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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The belief in progress, the idea that human history
forms a movement, more or less continuous, towards
a desirable future, began to take shape late in the
seventeenth century. Despite persistent criticism it


gained steadily in strength. The culminating point was
reached towards the end of the nineteenth century.
Thereafter a reaction set in and in the interval between
the World Wars I and II there was a widespread im-
pression that it was about to be relegated to the realm
of exploded myths. Like all powerful ideas the idea
of progress drew from a number of different streams
of thought—the belief that there was a necessary con-
nection between advances in knowledge and social
betterment emanating from the Enlightenment, the
philosophical theories of development in their
Hegelian or Marxist form, the extension of the theory
of organic evolution to the sphere of mind and society.

These movements of thought, combined with the
buoyant hopefulness inspired by the plainly visible
advances in science and the even more obvious conse-
quences in material civilization gave the belief in
progress a commanding position, and for many it pro-
vided a basis for a working faith of great vitality. This
faith has been deeply eroded by contemporary skepti-
cism, arising mainly from the growing recognition that
advances in technical knowledge are not sufficient to
ensure moral and social progress and the fear that the
use of science for destructive purposes might outpace
and arrest the growth of its powers for good.

Historians seem to be agreed that the references
made occasionally by ancient writers to advances in
knowledge of nature and the probability of future
additions to it hardly amount to an anticipation of a
theory of progress. This view goes back to Auguste
Comte's discussion of the origins of the idea in the
Cours de philosophie positive (Vol. IV). The Greeks,
he thought, were not in possession of sufficient histor-
ical or observational data and they were dominated
by the idea that “humanity was doomed to an arbitrary
succession of identical phases, without ever experienc-
ing a new transformation directed towards an end
determined by the whole constitution of human na-
ture” (Comte [1875], p. 45). No coherent theory of such
a transformation could arise before its direction had
been indicated by the experience of the French Revo-
lution and before the emergence of the positive sci-
ences in the seventeenth century.

The argument that the climate of ancient thought
was not congenial to ideas of progress was developed
by J. B. Bury and has gained wide acceptance. Bury
argued that the Greek thinkers had only very limited
historical experience to serve as a basis for such ideas
and that the presuppositions of their thought, their
suspiciousness of change, their theories of Moira, of
degeneration and cycles suggested a view of the world
incompatible with notions of progressive development
(Bury [1920], p. 19). On the evidence accumulated
since the publication of Bury's book there is much to
be said for the carefully balanced judgment reached
by Robert Flint towards the end of the nineteenth
century. His position may be briefly summarized thus:
the view that the Greeks and the Romans conceived
of the course of history only as a downward movement
is not borne out by the facts; they conceived of it in
many different ways—as a process of deterioration, as
a progress, and as a cycle, though none of these con-
ceptions were worked out fully or consistently or sup-
ported by a survey of historical data (Flint [1893], pp.
89-96). However this may be, the influence of Greek
thought on the idea of progress is to be sought not
in what they had to say about the course of history,
but in their belief in the value and potency of rational
inquiry (Edelstein, 1967).

On the connection between Hebrew and Christian
ideas about the destiny of man and ideas of progress
historians differ widely. Comte attributed to Christi-
anity the “first dawning sense of human progression.”
By proclaiming the superiority of the law of Jesus to
that of Moses it gave form to the idea of a more perfect
form replacing a less perfect, which had been necessary
as a preparation (Comte [1875], p. 54). He thought
this idea belonged essentially to Catholicism. Prot-
estantism distorted it by recurring irrationally to the
period of the primitive Church and by offering for
guidance “the most barbarous part of the Scrip-
tures—that which relates to primitive antiquity.” On
the whole, however, he blamed Christianity for barring
its own way to progress by claiming to be the final
stage in man's progress and for “the mischief and vague
obscurantism which belong to all applications of the
theological method.” In essentials, therefore, he
thought the idea of progress was modern and could
not receive effective expression before the rise and
expansion of the positive sciences.

Comte's brief comments were taken up and devel-
oped by J. Delvaille (1910). He was deeply influenced
by Ernest Renan's History of the People of Israel
(1887-91) and by Charles Renouvier's philosophical
and historical studies, and had a deeper understanding
than Comte of Hebrew beliefs. His account has the
merit of distinguishing clearly between the prophetic
and the later apocalyptic visions of the future. He
showed that the prophetic teaching contained no ref-
erence to the fall of man or original sin hindering the
growth of well-being and justice on this earth. He
traced in some detail the visions offered by the
prophets of an age of social justice and universal peace,
when nature as well as man would be renewed and
when Israel would become the divine instrument of
bringing the nations to repentance and to the knowl-
edge of the true God.

