Quotes
Regression
Glossary

J.B.Bury’s works – 1920

THE IDEA OF PROGRESS
AN INQUIRY INTO ITS ORIGIN AND GROWING

1920 – 1st ed. (front page)

1928 – 3rd ed. (dust cover)

1932 – 1st ed. USA (dust cover)

published by:

  • The McMillan and Co., London, 1920, 377 pages

republished by:

  • The McMillan and Co., London, 1921, 377 pages
  • The McMillan and Co., London, 1928, 377 pages
  • [with an INTRODUCTION by Charles Beard]The McMillan and Co., New York, 1928, 377 pages

2 copies available:
  • facsimile:
  • transcription


Enough has been said to show that the Progress of humanity belongs to the same order of ideas as Providence or personal immortality. It is true or it is false, and like them it cannot be proved either true or false. Belief in it is an act of faith.
The idea of human Progress then is a theory which involves a synthesis of the past and a prophecy of the future. It is based on an interpretation of history which regards men as slowly advancing – pedetemtim progredientes – in a definite and desirable direction, and infers that this progress will continue indefinitely. And it implies that, as

the issue of the earth’s great business,

a condition of general happiness will ultimate be enjoyed, which will justify the whole process of civilisation; for otherwise the direction would not be desirable. There is also a further implication. The process must be the necessary outcome of the physical and social nature of man; it must not be at the mercy of any external will; otherwise there would be no guarantee of its continuance and its issue, and the idea of Progress would lapse into the idea of Providence.” …

[J. B. Bury – 1920]


… 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? ’Έσσεται ήμαρ όταν … 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?

[J. B. Bury – 1920]