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Idea of Progress

Inevitable Progress

This new dimension introduced by Fontenelle was to become very important later on, but was often based more on faith than on clear evidence of the superiority of contemporary life. This dependence on faith sprang from a reason revealed by Fontenelle himself: the progress of knowledge and science, even if necessary and unending, did not in Fontenelle's mind lead necessarily to the amelioration of society and to increased human happiness. At the very least, it is not always obvious that progress in the arts and sciences leads to moral progress or to greater justice in society. Along with the compass, Bacon had mentioned the invention of gunpowder as among the most important discoveries in the practical arts. It is by no means clear that the invention of gunpowder was an unmitigated blessing. All the more reason, then, to see progress as inevitable but visible only retrospectively. It takes such faith to think that technological and social change, which are often violent and unsettling as we experience them, are necessarily for the better. At any rate, it was still some time before the Baconian theme of social transformation by science and reason became an active public project, enshrined in the famous Encyclopédie, published in France between 1751 and 1772. The Encyclopédie was edited by Denis Diderot and contained work by the dazzling group of thinkers called the philosophes, a group that included the likes of Voltaire, Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, and François Quesnay. Its purpose was to present a compendium of existing knowledge in popular form, and it was meant as well to disclose the irrationality and defects of existing society and to trumpet the crucial-for-progress doctrine that human nature is sufficiently malleable to be reformed. With the publication of the Encyclopédie, the Enlightenment project for progress became a clarion call.

It was not long after that France and the whole of the West was convulsed by the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic aftermath. In one of the great ironies of modern history, the first full-fledged work to broach explicitly the doctrine of progress was written by a victim of the revolution he supported. Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de Condorcet—one of the brilliant minds of the French Enlightenment and a contributor to the Encyclopédie—wrote his famous Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind while in desperate flight from the Jacobin radicals. Condorcet died in prison after having been discovered and beaten by an angry mob. Even so, Condorcet was convinced that the American Revolution and the spreading opposition to slavery were signs of moral progress visible in his time, and from this perspective he argued that the whole of human history is a connected series of stages in which the human mind has progressed, and as the mind progresses so too do the possibilities of material progress and moral and political reform. Human history is not a jumble of meaningless accidents, but moves and changes slowly for the better according to knowable laws. With Condorcet, the Baconian project, which linked scientific and moral progress, was derived from inexorable laws of history as much as from conscious human action and invention. Absent his "demonstration" of these laws, it might have been difficult for the suffering Condorcet to retain his optimistic spirit.

In the four or so decades after the publication of Condorcet's Sketch in 1795, the idea of progress was developed by two French thinkers into a school of thought known as positivism. The first, Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760–1825), was a founder of French socialism and a writer, pamphleteer, and journalist who worked out a theory that claimed to unearth the necessary laws of historical and social change. According to Saint-Simon, human history is characterized by alternating and advancing periods. Social and intellectual forms are first built and made to cohere, and this is followed by revolutionary criticism and change. Not the least of the critical periods was the Enlightenment and the subsequent French Revolution. For Saint-Simon, the alternating historical periods were stages of mental development. As the mind progresses to the present time, it becomes possible to grasp both the physical and social worlds in terms of scientific knowledge involving no speculation or metaphysical assumptions, and hence both nature and society can be illuminated by "positive" knowledge. Those who have such knowledge will organize those who do not, and in particular the wise in positive science will organize a socialist society that will benefit the working classes. Indeed, the wise in the positive sciences will become a new clergy for a new, positive age.

Saint-Simon's theory received its full exposition at the hands of Auguste Comte (1798–1857), the self-professed founder of positive sociology. Again, the history of the human race is occasioned by transformations in ideas, progressing from the theological to the metaphysical, and then to the positive and scientific. With this conceptual scheme in mind, it is possible to divide human history into more specific periods marked by different religions and movements against them. In the present age the social world will be organized by sociologists according to the positive laws of sociology, and the eventual result will be a rational world without war and injustice.

Along with the rise of French positivism and sociology, the idea of progress grew as well, and in a different vein, in Germany. Even before Condorcet's Sketch, the philosopher Immanuel Kant published (in 1784) an essay entitled "Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose." A year later he published another essay entitled "Perpetual Peace." According to Kant, our practical reason impels us to postulate historical progress toward a point where happiness and morality coincide, and to look for signs that such progress has in fact occurred. Moreover, the means by which that progress takes place is antagonism and the "unsocial sociability" of men. Without the discordance between the selfish individual and society, humankind would have remained in an Arcadian sleep. The human powers and talents unleashed by antagonism are the means used by history to develop, over time, a form of civil society and a peaceful world order that will make universal justice possible. With Kant, we see an important new dimension of the idea of progress: the notion that history or nature uses human conflict for ultimately good ends. This notion came later to be expressed as the cunning of reason in the thought of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), one of the most important figures in the history of the idea of progress.

According to Hegel, the history of the human race is produced by the dialectical contention among conflicting ideas of freedom and recognition. The movement is dialectical because each stage of history contains the conditions for its own demise and replacement by the next. Human history concerns the dialectical development of mind, and its stages proceed from the world in which it is thought that one man is free and all others are not, to one where it is thought that a few are free and all others are not, to a world where it is thought that all are free. In each case, what is thought is what is embodied in concrete institutions and social practices. The last stage has, in Hegel's mind, been reached and is embodied in the modern state characterized by equal rights, the rule of law, and the harmony among the separate spheres of expert political administration, economic and private life, and religion. With Hegel, we see another important dimension of the idea of progress: the end of history. For Hegel, human history is the story of progress, but that progress—and so history as we know it—not only comes to an end but has come to an end in his time. There will, therefore, be no new struggles between forms of moral, political, and social life.

Hegel is important in his own right, but also because his thinking influenced perhaps the single most important theorist of progress: Karl Marx (1818–1883). Hegel's followers divided between the Old Hegelians and the Young Hegelians. The issue concerned the extent to which Hegel's system did or did not reconcile reason and religion. Marx was influenced by the Young Hegelians, who thought that the system required further critique of religion, but Marx rejected the idea of a dialectic of mind and replaced it with dialectical materialism. (And he accordingly derided the French socialism of Saint-Simon as utopian. Marx's associate Friedrich Engels, too, criticized Saint-Simon for trying to "evolve the solution to human problems out of the brain" rather than from material conditions.) According to Marx, the course of history is determined by the internal contradictions and class conflicts embedded in succeeding arrangements of the means of material production. As capitalism and the bourgeois monopoly of the means of production advance, traditional and rural forms of life are swept away. But as the productive power of revolutionary capitalism advances, so too does the impoverishment of the industrial proletariat, and inevitable crises of overproduction combine with that impoverishment to produce a revolution by the Communist Party that acts politically for the proletariat. With the coming of the revolution, the means of production are socialized, and with this oppression and inequality disappear, as does the coercive political state that will in time "wither away." Needless to say, Marxism was the most powerful political embodiment of the idea of inevitable progress in the twentieth century. Critics of the idea of progress might point out that more human beings perished at the hands of communism, which failed, than from any other idea or cause in the entire course of human history.

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