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

Author: John Bagnell Bury


Six years before Voltaire’s Essay was published in its complete form a young man was planning a work on the same subject. Turgot is honourably remembered as an economist and administrator, but if he had ever written the Discourses on Universal History which he designed at the age of twenty-three his position in historical literature might have overshadowed his other claims to be remembered. We possess a partial sketch of its plan, which is supplemented by two lectures he delivered at the Sorbonne in 1750; so that we know his general conceptions.

He had assimilated the ideas of the Esprit des lois, and it is probable that he had read the parts of Voltaire’s work which had appeared in a periodical. His work, like Voltaire’s, was to be a challenge to Bossuet’s view of history; his purpose was to trace the fortunes of the race in the light of the idea of Progress. He occasionally refers to Providence but this is no more than a prudent lip-service. Providence has no functions in his scheme. The part which it played in Bossuet is usurped by those general causes which he had learned from Montesquieu. But his systematic mind would have organised and classified the ideas which Montesquieu left somewhat confused. He criticised the inductions drawn in the Esprit des lois concerning the influence of climate as hasty and exaggerated; and he pointed out that the physical causes can only produce their effects by acting on "the hidden principles which contribute to form our mind and character." It follows that the psychical or moral causes are the first element to consider, and it is a fault of method to try to evaluate physical causes till we have exhausted the moral, and are certain that the phenomena cannot be explained by these alone. In other words, the study of the development of societies must be based on psychology; and for Turgot, as for all his progressive contemporaries, psychology meant the philosophy of Locke.

General necessary causes, therefore, which we should rather call conditions, have determined the course of history—the nature of man, his passions, and his reason, in the first place; and in the second, his environment,—geography and climate. But its course is a strict sequence of particular causes and effects, "which bind the state of the world (at a given moment) to all those which have preceded it." Turgot does not discuss the question of free-will, but his causal continuity does not exclude "the free action of great men." He conceives universal history as the progress of the human race advancing as an immense whole steadily, though slowly, through alternating periods of calm and disturbance towards greater perfection. The various units of the entire mass do not move with equal steps, because nature is not impartial with her gifts. Some men have talents denied to others, and the gifts of nature are sometimes developed by circumstances, sometimes left buried in obscurity. The inequalities in the march of nations are due to the infinite variety of circumstances; and these inequalities may be taken to prove that the world had a beginning, for in an eternal duration they would have disappeared.

But the development of human societies has not been guided by human reason. Men have not consciously made general happiness the end of their actions. They have been conducted by passion and ambition and have never known to what goal they were moving. For if reason had presided, progress would soon have been arrested. To avoid war peoples would have remained in isolation, and the race would have lived divided for ever into a multitude of isolated groups, speaking different tongues. All these groups would have been limited in the range of their ideas, stationary in science, art, and government, and would never have risen above mediocrity. The history of China is an example of the results of restricted intercourse among peoples. Thus the unexpected conclusion emerges, that without unreason and injustice there would have been no progress.

It is hardly necessary to observe that this argument is untenable. The hypothesis assumes that reason is in control among the primitive peoples, and at the same time supposes that its power would completely disappear if they attempted to engage in peaceful intercourse. But though Turgot has put his point in an unconvincing form, his purpose was to show that as a matter of fact "the tumultuous and dangerous passions" have been driving-forces which have moved the world in a desirable direction till the time should come for reason to take the helm.

Thus, while Turgot might have subscribed to Voltaire’s assertion that history is largely "un ramas de crimes, de folies, et de malheurs," his view of the significance of man’s sufferings is different and almost approaches the facile optimism of Pope— "whatever is, is right." He regards all the race’s actual experiences as the indispensable mechanism of Progress, and does not regret its mistakes and calamities. Many changes and revolutions, he observes, may seem to have had most mischievous effects; yet every change has brought some advantage, for it has been a new experience and therefore has been instructive. Man advances by committing errors. The history of science shows (as Fontenelle had pointed out) that truth is reached over the ruins of false hypotheses.

The difficulty presented by periods of decadence and barbarism succeeding epochs of enlightenment is met by the assertion that in such dark times the world has not stood still; there has really been a progression which, though relatively inconspicuous, is not unimportant. In the Middle Ages, which are the prominent case, there were improvements in mechanical arts, in commerce, in some of the habits of civil life, all of which helped to prepare the way for happier times. Here Turgot’s view of history is sharply opposed to Voltaire’s. He considers Christianity to have been a powerful agent of civilisation, not a hinderer or an enemy. Had he executed his design, his work might well have furnished a notable makeweight to the view held by Voltaire, and afterwards more judicially developed by Gibbon, that "the triumph of barbarism and religion" was a calamity for the world.

Turgot also propounded two laws of development. He observed that when a people is progressing, every step it takes causes an acceleration in the rate of progress. And he anticipated Comte’s famous "law" of the three stages of intellectual evolution, though without giving it the extensive and fundamental significance which Comte claimed for it. "Before man understood the causal connection of physical phenomena, nothing was so natural as to suppose they were produced by intelligent beings, invisible and resembling ourselves; for what else would they have resembled?" That is Comte’s theological stage. "When philosophers recognised the absurdity of the fables about the gods, but had not yet gained an insight into natural history, they thought to explain the causes of phenomena by abstract expressions such as essences and faculties." That is the metaphysical stage. "It was only at a later period, that by observing the reciprocal mechanical action of bodies hypotheses were formed which could be developed by mathematics and verified by experience." There is the positive stage. The observation assuredly does not possess the far-reaching importance which Comte attached to it; but whatever value it has, Turgot deserves the credit of having been the first to state it.

The notes which Turgot made for his plan permit us to conjecture that his Universal History would have been a greater and more profound work than the Essay of Voltaire. It would have embodied in a digested form the ideas of Montesquieu to which Voltaire paid little attention, and the author would have elaborated the intimate connection and mutual interaction among all social phenomena— government and morals, religion, science, and arts. While his general thesis coincided with that of Voltaire—the gradual advance of humanity towards a state of enlightenment and reasonableness,—he made the idea of Progress more vital; for him it was an organising conception, just as the idea of Providence was for St. Augustine and Bossuet an organising conception, which gave history its unity and meaning. The view that man has throughout been blindly moving in the right direction is the counterpart of what Bossuet represented as a divine plan wrought out by the actions of men who are ignorant of it, and is sharply opposed to the views, of Voltaire and the other philosophers of the day who ascribed Progress exclusively to human reason consciously striving against ignorance and passion.


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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 October 2, 2023,

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. 2 Oct. 2023.

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 2 October 2023, from