Delvaille followed Renouvier in showing how in the
last two centuries before Christ prophecy gave way
to apocalyptic eschatology—a movement which from


the point of view of its effect on theories of progress
Delvaille considered a “degradation” (Delvaille, p. 29).
In dealing with Christianity Delvaille, following Pierre
Leroux (Doctrine de la perfectibilité et du progrès con-
tinu, Oeuvres;
1850) held that in the early period there
were in the Christian teaching the germs of a theory
of progress; thus the parables of the Kingdom con-
tained passages declaring that the manifestations of
God in Christ were to be a seed which was to grow
and progress, to produce results beyond hope and
imagination and to act in humanity like leaven in meal
till the whole mass was transformed. Later, however,
the notion of the kingdom was taken to refer to or
even to be identified with the Church, and increasing
stress was laid on the helplessness and sinfulness of man
and on the contrast between life on this earth and the
state of heavenly blessedness. Beliefs of this sort could
hardly provide an effective basis for theories of prog-
ress in their modern form.

On the whole, Delvaille's verdict on the contribution
of early Christianity to the belief in progress is some-
what vague and inconclusive. The difficulty may be
illustrated by his discussion of Saint Augustine. He
draws attention to Augustine's references to the ad-
vances made by man in the knowledge of nature, in
the arts and skills, in the means of communication, in
methods of healing, in agriculture and navigation (De
civitate Dei
XXII. 24). Yet it is clear from Delvaille's
own account that to Augustine “progress” of this sort
was of little significance. There was only one progress:
that towards salvation. What happens in the course
of history is made intelligible only by the hope of a
final triumph of the city of God over the city of men.
But the city of God is an ideal which could not become
real in this world.

Later developments of the doctrine of the kingdom
of God cannot be examined here. They oscillate be-
tween intramundane and supramundane conceptions
of the future, but throughout there persists the belief
that the final consummation is “beyond history” and
that on this earth there can be no assurance of con-
tinuing betterment. In recent theological writings the
claim is often put forward that modern beliefs in
progress are secularized versions of Hebrew and Chris-
tian eschatology. But precisely what is meant is not
quite clear. It seems to involve a confusion of different
universes of discourse or “genres,” as Renouvier
pointed out. We must avoid the error of reading our
own ideas of historical interpretations into the views
of history perhaps implicit in the Old and New Testa-
ments. Neither the prophets of Israel nor the apoca-
lyptic writers believed in progress as a continuous and
cumulative process of inner transformation. It was God
and not the power of man that shaped the course of
history. Nothing is said of any slow moral development
or the cumulative use of natural resources to serve
human needs. The whole setting is one of miraculous
and sudden divine intervention and there is not even
a hint of any conception of the struggle of mankind
towards rational self-determination (Renouvier [1896],
pp. 553f.).

It remains to be added that both Christian and
Jewish theologians only became interested in the idea
of progress after it had become a dominant element
in modern thought. The Catholic Church has on occa-
sion explicitly repudiated it. It was, for example, in-
cluded among the errors censured in the famous Syl-
published by the Vatican in 1864 (Bury [1920],
p. 323). In early Protestantism the idea appears only
in the old apocalyptic form of a supernatural millenar-
ianism, and mainly among proscribed sects, such as
the Anabaptists (Dawson [1929], p. 182). Since the
eighteenth century Protestant theologians have sought
to come to terms with doctrines of progress, but always
with a certain misgiving. The belief in original sin and
the helplessness of man cannot be easily reconciled
with the belief in perfectibility and the power of man
to make himself, nor the notion of gradual development
with the sudden or unique intervention of God in the
course of history. Dean Inge writing in 1920 was of
the opinion that the doctrine of progress had “distorted
Christianity almost beyond recognition” and dismissed
it as a “superstition which is nearly worn out.” Yet
he leaves open the possibility that there may be “an
immanent teleology which is shaping the life of the
human race towards some completed development
which has not yet been reached.”

Recent writers, for example Reinhold Niebuhr, retain
the idea of development and admit that there has been
genuine advance in history, both in thought and prac-
tice. At the same time he and others stress the finitude
and limitations inherent in the nature of man and
dismiss as intolerable hubris the claim that man can
ever become master of his fate. They agree that there
is good evidence for the view that in the course of
history we can trace growing efforts to extend the area
of freedom and harmony. But this extension, it is
argued, may at the same time increase the power and
destructiveness of self-love. It follows that “no solution
can be found for the meaning of history within history
itself.” “The antinomies of good and evil increase
rather than diminish in the long course of history.”
Apart from the belief in the agape of Christ the con-
templation of history cannot but drive man to despair
(Niebuhr [1949], p. 264).

