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The Idea of Progress by J.B. Bury

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philosophers "who first lent direction and force to the stream of
industrial science; we have been the first also to give the widest
possible base to the watch-tower of international progress, which
seeks the formation of the physical well-being of man and the
extinction of the meaner jealousies of commerce."[Footnote:
Edinburgh Review, loc. cit.]

These quotations show that the great Exhibition was at the time
optimistically regarded, not merely as a record of material
achievements, but as a demonstration that humanity was at last well
on its way to a better and happier state, through the falling of
barriers and the resulting insight that the interests of all are
closely interlocked. A vista was suggested, at the end of which far-
sighted people might think they discerned Tennyson's "Federation of
the World."


Since the Exhibition, western civilisation has advanced steadily,
and in some respects more rapidly than any sober mind could have
predicted--civilisation, at least, in the conventional sense, which
has been not badly defined as "the development of material ease, of
education, of equality, and of aspirations to rise and succeed in
life." [Footnote: B. Kidd, Social Evolution, p. 368.] The most
striking advance has been in the technical conveniences of life--
that is, in the control over natural forces. It would be superfluous
to enumerate the discoveries and inventions since 1850 which have
abridged space, economised time, eased bodily suffering, and reduced
in some ways the friction of life, though they have increased it in
others. This uninterrupted series of technical inventions,
proceeding concurrently with immense enlargements of all branches of
knowledge, has gradually accustomed the least speculative mind to
the conception that civilisation is naturally progressive, and that
continuous improvement is part of the order of things.

So far the hopes of 1851 have been fulfilled. But against all this
technical progress, with the enormous expansion of industry and
commerce, dazzling to the man in the market-place when he pauses to
reflect, have to be set the exploitation and sufferings of
industrial workers, the distress of intense economic competition,
the heavier burdens of preparation for modern war. The very increase
of "material ease" seemed unavoidably to involve conditions
inconsistent with universal happiness; and the communications which
linked the peoples of the world together modified the methods of
warfare instead of bringing peace. "Toutes nos merveilleuses
inventions sont aussi puissantes pour le mal que pour le bien."
[Footnote: H. de Ferron, Theorie du progres (1867), ii. 439.] One
fact indeed might be taken as an index that humanity was morally
advancing--the abolition of slavery in America at the price of a
long and sanguinary war. Yet some triumphs of philanthropy hardly
seemed to endanger the conclusion that, while knowledge is
indefinitely progressive, there is no good reason for sanguine hopes
that man is "perfectible" or that universal happiness is attainable.
A thoughtful writer observed, discussing Progress in 1864, that the
innumerable individual steps in the growth of knowledge and business
organisation have not been combined, so far, to produce a general
advance in the happiness of life; each step brings increase of
pressure. [Footnote: Lotze, Microcosmus (Eng. tr.), vol. ii. p.

Yet in spite of all adverse facts and many eminent dissenters the
belief in social Progress has on the whole prevailed. This triumph
of optimism was promoted by the victory of a revolutionary
hypothesis in another field of inquiry, which suddenly electrified
the world. [Footnote: Against Lotze we might set many opinions which
do not seem to have been influenced by the doctrine of evolution.
For instance, the optimism of M. Marcellin-Berthelot in a letter to
Renan in 1863. He says (Renan, Dialogues, p. 233) that one of the
general results of historical study is "the fact of the incessant
progress of human societies in science, in material conditions, and
in morality, three correlatives. ... Societies become more and more
civilised, and I will venture to say more and more virtuous. The sum
of good is always increasing, and the sum of evil diminishing, in
the same measure as the sum of truth increases and the sum of
ignorance diminishes."

In 1867 Emerson delivered an address at Harvard on the "Progress of
Culture" (printed in his Letters and Social Aims), in which he
enumerates optimistically the indications of social advance: "the
new scope of social science; the abolition of capital punishment and
of imprisonment for debt: the improvement of prisons; the efforts
for the suppression of intemperance, vice, etc.," and asks: "Who
would live in the stone age, or the bronze, or the iron, or the
lacustrine? Who does not prefer the age of steel, of gold, of coal,
petroleum, cotton, steam, electricity, and the spectroscope?"

