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

Author: John Bagnell Bury


That Bohemian man of letters, Restif de la Bretonne, whose unedifying novels the Parisians of 2440 would assuredly have rejected from their libraries, published in 1790 a heroic comedy representing how marriages would be arranged in "the year 2000," by which epoch he conceived that all social equalities would have disappeared in a fraternal society and twenty nations be allied to France under the wise supremacy of "our well-beloved monarch Louis Francois XXII." It was the Revolution that converted Restif to the conception of Progress, for hitherto his master had been Rousseau; but it can hardly be doubted that the motif and title of his play were suggested by the romance of Mercier. L’an 2440 and L’an 2000 are the first examples of the prophetic fiction which Mr. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward was to popularise a hundred years later.

The Count de Volney’s Ruins was another popular presentation of the hopes which the theory of Progress had awakened in France. Although the work was not published till after the outbreak of the Revolution, [Footnote: Les Ruines des empires, 1789. An English translation ran to a second edition (1795).] the plan had been conceived some years before. Volney was a traveller, deeply interested in oriental and classical antiquities, and, like Louis Le Roy, he approached the problem of man’s destinies from the point of view of a student of the revolutions of empires.

The book opens with melancholy reflections amid the ruins of Palmyra. "Thus perish the works of men, and thus do nations and empires vanish away ... Who can assure us that desolation like this will not one day be the lot of our own country?" Some traveller like himself will sit by the banks of the Seine, the Thames, or the Zuyder Zee, amid silent ruins, and weep for a people inurned and their greatness changed into an empty name. Has a mysterious Deity pronounced a secret malediction against the earth?

In this disconsolate mood he is visited by an apparition, who unveils the causes of men’s misfortunes and shows that they are due to themselves. Man is governed by natural invariable laws, and he has only to study them to know the springs of his destiny, the causes of his evils and their remedies. The laws of his nature are self-love, desire of happiness, and aversion to pain; these are the simple and prolific principles of everything that happens in the moral world. Man is the artificer of his own fate. He may lament his weakness and folly; but "he has perhaps still more reason to be confident in his energies when he recollects from what point he has set out and to what heights he has been capable of elevating himself."

The supernatural visitant paints a rather rosy picture of the ancient Egyptian and Assyrian kingdoms. But it would be a mistake to infer from their superficial splendour that the inhabitants generally were wise or happy. The tendency of man to ascribe perfection to past epochs is merely "the discoloration of his chagrin." The race is not degenerating; its misfortunes are due to ignorance and the mis-direction of self-love. Two principal obstacles to improvement have been the difficulty of transmitting ideas from age to age, and that of communicating them rapidly from man to man. These have been removed by the invention of printing. The press is "a memorable gift of celestial genius." In time all men will come to understand the principles of individual happiness and public felicity. Then there will be established among the peoples of the earth an equilibrium of forces; there will be no more wars, disputes will be decided by arbitration, and "the whole species will become one great society, a single family governed by the same spirit and by common laws, enjoying all the felicity of which human nature is capable." The accomplishment of this will be a slow process, since the same leaven will have to assimilate an enormous mass of heterogeneous elements, but its operation will be effectual.

Here the genius interrupts his prophecy and exclaims, turning toward the west, "The cry of liberty uttered on the farther shores of the Atlantic has reached to the old continent." A prodigious movement is then visible to their eyes in a country at the extremity of the Mediterranean; tyrants are overthrown, legislators elected, a code of laws is drafted on the principles of equality, liberty, and justice. The liberated nation is attacked by neighbouring tyrants, but her legislators propose to the other peoples to hold a general assembly, representing the whole world, and weigh every religious system in the balance. The proceedings of this congress follow, and the book breaks off incomplete.

It is not an arresting book; to a reader of the present day it is positively tedious; but it suited contemporary taste, and, appearing when France was confident that her Revolution would renovate the earth, it appealed to the hopes and sentiments of the movement. It made no contribution to the doctrine of Progress, but it undoubtedly helped to popularise it.


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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 December 10, 2023,

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. 10 Dec. 2023.

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 10 December 2023, from