Jewish thinkers appear to have become interested
in the nineteenth century in the idea of progress. It
is easy to see that in their efforts to reinterpret the
principles of prophetic Messianism they did not face
the difficulties that troubled Christian theologians.


Thus Jewish teaching on the whole rejects the notion
of inevitable and ineradicable sin. The prevailing view
in the Old Testament and in the Talmud is that man
by his own inward power can conquer sin and that
while sin is general, it is not uncontrollable. Next, the
temperate ethical optimism of Jewish teaching and its
“this-worldly” interpretation of the messianic future
harmonize well with modern ideas of progress. This
future was always conceived as a phase of history on
this earth, purified and ennobled but still human. The
kingdom of God was to be a universal reign of peace
and justice overriding all political divisions.

The reinterpretation of messianic beliefs in the light
of the idea of progress can best be followed in the
writings associated with the rise of Reform and Liberal
Judaism. Three points deserve special attention. First,
emphasis is laid on the universalistic elements in the
prophetic teaching. Secondly, the belief in a personal
Messiah, a descendant of David who will lead the Jews
back to their ancient land, is abandoned in favor of
what may be fairly claimed to be the earlier view, that
mankind as a whole is advancing to a better and purer
knowledge of God and his laws and to a fuller appli-
cation of the ideals of righteousness and love. Thirdly,
the notion of the gradual moralization of mankind, to
some extent anticipated in the Rabbinic insistence on
the need for repentance as a condition of the coming
of the Messiah, replaces the notion of the sudden and
miraculous beginning of the messianic age (Montefiore,
1923; Wiener, 1928; Wilhelm, 1967).

On the whole question of the relations between
religion and ideas of progress Renouvier's comments
retain their importance. He showed that beliefs about
the destiny of man were an essential element in all
religions. But the end to be attained is not to be
reached by their own efforts or without divine inter-
vention. In this sense the belief is a matter for theo-
logians and cannot be regarded as a recognizable his-
torical law. On the other hand, those who build their
hope for the temporal destiny of man on a vague
optimism insensitive to the existence of evil run the
risk of turning progress itself into a God and indulging
in a religiosity repugnant alike to deeper faith and to
science and history (Renouvier [1896], pp. 553f.).

On the relation of the belief in progress to the belief
in Providence, Bury's verdict holds good; that the
former could not take a firm hold over men's minds
while the latter was indisputably in the ascendant. Bury
allowed that the two beliefs might, and, in a future
age would be, combined (Bury, 1920). It is interesting
to note that Lord Acton in his later writings virtually
identified them. “Progress was Providence: unless there
was progress there could be no God in history” (But-
terfield [1955], p. 130). Nevertheless, the fundamental
assumptions were incongruous. According to the one,
man makes himself, according to the other “it is He
that hath made us and not we ourselves.” The idea
that man has the ability and the duty to shape his own
future could hardly obtain wide credence until atten-
tion was shifted from the kingdom to come to the
kingdom of this world, and until the notion of law was
extended from the sphere of nature to the sphere of
man. The belief in progress was essentially linked with
the growth of science and its applications, with the
spread of the rationalist and humanitarian outlook, and
with the struggle for political and religious liberty.

The vagueness of the idea of progress was noted
early by its critics. Thus Étienne Vacherot wrote in
1864: “To speak of progress without defining it is to
utter a word which covers as many errors as truths
and which can therefore be denied or affirmed or
discussed interminably” (Essais de philosophie critique).
Similar complaints are still made. For example, the
theologian John Baillie wrote: “It is truer of the
votaries of progress than of the adherents of any of
the great religions that they believe without knowing
either quite what they believe or why they believe in
it” (Baillie [1950], p. 88). It would seem that the hold
ideas of progress had on the popular mind was due
not so much to the theories propounded by philoso-
phers as to the impression made by the vast social and
material achievements in Europe and America—the
increase in wealth and population, the transformation
of daily life in the new urban centers, the spread of
European culture, the growth of democratic institu-
tions, universal education, the changes connected with
the rise of humanitarian ideals, such as the abolition
of slavery and the reform of the criminal law, the
emancipation of women. The movement seemed all-
powerful and irreversible. Even if disliked and feared,
it was accepted as inevitable. It is not uncommon for
a disturbing new invention to be met with the remark:
“it is progress and can't be helped.”

