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

Author: John Bagnell Bury


Bacon illustrated his view of the social importance of science in his sketch of an ideal state, the New Atlantis. He completed only a part of the work, and the fragment was published after his death. [Footnote: In 1627. It was composed about 1623. It seems almost certain that he was acquainted with the Christianopolis of Johann Valentin Andreae (1586-1654), which had appeared in Latin in 1614, and contained a plan for a scientific college to reform the civilised world. Andreae, who was acquainted both with More and with Campanella, placed his ideal society in an island which he called Caphar Salama (the name of a village in Palestine). Andreae’s work had also a direct influence on the Nova Solyma of Samuel Gott (1648). See the Introduction of F. E. Held to his edition of Christianopolis (1916). In Macaria, another imaginary state of the seventeenth century (A description of the famous Kingdoms of Macaria, 1641, by Hartlib), the pursuit of science is not a feature.] It is evident that the predominating interest that moved his imagination was different from that which guided Plato. While Plato aimed at securing a permanent solid order founded on immutable principles, the design of Bacon was to enable his imaginary community to achieve dominion over nature by progressive discoveries. The heads of Plato’s city are metaphysicians, who regulate the welfare of the people by abstract doctrines established once for all; while the most important feature in the New Atlantis is the college of scientific investigators, who are always discovering new truths which may alter the conditions of life. Here, though only in a restricted field, an idea of progressive improvement, which is the note of the modern age, comes in to modify the idea of a fixed order which exclusively prevailed in ancient speculation.

On the other hand, we must not ignore the fact that Bacon’s ideal society is established by the same kind of agency as the ideal societies of Plato and Aristotle. It has not developed; it was framed by the wisdom of an original legislator Solamona. In this it resembles the other imaginary commonwealths of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The organisation of More’s Utopia is fixed initially once for all by the lawgiver Utopus. The origin of Campanella’s Civitas Solis is not expressly stated, but there can be no doubt that he conceived its institutions as created by the fiat of a single lawgiver. Harrington, in his Oceana, argues with Machiavelli that a commonwealth, to be well turned, must be the work of one man, like a book or a building. [Footnote: Harrington, Oceana, pp. 77-8, 3rd ed. (1747).]

What measure of liberty Bacon would have granted to the people of his perfect state we cannot say; his work breaks off before he comes to describe their condition. But we receive the impression that the government he conceived was strictly paternal, though perhaps less rigorous than the theocratic despotism which Campanella, under Plato’s influence, set up in the City of the Sun. But even Campanella has this in common with More—and we may be sure that Bacon’s conception would have agreed here—that there are no hard- and-fast lines between the classes, and the welfare and happiness of all the inhabitants is impartially considered, in contrast with Plato’s scheme in the Laws, where the artisans and manual labourers were an inferior caste existing less for their own sake than for the sake of the community as a whole. [Footnote: This however does not apply to the Republic, as is so commonly asserted. See the just criticisms of A. A. Trever, A History of Greek Economic Thought (Chicago, 1916), 49 sqq.]

It may finally be pointed out that these three imaginary commonwealths stand together as a group, marked by a humaner temper than the ancient, and also by another common characteristic which distinguishes them, on one hand, from the ideal states of Plato and, on the other, from modern sketches of desirable societies. Plato and Aristotle conceived their constructions within the geographical limits of Hellas, either in the past or in the present. More, Bacon, and Campanella placed theirs in distant seas, and this remoteness in space helped to create a certain illusion, of reality. [Footnote: Civitas Solis, p. 461 (ed. 1620). Expectancy of end of world: Ib. p. 455.] The modern plan is to project the perfect society into a period of future time. The device of More and his successors was suggested by the maritime explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; the later method was a result of the rise of the idea of Progress. [Footnote: Similarly the ideal communistic states imagined by Euemerus and Iambulus in the southern seas owed their geographical positions to the popular interest in seafaring in the Indian Ocean in the age after Alexander. One wonders whether Campanella knew the account of the fictitious journey of Iambulus to the Islands of the Sun, in Diodorus Siculus, ii. 55-60.]


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Chicago: John Bagnell Bury, "5.," 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 February 23, 2024,

MLA: Bury, John Bagnell. "5." 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. 23 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Bury, JB, '5.' 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 23 February 2024, from