The Idea Of Progress - By J. B. BURY
We may believe in the doctrine of Progress or we may not, but in
either case it is a matter of interest to examine the origins and
trace the history of what is now, even should it ultimately prove to
be no more than an idolum saeculi, the animating and controlling
idea of western civilisation.
For the earthly Progress of humanity
is the general test to which social aims and theories are submitted
as a matter of course. The phrase CIVILISATION AND PROGRESS has
become stereotyped, and illustrates how we have come to judge a
civilisation good or bad according as it is or is not progressive.
The ideals of liberty and democracy, which have their own ancient
and independent justifications, have sought a new strength by
attaching themselves to Progress. The conjunctions of "liberty and
progress," "democracy and progress," meet us at every turn.
Socialism, at an early stage of its modern development, sought the
same aid. The friends of Mars, who cannot bear the prospect of
perpetual peace, maintain that war is an indispensable instrument of
Progress. It is in the name of Progress that the doctrinaires who
established the reign of terror in Russia profess to act.
All this shows the prevalent feeling that a social or political
theory or programme is hardly tenable if it cannot claim that it
harmonises with this controlling idea.
In the Middle Ages Europeans followed a different guiding star. The
idea of a life beyond the grave was in control, and the great things
of this life were conducted with reference to the next. When men's
deepest feelings reacted more steadily and powerfully to the idea of
saving their souls than to any other, harmony with this idea was the
test by which the opportuneness of social theories and institutions
was judged. Monasticism, for instance, throve under its aegis, while
liberty of conscience had no chance. With a new idea in control,
this has been reversed. Religious freedom has thriven under the
aegis of Progress; monasticism can make no appeal to it.
For the hope of an ultimate happy state on this planet to be enjoyed
by future generations--or of some state, at least, that may
relatively be considered happy--has replaced, as a social power, the
hope of felicity in another world. Belief in personal immortality is
still very widely entertained, but may we not fairly say that it has
ceased to be a central and guiding idea of collective life, a
criterion by which social values are measured? Many people do not
believe in it; many more regard it as so uncertain that they could
not reasonably permit it to affect their lives or opinions. Those
who believe in it are doubtless the majority, but belief has many
degrees; and one can hardly be wrong in saying that, as a general
rule, this belief does not possess the imaginations of those who
hold it, that their emotions react to it feebly, that it is felt to
be remote and unreal, and has comparatively seldom a more direct
influence on conduct than the abstract arguments to be found in
treatises on morals.
Under the control of the idea of Progress the ethical code
recognised in the Western world has been reformed in modern times by
a new principle of far-reaching importance which has emanated from
When Isocrates formulated the rule of life, "Do unto
others," he probably did not mean to include among "others" slaves
or savages. The Stoics and the Christians extended its application
to the whole of living humanity. But in late years the rule has
received a vastly greater extension by the inclusion of the unborn
generations of the future. This principle of duty to posterity is a
direct corollary of the idea of Progress. In the recent war that
idea, involving the moral obligation of making sacrifices for the
sake of future ages, was constantly appealed to; just as in the
Crusades, the most characteristic wars of our medieval ancestors,
the idea of human destinies then in the ascendant lured thousands to
hardship and death.