In dealing with the historical development of the
idea of progress no attempt can be made here at a
detailed chronological analysis of the works of its chief
exponents. Instead there will be a discussion of some
of the definitions that have been given of the idea at
different times, the aim being to disentangle the ingre-
dients that have gone into its making and their latent
presuppositions. This will be followed by an inquiry
into the answers that have been given to the problems
thus raised and an estimate of their importance in the
general development of theories of progress.

A well-known definition is that given by Bury: the
idea of progress means that civilization has moved, is
moving and will continue to move in a desirable direc-
tion (Bury, 1920). This implies that progress is taken


to be continuous and general, a view repudiated by
many important supporters of the doctrine. A more
serious difficulty is that raised by the criterion by which
what is desirable is to be judged, which Bury takes
to be “increasing happiness.” But this would not have
been considered decisive by either Comte, Kant, or
even Spencer. In Comte's view it was not possible to
compare the happiness of men at different stages.
Happiness depended on a certain harmony or equilib-
rium between men's faculties and the possibilities
offered by their environment. The harmony is experi-
enced by individuals in different ways and as experi-
ences are not comparable (Comte [1875], p. 48). For
Kant the end of development was moral perfection
achieved through freedom. This might bring happiness
with it but what was important was not merely that
we should be happy but that we should make ourselves
worthy of being happy (Kant [1930], p. 252). For
Spencer the end of development was the greatest hap-
piness, but the criteria of progress were growing
individuation and increasing mutual dependence
(Spencer [1902], pp. 249-55; [1901], I, 8f.).

Other problems are raised by the definition offered
by A. O. Lovejoy: in contemporary usage the law of
progress denotes “a tendency inherent in nature or man
to pass through a regular sequence of stages of devel-
opment in past, present, or future, the later stages
being—with perhaps occasional retardations or minor
regressions—superior to the earlier” (Lovejoy and Boas
[1935], I, 6). Here the idea is generalized to include
nature as well as man, and it is not clear how the
superiority of the more developed to the other stages
is to be judged. More serious is the inclusion of the
notion of a regular sequence of stages. There is no
evidence that this notion has always or generally been
considered essential. A. R. J. Turgot, one of the earliest
and most brilliant exponents, maintained that progress
was unequal among nations, that different levels co-
existed and that it is only by considering mankind as
a whole that the general lines of growth could be
traced (Turgot, 1808; 1895). In a similar vein Herbert
Spencer explained that there was no uniform ascent
from lower to higher and that it was only by taking
into consideration the entire assemblage of societies
that the law of evolution could be confirmed (Spencer
[1897], pp. 599f.). The anthropologist E. Reclus, in an
article on Ethnography contributed to the ninth edition
of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1879), wrote: “The
course of progress runs not incessantly onwards in a
straight line at a uniform speed. It proceeds in irregular
motions and sometimes by curves, by broken or even
by spiral lines.” In 1870 Edgar Quinet in his work La
argued that progress was not effected along
a single line, was not continuous and did not proceed
in the same direction or at the same rate. There were
times of relapse, aberration, and decadence, and not
every species or generation was an improvement on
that which preceded it (cited in Flint [1893], p. 558).

A striking account of progress emphasizing its moral
content and its dependence on free choice is given by
Proudhon. Progress is neither universal nor inevitable;
decadence and regression are as real. Progress is not
to be measured by increase in wealth or population,
or advance in the arts and the sciences. While all these
advance man may be deteriorating. True progress must
come from man's own energy. Man makes and unmakes
himself, in proportion as what he does tends to freedom
and justice or equality. Progress is “the self-justification
of humanity under the impulsion of the ideal.” It is
“the march of freedom” spurred on by revolutions
whose success, however, is never assured. It is essen-
tially a moral phenomenon and morality in Proudhon's
view is independent of religion which, he thought,
perverted reason and conscience and was the source
of weakness and disorder (Proudhon, 1861).

