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Idea of Progress

The First Prophet Of Progress

Not even the coming of the Renaissance in Europe paved the way for the idea of progress. One could argue, in fact, that Renaissance humanism, with its focus on and reverence for classical antiquity, made it harder to conceive of progress, since the rebirth of learning in the Renaissance required looking backward from a condition of contemporary decay. This was certainly the view espoused by the first great thinker to broach the idea of progress as we know it: Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Bacon was, according to the biologist E. O. Wilson, the "grand architect" of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that gave birth to the idea of progress. According to Bacon, classical thought had infected Christian learning—especially in the form of Scholasticism—and had thus long retarded real progress of knowledge. The much revered "ancients" (in particular Plato and Aristotle) had, in Bacon's view, confused theology and natural science and as a result had spun out a teleological and speculative natural science that took nature to be a kind of God and revealed nothing of what nature really is. The humble and anonymous invention of the compass, said Bacon, did more to advance the human race than all the contemplative philosophy of the ancients, who prided themselves on respecting "theory" over mere "practice." Until the debilitating yoke of classical thought was removed from the human mind the real lesson of the Christian faith could not be followed up: the world is not a God and is but the object of divine art, wisdom, and power—and, ultimately, the object also of human art, wisdom, and power. Once the human mind was freed from the spell of the ancients, and once metaphysical speculation was replaced by knowledge based on experience and induction and organized by clear and regular methods, the real courses of nature could be revealed and nature could be conquered "for the relief of man's estate." In Bacon's view, when the harsh constraints of nature were removed from the human body, so too would be removed the vain illusions that disturb the soul and roil political life. On the foundation of modern science would rise the rational and secular state, whose business is progress.

The discovery of the humble compass, as Bacon pointed out, doubtless expanded massively the horizon of navigation, and advancements in shipbuilding must soon have followed. But there is an important difference between such facts of technical progress and the idea of progress—the idea that such inventions will necessarily lead to greater human happiness and justice, or the idea that society can be ordered so as to produce such inventions and such happiness with ever increasing speed and to ever increasing good effects. The idea of progress as an organized and benevolent project was first broached by Bacon, who was revered by the figures of the later Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.

Although ideas may be the real queens of the world, they do not work their effects in immediate or in smooth and direct ways. So for a hundred years after Bacon's death in 1626 a literary and philosophical dispute called the quarrel between the ancients and moderns was waged in France and England over the issue of whether human thought and knowledge had degenerated from its height in classical antiquity, or whether modern times were more intellectually advanced, if only because of the accumulated wisdom of longer historical experience. In his 1688 pamphlet entitled Digression on the Ancients and the Moderns, the French philosopher Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle argued that indeed progress in the arts and sciences is both open-ended and necessary and proceeds according to laws of its own, having nothing to do with the efforts of particular thinkers. Fontenelle's argument added a significant new dimension to the idea of progress. Bacon's conception was voluntaristic, in the sense that a conscious reformation of the mind would produce the deliberate establishment of scientific and political institutions to produce material and moral progress. With Fontenelle we see the first appearance of the idea that progress is an historical process that moves as a force on its own, independently of human will, and that it can be traced in the record of human history and seen in one's own time.

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