J. Bury, The Idea of Progress Essay


Appleby et al. write: ‘Before there could be moderns, there had to be ancients’. Did Enlightenment writers think that theirs was a new age or epoch, no longer dominated by antiquity and tradition? How did they distinguish their age from the ‘past’?Enlightenment writers believed that to some extent arts are brought to perfection by experience and long labour (i.e. progress) and therefore the modern age must, as a result, have the advantage over that of the ancients. On the other hand, some argued that this was not the case because the same arts and studies are not always uninterruptedly pursued by the most powerful intellects, and so can decline or even be extinguished.

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In distinguishing their age from the past, Enlightenment writers often spoke of their time as a ‘great age’, comparable to the Age of Augustus. Few of the Enlightenment writers would have preferred to have lived at any other time. J. Bury states that ‘the Enlightenment of the present age surpasses that of antiquity:La docte Antiquit� dans toute sans sa dur�eA l’�gal de nos jours ne fut point �clair�e’.2. Appleby et al.

also write: ‘Progress and modernity…marched hand in hand’.

Did Enlightenment writers invent the idea of progress? What did they think progress consisted of? (Did they all agree, for example, about where it was evident, how far it could go, how desirable it was?)J. Bury uses a metaphor to describe the idea of progress: ‘The sciences and arts are like rivers, which flow for part of their course underground, and then, finding an opening, spring forth as abundant as when they plunged beneath the earth’.An Enlightenment writer who did not agree with the idea of progress was Perrault. He was so impressed with the advance of knowledge in the recent past that he was incapable of imagining further progression.

However, Voltaire conceived progress as universal history, which advanced as an immense whole, steadily, and through periods of alternating calm and disturbance towards an achievement of greater perfection.3. How did Enlightenment ideas about time, history and progress differ from those of traditional Christian thought? Did they nevertheless have some things in common with it?In terms of history, Enlightenment writers believed that new principles of order and unity were needed to replace the principles which rationalism had discredited (i.e. the ideas Christianity put forward as to how the world and the universe functioned).

They also agreed that in many circumstances religion had been the great obstacle in the progress of humanity. As for progress itself, much of the attitude towards it was changing from pessimism (a feature of Christianity – the only way you could better yourself was if you got to heaven) to optimism (e.g. Voltaire).


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