Renouvier in his long sustained studies of the history
of the idea of progress also in his own way stressed
the effects of moral freedom on the destiny of peoples
and he denied the universality and necessity of
progress. He showed that historians had relied on very
inadequate data and had made no serious investigation
of moral beliefs, religions, and political organizations
on a scale sufficient to justify any generalized theories
of progress. Nevertheless, he thought that as far as
Europe was concerned progress was both a palpable
fact and a worthy ideal. By its aid Europe had become
conscious of itself as the heir of the moral conquests
and achievements of the various peoples of the world
and as capable of promoting even further advance

Two other attempts at definition may be mentioned,
taken from more recent discussions. The historian
E. H. Carr defines progress as “the development of
human potentialities in so far as it moves towards the
right goals.” These, it seems, can only be defined “as
we advance towards them and the validity of which
can be verified only in the process of attaining them.”
That is best which in fact “works best”; the test, in
short, is “success.” If we ask how this is to be applied
in shaping policy, the answer is that the politician has
to consider not only what is morally or theoretically
desirable, but also what is possible with the forces
available. It is not clear, however, whether the test
of what is morally desirable is also taken to be “suc-
cess” or “what works best” and whether no policy can
be adjudged progressive until it has been shown that
it works best (Carr [1961], Ch. V). Carr makes light
of the distinction between fact and values, and, on his


own showing, inquiry into what is morally desirable
would lapse into inquiry concerning what is historically
or sociologically possible.

A balanced and comprehensive view of progress was
that expounded by J. M. Robertson. Progress, he
showed, does not mean “that human affairs must
constantly improve in virtue of some cosmic law, but
that a certain advance in range of knowledge, of
reflection, of skill, of civic amenity, or general comfort
is attainable and desirable, that such advances have
clearly taken place in former periods; and that the due
study of these periods and of present conditions may
lead to a further and indefinitely prolonged advance.”
The general test is the rise in the quantity and quality
of pleasurable and intelligent life (Robertson, 1913).
This has the merit of distinguishing between progress
as fact and ideal and of avoiding the implication that
progress is general or inevitable or directed towards
a fixed or predetermined end.

We must now consider some of the movements of
thought which in various ways gave content to the
general ideas of progress.

Universal History and the Unity of Mankind. The
idea of the unity of mankind emerges, and the possi-
bility of a “universal history” distinct from the com-
bined history of different peoples. The idea is devel-
oped with varying degrees of emphasis during the
eighteenth century in the works of Vico, Voltaire,
Turgot, Herder, and Kant. Vico conceived of history
as the study of “the modifications of the human mind.”
He tried to trace the patterns followed by the peoples
of the world in their rise, progress, maturity, decline,
and fall. The typical course of change is a progress
from anarchy to order, from savage and “heroic” ages
to the ages of civilization. The different ages have each
their own mentality. In the age of savagery feeling
rather than thought is predominant; in the higher
barbarism of the heroic age the mental state is imagi-
native knowledge, “poetical wisdom”; in the age of
civilization conceptual knowledge plays an ever
greater part. Each of these stages has its own typical
institutions, law, language, and literature, shaping the
character of men. The progress, however, is without
end or fulfillment. The course is cyclical: civilized
societies decline into an anarchical state of nature, pass
to the higher barbarism and thence again to civili-
zation. Vico does not venture any prediction regarding
the civilization of his own time, but it is probable that
he thought that it would follow the general pattern.
It seems therefore that Croce was right in saying that
Vico had “missed the idea of progress,” though allow-
ance must be made for the fact that in Vico's view
the cyclical movement is not a mere rotation of fixed
phases but a spiral ascent (Croce [1913], p. 133. See
also R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History [1946],
pp. 67-68).

Voltaire's Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations
(“Essay on the Manners and Mind of Nations”) was
published in 1756, but written in great part in 1740,
ten years before the delivery of Turgot's “Discours”
at the Sorbonne. In this Voltaire set out to “trace the
history of the human mind” by comparing the
achievements of European peoples with those of China,
India, Persia, and Arabia. In developing his ideas he
had in mind Bossuet's Discours sur l'histoire universelle
(1681). Voltaire attacked this work on the ground that
so far from being “universal,” it distorted world history
by dealing with the rise and fall of empires mainly
from the point of view of their relations to the people
of Israel and the Christian Church, and by neglecting
the achievements of great civilizations beyond the
bounds of Christendom, such as China and India. Even
more emphatic was Voltaire's repudiation of Bossuet's
doctrine of Providence. He could see in history no
evidence of a comprehensive plan, a pervasive order,
attributable to a Divine Will. He not only rejected final
causes but he frequently wrote as if there were no law
at all in human affairs, as if they were the domain of
Sa Majesté le Hasard.

Yet Voltaire did believe in progress, clearly visible
in the growth of the sciences, arts, morals and laws,
commerce and industry. The great obstacles to progress
were wars and religions. If they were abolished and
the prejudices which engender them removed, the
world would rapidly improve.