The discursive Thoughts on the Future of the Human Race, published
in 1866, by W. Ellis (1800-81), a disciple of J. S. Mill, would have
been remarkable if it had appeared half a century earlier. He is
untouched by the theory of evolution, and argues on common-sense
grounds that Progress is inevitable.]




In the sixties of the nineteenth century the idea of Progress
entered upon the third period of its history. During the FIRST
period, up to the French Revolution, it had been treated rather
casually; it was taken for granted and received no searching
examination either from philosophers or from historians. In the
SECOND period its immense significance was apprehended, and a search
began for a general law which would define and establish it. The
study of sociology was founded, and at the same time the impressive
results of science, applied to the conveniences of life, advertised
the idea. It harmonised with the notion of "development" which had
become current both in natural science and in metaphysics.
Socialists and other political reformers appealed to it as a gospel.

By 1850 it was a familiar idea in Europe, but was not yet
universally accepted as obviously true. The notion of social
Progress had been growing in the atmosphere of the notion of
biological development, but this development still seemed a highly
precarious speculation. The fixity of species and the creation of
man, defended by powerful interests and prejudices, were attacked
but were not shaken. The hypothesis of organic evolution was much in
the same position as the Copernican hypothesis in the sixteenth
century. Then in 1859 Darwin intervened, like Galileo. The
appearance of the ORIGIN OF SPECIES changed the situation by
disproving definitely the dogma of fixity of species and assigning
real causes for "transformism." What might be set aside before as a
brilliant guess was elevated to the rank of a scientific hypothesis,
and the following twenty years were enlivened by the struggle around
the evolution of life, against prejudices chiefly theological,
resulting in the victory of the theory.

The ORIGIN OF SPECIES led to the THIRD stage of the fortunes of the
idea of Progress. We saw how the heliocentric astronomy, by
dethroning man from his privileged position in the universe of space
and throwing him back on his own efforts, had helped that idea to
compete with the idea of a busy Providence. He now suffers a new
degradation within the compass of his own planet. Evolution,
shearing him of his glory as a rational being specially created to
be the lord of the earth, traces a humble pedigree for him. And this
second degradation was the decisive fact which has established the
reign of the idea of Progress.


Evolution itself, it must be remembered, does not necessarily mean,
applied to society, the movement of man to a desirable goal. It is a
neutral, scientific conception, compatible either with optimism or
with pessimism. According to different estimates it may appear to be
a cruel sentence or a guarantee of steady amelioration. And it has
been actually interpreted in both ways.

In order to base Progress on Evolution two distinct arguments are
required. If it could be shown that social life obeys the same
general laws of evolution as nature, and also that the process
involves an increase of happiness, then Progress would be as valid a
hypothesis as the evolution of living forms. Darwin had concluded
his treatise with these words:

As all the living forms of life are the lineal descendants of those
which lived long before the Silurian epoch, we may feel certain that
the ordinary succession by generation has never once been broken,
and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may
look with some confidence to a secure future of equally
inappreciable length. And as natural selection works solely by and
for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental environments
will tend to progress towards perfection.

Here the evolutionist struck the note of optimism. And he suggested
that laws of Progress would be found in other quarters than those
where they had hitherto been sought.

The ablest and most influential development of the argument from
evolution to Progress was the work of Spencer. He extended the
principle of evolution to sociology and ethics, and was the most
conspicuous interpreter of it in an optimistic sense. He had been an
evolutionist long before Darwin's decisive intervention, and in 1851
he had published his Social Statics, which, although he had not yet
worked out the evolutionary laws which he began to formulate soon
afterwards and was still a theist, exhibits the general trend of his
optimistic philosophy. Progress here appears as the basis of a
theory of ethics. The title indicates the influence of Comte, but
the argument is sharply opposed to the spirit of Comte's teaching,
and sociology is treated in a new way. [Footnote: Social Statics, or
the Conditions Essential to Human Happiness specified, and the first
of them developed, is the full title.]

