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

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Author: John Bagnell Bury

1.

In 1850 there appeared at Paris a small book by M. A. Javary, with the title DE L’IDEE DU PROGRES. Its interest lies in the express recognition that Progress was the characteristic idea of the age, ardently received by some, hotly denounced by others. [Footnote: Lamartine denounced in his monthly journal Le Conseiller du peuple, vol. i. (1849), all the progressive gospels of the day, socialist, communist, Saint-Simonian, Fourierist, Icarian—in fact every school of social reform since the First Republic—as purely materialistic, sprung from the "cold seed of the century of Helvetius" (pp. 224, 287).]

"If there is any idea," he says, "that belongs properly to one century, at least by the importance accorded to it, and that, whether accepted or not, is familiar to all minds, it is the idea of Progress conceived as the general law of history and the future of humanity."

He observes that some, intoxicated by the spectacle of the material improvements of modern civilisation and the results of science, set no limits to man’s power or his hopes; while others, unable to deny the facts, say that this progress serves only the lower part of human nature, and refuse to look with complacency on a movement which means, they assert, a continuous decadence of the nobler part. To which it is replied that, If moral decadence is a fact, it is only transient; it is a necessary phase of a development which means moral progress in the end, for it is due to the process by which the beliefs, ideas, and institutions of the past disappear and make way for new and better principles.

And Javary notes a prevailing tendency in France to interpret every contemporary movement as progressive, while all the social doctrinaires justify their particular reforms by invoking the law of Progress. It was quite true that during the July monarchy nearly all serious speculations on society and history were related to that idea. It was common to Michelet and Quinet, who saw in the march of civilisation the gradual triumph of liberty; to Leroux and Cabet, who preached humanitarian communism; to Louis Blanc and to Proudhon; to the bourgeois, who were satisfied with the regime of Louis Philippe and grew rich, following the precept of Guizot, as well as to the workers who overthrew it. It is significant that the journal of Louis Blanc, in which he published his book on the ORGANISATION OF WORK (1839), was entitled REVUS DES PROGRES. The political question as to the due limits between government and individual freedom was discussed in terms of Progress: is personal liberty or state authority the efficient means of progressing? The metaphysical question of necessity and freewill acquired a new interest: is Progress a fatality, independent of human purposes, determined by general, ineluctable, historical laws? Quinet and Michelet argued vigorously against the optimism of Cousin, who with Hegel held that history is just what it ought to be and could not be improved.

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Chicago: John Bagnell Bury, "1.," 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 July 19, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=162LSVR285QZKVB.

MLA: Bury, John Bagnell. "1." 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. 19 Jul. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=162LSVR285QZKVB.

Harvard: Bury, JB, '1.' 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 19 July 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=162LSVR285QZKVB.