we must also ascribe the fact that while Academies of Sciences and Belles-Lettres exist there are no such institutions for Politics or Ethics.

By these arguments he establishes to his own satisfaction that there are no irremovable obstacles to the Progress of the human race towards happiness, no hindrances that could not be overcome if governments only saw eye to eye with the Abbe de Saint-Pierre. Superstition is already on the decline; there would be no more wars if his simple scheme for permanent peace were adopted. Let the State immediately found Political and Ethical Academies; let the ablest men consecrate their talents to the science of government; and in a hundred years we shall make more progress than we should make in two thousand at the rate we are moving. If these things are done, human reason will have advanced so far in two or three millenniums that the wisest men of that age will be as far superior to the wisest of to-day as these are to the wisest African savages. This "perpetual and unlimited augmentation of reason" will one day produce an increase in human happiness which would astonish us more than our own civilisation would astonish the Kaffirs.


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Chicago: John Bagnell Bury, "3.," 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 18, 2019,

MLA: Bury, John Bagnell. "3." 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. 18 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: Bury, JB, '3.' 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 18 March 2019, from