Spencer begins by arguing that the constancy of human nature, so
frequently alleged, is a fallacy. For change is the law of all
things, of every single object as well as of the universe. "Nature
in its infinite complexity is ever growing to a new development." It
would be strange if, in this universal mutation, man alone were
unchangeable, and it is not true. "He also obeys the law of
indefinite variation." Contrast the houseless savages with Newtons
and Shakespeares; between these extremes there are countless degrees
of difference. If then humanity is indefinitely variable,
perfectibility is possible.

In the second place, evil is not a permanent necessity. For all evil
results from the non-adaptation of the organism to its conditions;
this is true of everything that lives. And it is equally true that
evil perpetually tends to disappear. In virtue of an essential
principle of life, this non-adaptation of organisms to their
conditions is ever being rectified, and one or both continue to be
modified until the adaptation is perfect. And this applies to the
mental as well as to the physical sphere.

In the present state of the world men suffer many evils, and this
shows that their characters are not yet adjusted to the social
state. Now the qualification requisite for the social state is that
each individual shall have such desires only as may fully be
satisfied without trenching upon the ability of others to obtain
similar satisfaction. This qualification is not yet fulfilled,
because civilised man retains some of the characteristics which were
suitable for the conditions of his earlier predatory life. He needed
one moral constitution for his primitive state, he needs quite
another for his present state. The resultant is a process of
adaptation which has been going on for a long time, and will go on
for a long time to come.

Civilisation represents the adaptations which have already been
accomplished. Progress means the successive steps of the process.
That by this process man will eventually become suited to his mode
of life, Spencer has no doubts. All excess and deficiency of
suitable faculties must disappear; in other words, all imperfection.
"The ultimate development of the ideal man is logically certain--as
certain as any conclusion in which we place the most implicit faith;
for instance, that all men will die." Here is the theory of
perfectibility asserted, on new grounds, with a confidence not less
assured than that of Condorcet or Godwin.

Progress then is not an accident, but a necessity. Civilisation is a
part of nature, being a development of man's latent capabilities
under the action of favourable circumstances which were certain at
some time or other to occur. Here Spencer's argument assumes a final
cause. The ultimate purpose of creation, he asserts, is to produce
the greatest amount of happiness, and to fulfil this aim it is
necessary that each member of the race should possess faculties
enabling him to experience the highest enjoyment of life, yet in
such a way as not to diminish the power of others to receive like
satisfaction. Beings thus constituted cannot multiply in a world
tenanted by inferior creatures; these, therefore, must be
dispossessed to make room; and to dispossess them aboriginal man
must have an inferior constitution to begin with; he must be
predatory, he must have the desire to kill. In general, given an
unsubdued earth, and the human being "appointed" to overspread and
occupy it, then, the laws of life being what they are, no other
series of changes than that which has actually occurred could have

The argument might be put in a form free from the assumption of a
final cause, and without introducing the conception of a divine
Providence which in this work Spencer adopted, though in his later
philosophy it was superseded by the conception of the Unknowable
existing behind all phenomena. But the ROLE of the Divine ruler is
simply to set in motion immutable forces to realise his design. "In
the moral as in the material world accumulated evidence is gradually
generating the conviction that events are not at bottom fortuitous,
but that they are wrought out in a certain inevitable way by
unchanging forces."