Voltaire was not a systematic thinker and he offered
no clear-cut theory of the forces at work in history.
The accounts he gave of human nature were uncertain
and conflicting, cynical and generous in turn; they
provided no sure basis for a theory of progress.
Repeatedly he dwelt on the folly and credulousness
of the masses and the selfishness and unscrupulousness
of the ruling few. On the other hand, he disliked
intensely the gloomy view of human nature given by
the “sublime misanthrope,” Blaise Pascal, dismissed as
completely unfounded the doctrine of original sin, and
took justice and pity to be fundamental in the life of
man. Voltaire's conclusions about the future were nec-
essarily tentative. Progress was liable to be interrupted
by periods of regression, and great crises in history had
often been decided by accidents. In the end, however,
Voltaire held on to his trust in the power of reason
to guide progress, “in spite of all the passions which
make war on it, in spite of all the tyrants who would
drown it in blood, in spite of the imposters who would
annihilate it by superstition” (Oeuvres complètes, Paris
[1877-85], XVI, 35).

Perhaps the most cogent and clearest exposition of


the idea of a universal history is that provided by
Turgot in his two discourses of 1750. He conceived
of universal history as concerned with the rise and fall
of nations and empires, their mutual relations in wars
and commerce, the development of the sciences and
arts, of religions, morals and manners, “Humanity
being ever the same amidst all these confusions and
ever marching to its perfection.” He raised questions
of continuing importance today, such as the part
played by war in civilization at different stages, the
factors making for growth in some spheres and for
retardation in others, the interaction of the various
sciences and the mechanical arts and the possible rea-
sons for the differences in their rates of growth. He
showed progress to be unequal and its story to be full
of bloodshed and struggles dominated by tumultuous
and dangerous passions. Yet despite these ravages, in
their day unavoidable (in Turgot's opinion) and perhaps
even necessary as goads to progress, “manners become
more gentle, the human mind becomes more enlight-
ened, isolated nations draw nearer to each other, com-
merce and politics connect all parts of the world and
the whole mass of the human race, alternating between
calm and agitation, good and bad conditions, marches
always, though slowly, towards greater perfection”
(Turgot, 1895).

The belief in the unity of mankind did not in Turgot's
view necessarily imply that men did not differ in ca-
pacity. There were differences, due partly to innate
equipment and partly to education. But Turgot was
more cautious than many later investigators: “The
causes of inequality will always be unknown.” Fur-
thermore, though abilities differ their distribution was
probably much the same in all races, places and times.
High ability might remain undeveloped owing to the
hazards of education and environment.

Differences in innate endowment are stressed by
J. G. Herder. Each race has its own permanent inborn
characteristics, each develops in its own way, within
the limits prescribed by its innate constitution and
physical environment. He followed G. E. Lessing in
maintaining that life is an education for humanity and
he urged that evils are self-corrective and that reason
and justice tend to become more powerful. Herder's
conception of universal history is, as we should now
say, “pluralistic.” Each people has its own ideals and
its own conception of happiness. He rejected the hy-
pothesis of a final and unique state of perfection and
maintained that it could not be right to expect existing
generations to suffer in order to ensure the happiness
of a remote posterity. It is not clear whether Humani-
or Menschlichkeit is the same for all men, or
whether each people or stage of civilization has its own
conception of Menschlichkeit as it has its own forms
of happiness. Europe, it seems, was in a privileged
position, being alone capable of indefinite progress.
Other peoples, for example, the Negro and the Chinese,
have remained static, having realized all that they had
it in them to become. On this as in some other issues
Herder adopted a fatalistic attitude inconsistent with
the emphasis he placed elsewhere on spontaneity and
freedom (Herder, 1803).

By contrast with Herder's view, Immanuel Kant's
conception of universal history is linked essentially
with that of the unity of mankind. Kant's approach
is frankly ethical and teleological. The end of history
is the rationalization and moralization of man. The full
realization of this, he thought, was only possible in a
“universal civil society” founded on justice. “It is only
in a society in which there is the greatest freedom and
therefore antagonism between all the members, and
at the same time the most exact determination of the
limits of this freedom in each, so that it is consistent
with equal freedom in all the rest, that the highest end
of nature in man, i.e., the full development of all his
natural capacities can be attained” (Ideen... [1784];
Idea of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan
). The impetus to development Kant found
in the restlessness arising from the conflict in man
between his social and antisocial tendencies, in what
he calls the unsocial sociableness of man, his desire for
gain and power, his greed and competitiveness. These
antagonisms drive men to seek a master and to form
societies, which in turn are driven by greed and ambi-
tion to form wider units. States may eventually, if they
can avoid mutual destruction, abandon their “barbaric
freedom” and seek equilibrium in some form of inter-
national authority.