The optimism of Spencer's view could not be surpassed. "After
patient study," he writes, "this chaos of phenomena into the midst
of which he [man] was born has begun to generalise itself to him";
instead of confusion he begins to discern "the dim outlines of a
gigantic plan. No accidents, no chance, but everywhere order and
completeness One by one exceptions vanish, and all becomes

Always towards perfection is the mighty movement--towards a complete
development and a more unmixed good; subordinating in its
universality all petty irregularities and fallings back, as the
curvature of the earth subordinates mountains and valleys. Even in
evils the student learns to recognise only a struggling beneficence.
But above all he is struck with the inherent sufficingness of

But the movement towards harmony, the elimination of evil, will not
be effected by idealists imposing their constructions upon the world
or by authoritarian governments. It means gradual adaptation,
gradual psychological change, and its life is individual liberty. It
proceeds by the give and take of opposed opinions. Guizot had said,
"Progress, and at the same time resistance." And Spencer conceives
that resistance is beneficial, so long as it comes from those who
honestly think that the institutions they defend are really the best
and the proposed innovations absolutely wrong.

It will be observed that Spencer's doctrine of perfectibility rests
on an entirely different basis from the doctrine of the eighteenth
century. It is one thing to deduce it from an abstract psychology
which holds that human nature is unresistingly plastic in the hands
of the legislator and the instructor. It is another to argue that
human nature is subject to the general law of change, and that the
process by which it slowly but continuously tends to adapt itself
more and more to the conditions of social life--children inheriting
the acquired aptitudes of their parents--points to an ultimate
harmony. Here profitable legislation and education are auxiliary to
the process of unconscious adaptation, and respond to the
psychological changes in the community, changes which reveal
themselves in public opinion.


During the following ten years Spencer was investigating the general
laws of evolution and planning his Synthetic Philosophy which was to
explain the development of the universe. [Footnote: In an article on
"Progress: its Law and Cause," in the Westminster Review, April
1857, Spencer explained that social progress, rightly understood, is
not the increase of material conveniences or widening freedom of
action, but changes of structure in the social organism which entail
such consequences, and proceeded to show that the growth of the
individual organism and the growth of civilisation obey the same law
of advance from homogeneity to heterogeneity of structure. Here he
used progress in a neutral sense; but recognising that a word is
required which has no teleological implications (Autobiography, i.
500), he adopted evolution six months later in an article on
"Transcendental Physiology" (National Review, Oct. 1857). In his
study of organic laws Spencer was indirectly influenced by the ideas
of Schelling through von Baer.] He aimed at showing that laws of
change are discoverable which control all phenomena alike,
inorganic, biological, psychical, and social. In the light of this
hypothesis the actual progression of humanity is established as a
necessary fact, a sequel of the general cosmic movement and governed
by the same principles; and, if that progression is shown to involve
increasing happiness, the theory of Progress is established. The
first section of the work, FIRST PRINCIPLES, appeared in 1862. The
BIOLOGY, the PSYCHOLOGY, and finally the SOCIOLOGY, followed during
the next twenty years; and the synthesis of the world-process which
these volumes lucidly and persuasively developed, probably did more
than any other work, at least in England, both to drive home the
significance of the doctrine of evolution and to raise the doctrine
of Progress to the rank of a commonplace truth in popular
estimation, an axiom to which political rhetoric might effectively

Many of those who were allured by Spencer's gigantic synthesis
hardly realised that his theory of social evolution, of the gradual
psychical improvement of the race, depends upon the validity of the
assumption that parents transmit to their children faculties and
aptitudes which they have themselves acquired. On this question
experts notoriously differ. Some day it will probably be definitely
decided, and perhaps in Spencer's favour. But the theory of
continuous psychical improvement by a process of nature encounters
an obvious difficulty, which did not escape some critics of Spencer,
in the prominent fact of history that every great civilisation of
the past progressed to a point at which instead of advancing further
it stood still and declined, to become the prey of younger
societies, or, if it survived, to stagnate. Arrest, decadence,
stagnation has been the rule. It is not easy to reconcile this
phenomenon with the theory of mental improvement.

The receptive attitude of the public towards such a philosophy as
Spencer's had been made possible by Darwin's discoveries, which were
reinforced by the growing science of palaeontology and the
accumulating material evidence of the great antiquity of man. By the
simultaneous advances of geology and biology man's perspective in
time was revolutionised, just as the Copernican astronomy had
revolutionised his perspective in space. Many thoughtful and many
thoughtless people were ready to discern--as Huxley suggested--in
man's "long progress through the past, a reasonable ground of faith
in his attainment of a nobler future." and Winwood Reade, a young
African traveller, exhibited it in a vivid book as a long-drawn-out
martyrdom. But he was a disciple of Spencer, and his hopes for the
future were as bright as his picture of the past was dark. THE
MARTYRDOM OF MAN, published in 1872, was so widely read that it
reached an eighth edition twelve years later, and may be counted as
one of the agencies which popularised Spencer's optimism.

That optimism was not endorsed by all the contemporary leaders of
thought. Lotze had asserted emphatically in 1864 that "human nature
will not change," and afterwards he saw no reason to alter his

Never one fold and one shepherd, never one uniform culture for all
mankind, never universal nobleness. Our virtue and happiness can
only flourish amid an active conflict with wrong. If every
stumbling-block were smoothed away, men would no longer be like men,
but like a flock of innocent brutes, feeding on good things provided
by nature as at the very beginning of their course. [Footnote:
Microcosmus, Bk. vii. 5 ad fin. (Eng. trans. p. 300). The first
German edition (three vols.) appeared in 1856-64, the third, from
which the English translation was made, in 1876. Lotze was
optimistic as to the durability of modern civilisation: "No one will
profess to foreknow the future, but as far as men may judge it seems
that in our days there arc greater safeguards than there were in
antiquity against unjustifiable excesses and against the external
forces which might endanger the continued existence of

But even if we reject with Spencer the old dictum, endorsed by Lotze
as by Fontenelle, that human nature is immutable, the dictum of
ultimate harmony encounters the following objection. "If the social
environment were stable," it is easy to argue, "it could be admitted
that man's nature, variable EX HYPOTHESI, could gradually adapt
itself to it, and that finally a definite equilibrium would be
established. But the environment is continually changing as the
consequence of man's very efforts to adapt himself; every step he
takes to harmonise his needs and his conditions produces a new
discord and confronts him with a new problem. In other words, there
is no reason to believe that the reciprocal process which goes on in
the growth of society between men's natures and the environment they
are continually modifying will ever reach an equilibrium, or even
that, as the character of the discords changes, the suffering which
they cause diminishes."

In fact, upon the neutral fact of evolution a theory of pessimism
may be built up as speciously as a theory of optimism. And such a
theory was built up with great power and ability by the German
philosopher E. von Hartmann, whose PHILOSOPHY OF THE UNCONSCIOUS
appeared in 1869. Leaving aside his metaphysics and his grotesque
theory of the destiny of the universe, we see here and in his
subsequent works how plausibly a convinced evolutionist could revive
the view of Rousseau that civilisation and happiness are mutually
antagonistic, and that Progress means an increase of misery.

Huxley himself, [Footnote: See Agnosticism in Nineteenth Century
(Feb. 1889); Government: Anarchy or Regimentation, ib. (May 1890);
Essays on Evolution and Ethics (1894).] one of the most eminent
interpreters of the doctrine of evolution, did not, in his late
years at least, entertain very sanguine views of mankind. "I know of
no study which is so saddening as that of the evolution of humanity
as it is set forth in the annals of history. . . . Man is a brute,
only more intelligent than other brutes"; and "even the best of
modern civilisations appears to me to exhibit a condition of mankind
which neither embodies any worthy ideal nor even possesses the merit
of stability." There may be some hope of a large improvement, but
otherwise he would "welcome a kindly comet to sweep the whole affair
away." And he came to the final conclusion that such an improvement
could only set in by deliberately resisting, instead of co-operating
with, the processes of nature. "Social progress means the checking
of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of
another which may be called the ethical process." [Footnote: Huxley
considers progress exclusively from an ethical, not from an
eudaemonic point of view.] How in a few centuries can man hope to
gain the mastery over the cosmic process which has been at work for
millions of years? "The theory of evolution encourages no millennial

I have quoted these views to illustrate that evolution lends itself
to a pessimistic as well as to an optimistic interpretation. The
question whether it leads in a desirable direction or not is
answered according to the temperament of the inquirer. In an age of
prosperity and self-complacency the affirmative answer was readily
received, and the term evolution attracted to itself in common
speech the implications of value which belong to Progress.