The unification of mankind is for Kant an ethical
postulate. Whether there is any evidence that mankind
is in fact moving in this direction is quite a different
question. He is well aware that we cannot with any
certainty infer future trends from what has been
observed in the relatively short period of history known
to man, and he put forward suggestions for a universal
history on a scale which he himself was unable to
undertake. His own view is far from optimistic. He
suggested that mankind may be like the sick man who
died by getting better and better (vor lauter Besserung).
Yet he did find ground for hope in the growing recog-
nition (illustrated by the impression made by the
French Revolution) of the importance of freedom and
enlightenment for the internal efficiency of states and
therefore for their external relations also. So out of the
very vices of men, their competitiveness and power-
seeking, conditions may yet emerge for the fulfillment
of the highest end, the rationalization and moralization
of man. Yet in the Lectures on Ethics (1913, p. 252),


“the hope of it is still distant; it will be many centuries
before it can be realized.”

Auguste Comte's attitude to history is somewhat
ambiguous. He complained that it had more of a
literary and descriptive than of a scientific character,
that it had not been able to establish “a rational filiation
in the series of social events,” so as to admit of any
systematic prevision of their future succession. He even
says that “every actual attempt to constitute directly
the highly complex history of human societies” is to
be regarded as “chimerical” (Comte [1875], p. 387).
Yet, of course, the “Historical or Comparative Method”
which Comte himself adopted had to make use of
generalizations from history, though these were to be
verified by deduction from the laws of human nature.

Law in History. Bury has drawn attention to the
importance of the notion of the invariability of the
laws of nature for the idea of progress. Unless this
hypothesis is accepted, there can be no certainty that
either scientific or social progress will continue
indefinitely. Bury showed that Montesquieu was among
the first to extend the Cartesian notion of natural law
to social facts. In this Bury followed Comte, who
somewhat condescendingly praised Montesquieu for
“treating political phenomena as subject to invariable
laws, like all other phenomena.” He added that
Montesquieu had made no effective use of this idea
except in those portions of his work in which he had
considered the influence of climate (Comte [1875], p.
208). This ignores important aspects of Montesquieu's
work, The Spirit of the Laws (1748), especially his
views of the structure of societies and of the laws of
social change. Each society, Montesquieu had held, had
a specific structure and its own constitutive principle.
Social phenomena had to be viewed as interdependent
and could only be interpreted by examining their rela-
tion to the constitutive principle. This applied also to
social change. Changes in any part of the structure
set up strains which affect the rest and disturb the
balance of the society as a whole, as for example, when
the Roman republic was corrupted by its physical
expansion. It seems that ultimately the strains are
psychological in character. The more power men have,
the more greedy they become for still more power.
Beyond a certain point, opposing forces are set in
motion and these in turn change the structure. “There
is in every nation a general spirit, upon which power
itself is founded. When it shocks this spirit, power
disturbs its own foundations and thus necessarily checks
itself” (Montesquieu, 1949).

According to Bury, “Montesquieu was not among
the apostles of the idea of progress” though he contrib-
uted to its growth by his theory that political like
physical phenomena are subject to general laws. The
laws that Montesquieu enunciated are not laws of
progress. In one or two places he formulated a cyclical
theory: barbarism, conquest, consolidation, conquest,
consolidation, beginning corruption, dissolution. But as
Franz Neumann has pointed out, he never used the
cyclical theory in any relevant manner (Montesquieu,

In the introduction to his essay on the idea of a
universal history Kant argued that whatever meta-
physical views may be held about the freedom of the
will, it was clear that human actions are as subject to
invariable laws as any other phenomena. The statistics
of births, deaths, marriages, so much influenced by the
will of individuals, nevertheless show the same sort of
regularity as that of occurrences in the world of nature
(a point later taken up by Adolphe Quételet, J. S. Mill,
and Henry Thomas Buckle in the nineteenth century).
Hence, Kant thought that historical events which in-
dividually seem incoherent and lawless, may, when
considered in relation to the whole species, be seen
to follow a regular course (einen regelmässigen Gang),
a slow but steady realization of human potentialities.
What the laws of historical development are, he did
not profess to know. He suggested that perhaps some
future genius might do for social phenomena what
Kepler and Newton did for the heavenly bodies. For
his part he found a clue to history in the notion of
a hidden plan whereby nature (or Providence) utilizes
the conflicting passions of man to bring about his
moralization and rationalization, a goal whose full
realization is only possible in a “universal civil society
founded on political justice” (Kant [1913], IV, 156).