It may be noticed that the self-complacency of the age was promoted
by the popularisation of scientific knowledge. A rapidly growing
demand (especially in England) for books and lectures, making the
results of science accessible and interesting to the lay public, is
a remarkable feature of the second half of the nineteenth century;
and to supply this demand was a remunerative enterprise. This
popular literature explaining the wonders of the physical world was
at the same time subtly flushing the imaginations of men with the
consciousness that they were living in an era which, in itself
vastly superior to any age of the past, need be burdened by no fear
of decline or catastrophe, but trusting in the boundless resources
of science might securely defy fate.


[It was said in 1881 by an American writer (who strongly dissented
from Spencer's theory) that the current view was "fatalistic." See
Henry George, Progress and Poverty. But it may be doubted whether
those of the general public who optimistically accepted evolution
without going very deeply into the question really believed that the
future of man is taken entirely out of his hands and is determined
exclusively by the nature of the cosmic process. Bagehot was a
writer who had a good deal of influence in his day; and in Physics
and Politics (1872), where he discusses Progress, there is no
suggestion of fatalism. In France, the chief philosophical writers
who accepted Progress as a fact protested against a fatalistic
interpretation(Renouvier, Cournot, Caro; and cf. L. Carrau's article
on Progress in the Revue des deux Mondes (Oct. 1875)).

Progress was discussed by Fiske in his Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy
(1874), vol. ii. 192 sqq. For him (p. 201) "the fundamental
characteristic of social progress is the continuous weakening of
selfishness and the continuous strengthening of sympathy."]

Thus in the seventies and eighties of the last century the idea of
Progress was becoming a general article of faith. Some might hold it
in the fatalistic form that humanity moves in a desirable direction,
whatever men do or may leave undone; others might believe that the
future will depend largely on our own conscious efforts, but that
there is nothing in the nature of things to disappoint the prospect
of steady and indefinite advance. The majority did not inquire too
curiously into such points of doctrine, but received it in a vague
sense as a comfortable addition to their convictions. But it became
a part of the general mental outlook of educated people.

When Mr. Frederic Harrison delivered in 1889 at Manchester an
eloquent discourse on the "New Era," in which the dominant note is
"the faith in human progress in lieu of celestial rewards of the
separate soul," his general argument could appeal to immensely wider
circles than the Positivists whom he was specially addressing.

The dogma--for a dogma it remains, in spite of the confidence of
Comte or of Spencer that he had made it a scientific hypothesis--has
produced an important ethical principle. Consideration for posterity
has throughout history operated as a motive of conduct, but feebly,
occasionally, and in a very limited sense. With the doctrine of
Progress it assumes, logically, a preponderating importance; for the
centre of interest is transferred to the life of future generations
who are to enjoy conditions of happiness denied to us, but which our
labours and sufferings are to help to bring about. If the doctrine
is held in an extreme fatalistic form, then our duty is to resign
ourselves cheerfully to sacrifices for the sake of unknown
descendants, just as ordinary altruism enjoins the cheerful
acceptance of sacrifices for the sake of living fellow-creatures.
Winwood Reade indicated this when he wrote, "Our own prosperity is
founded on the agonies of the past. Is it therefore unjust that we
also should suffer for the benefit of those who are to come?" But if
it is held that each generation can by its own deliberate acts
determine for good or evil the destinies of the race, then our
duties towards others reach out through time as well as through
space, and our contemporaries are only a negligible fraction of the
"neighbours" to whom we owe obligations. The ethical end may still
be formulated, with the Utilitarians, as the greatest happiness of
the greatest number; only the greatest number includes, as Kidd
observed, "the members of generations yet unborn or unthought of."
This extension of the moral code, if it is not yet conspicuous in
treatises on Ethics, has in late years been obtaining recognition in


Within the last forty years nearly every civilised country has
produced a large literature on social science, in which indefinite
Progress is generally assumed as an axiom. But the "law" whose
investigation Kant designated as the task for a Newton, which Saint-
Simon and Comte did not find, and to which Spencer's evolutionary
formula would stand in the same relation as it stands to the law of
gravitation, remains still undiscovered. To examine or even glance
at this literature, or to speculate how theories of Progress may be
modified by recent philosophical speculation, lies beyond the scope
of this volume, which is only concerned with tracing the origin of
the idea and its growth up to the time when it became a current

Looking back on the course of the inquiry, we note how the history
of the idea has been connected with the growth of modern science,
with the growth of rationalism, and with the struggle for political
and religious liberty. The precursors (Bodin and Bacon) lived at a
time when the world was consciously emancipating itself from the
authority of tradition and it was being discovered that liberty is a
difficult theoretical problem. The idea took definite shape in
France when the old scheme of the universe had been shattered by the
victory of the new astronomy and the prestige of Providence, CUNCTA
SUPERCILIO MOUENTIS, was paling before the majesty of the immutable
laws of nature. There began a slow but steady reinstatement of the
kingdom of this world. The otherworldly dreams of theologians,

ceux qui reniaient la terre pour patrie,

which had ruled so long lost their power, and men's earthly home
again insinuated itself into their affections, but with the new hope
of its becoming a place fit for reasonable beings to live in. We
have seen how the belief that our race is travelling towards earthly
happiness was propagated by some eminent thinkers, as well as by
some "not very fortunate persons who had a good deal of time on
their hands." And all these high-priests and incense-bearers to whom
the creed owes its success were rationalists, from the author of the
Histoire des oracles to the philosopher of the Unknowable.


In achieving its ascendency and unfolding its meaning, the Idea of
Progress had to overcome a psychological obstacle which may be

It is quite easy to fancy a state of society, vastly different from
ours, existing in some unknown place like heaven; it is much more
difficult to realise as a fact that the order of things with which
we are familiar has so little stability that our actual descendants
may be born into a world as different from ours as ours is from that
of our ancestors of the pleistocene age.

The illusion of finality is strong. The men of the Middle Ages would
have found it hard to imagine that a time was not far off in which
the Last Judgement would have ceased to arouse any emotional
interest. In the sphere of speculation Hegel, and even Comte,
illustrate this psychological limitation: they did not recognise
that their own systems could not be final any more than the system
of Aristotle or of Descartes. It is science, perhaps, more than
anything else--the wonderful history of science in the last hundred
years--that has helped us to transcend this illusion.

But if we accept the reasonings on which the dogma of Progress is
based, must we not carry them to their full conclusion? In escaping
from the illusion of finality, is it legitimate to exempt that dogma
itself? Must not it, too, submit to its own negation of finality?
Will not that process of change, for which Progress is the
optimistic name, compel "Progress" too to fall from the commanding
position in which it is now, with apparent security, enthroned?
[words in Greek] ... A day will come, in the revolution of
centuries, when a new idea will usurp its place as the directing
idea of humanity. Another star, unnoticed now or invisible, will
climb up the intellectual heaven, and human emotions will react to
its influence, human plans respond to its guidance. It will be the
criterion by which Progress and all other ideas will be judged. And
it too will have its successor.

In other words, does not Progress itself suggest that its value as a
doctrine is only relative, corresponding to a certain not very
advanced stage of civilisation; just as Providence, in its day, was
an idea of relative value, corresponding to a stage somewhat less
advanced? Or will it be said that this argument is merely a
disconcerting trick of dialectic played under cover of the darkness
in which the issue of the future is safely hidden by Horace's
prudent god?

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