The attempt to formulate laws of development
which Kant deemed hazardous in view of the vastness
of the period and the limitations of our historical
knowledge was boldly undertaken by French thinkers
in the next generation. The outstanding names are
those of Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Comte.

Charles Fourier's law of passional attraction which
he believed to be a rigorous deduction from Newton's
law need not be discussed here. The laws formulated
by Saint-Simon and Comte, on the other hand, are
generally regarded as still of value, at least as offering
suggestions for further inquiry. Both expressed their
indebtedness to Condorcet, while censuring him for his
exaggerations and inconsistencies. They certainly have
in common certain leading ideas, such as that man must
be studied as a species and not only as an individual,
that human development is subject to law and that it
has been and will continue to be, on the whole, pro-
gressive. The main difference is that Saint-Simon and
Comte both lay greater stress on continuity in devel-
opment. For example, they held that the Middle Ages,
which Condorcet and his followers had regarded as


periods of chaos and confusion, had in fact constituted
a valuable and necessary stage in human progress.

Saint-Simon's teaching, so far as relevant, may be
briefly summarized: (1) Society is not an aggregate of
individuals, but a whole sui generis; (2) to study
societies scientifically it is necessary to inquire how the
parts of which they are composed contribute to the
life of the whole at a given time and above all, to
ascertain how the stages through which they pass are
linked in their historical development; (3) though, ex-
cept for an illuminating analysis of the history of some
European societies, Saint-Simon did not undertake any
comparative study of other societies on the scale that
would be needed to establish general laws of develop-
ment, he was convinced that the dominating fact in
the life of societies is the fact of progress; (4) the law
of progress has been stated in different forms by Saint-
Simon, prior to his death in 1825, and by his school
(Mémoire sur la science de l'homme, 1859).

There is, first, the law of the two states. According
to this human thought passes out of a conjectural and
theological state into a positive and properly scientific
state. Religion passes through a succession of phases
—fetishism, polytheism, deism. The sciences can be
arranged in a series based on the order in which they
pass from theological conjecture to positive knowledge.
Physiology was on the eve of becoming positive and
when this process has been completed it will be possi-
ble for philosophy, conceived as a synthesis of all the
special sciences, to become positive and to provide an
adequate basis for the rational organization of society.
How all this is related to Comte's classification of the
sciences and his law of the three states is another

A second form of the law of progress, partly stated
by Saint-Simon but more fully elucidated in his Expo-
... (1830) by S.-A. Bazard, is that in history there
is an ever-recurring alternation between organic and
critical periods. In the organic periods there is a com-
mon body of beliefs strong enough to resist the dis-
persive tendencies that threaten to divide society and
to create a mood of stability and unity. In the critical
periods, on the other hand, there is no creed com-
manding the assent of all, there is widespread discon-
tent, egoistic tendencies gain in strength and anarchy
results. Thus pre-Socratic Greece was organic, post-
Socratic Greece, critical. In Rome the organic period
ended with Augustus. With the constitution of the
Christian Church in the sixth century began a new
organic period of feudalism: in the sixteenth century
the Reformers inaugurated another critical period. This
has now (i.e., the beginning of the nineteenth century)
reached its highest point and what society needs next
is not a continuance of destructive criticism but a fresh
effort to reconstruct social institutions and a new sys-
tem of beliefs to serve as a moral basis for these

There is yet a third aspect of the law of progress
emphasized by Bazard in his Exposition... (1830).
This is the continual extension of the area of association
from small groups of families, to cities, nations,
confederations, a supernational church. This trend to-
wards unity must eventually result in a still vaster
association comprehending the whole race. It is part
of Bazard's argument that the enlargement of the area
of association makes for improved social relations
within the smaller groups; “conflicting elements within
each association are weakened to the degree that sev-
eral associations unite into one.” His view of the future
was highly optimistic. The part played by force was
steadily diminishing; governmental and military types
of organization will be replaced by an industrial and
administrative regime; while in the past human rela-
tions were based on the exploitation of man by man,
in the future the concerted efforts of a united mankind
will be directed to increasing the power of man over
nature (Halévy, 1848; Durkheim, 1928).

Comte's theory of progress is far more comprehen-
sive and elaborate than Saint-Simon's and, though no
one would now concede his claim that his laws of social
evolution were more “fully verified than any essential
law of natural philosophy” (Comte [1875], II, 387),
there can be no doubt of the enormous influence his
work had in promulgating the idea that the history
of civilization was subject to general laws and that a
science of society was possible. In essentials Comte's
theory of progress was summed up by himself in the
law that human thought passes through three stages,
the theological, the metaphysical and the positive, and
in the more general statement that the development
of man, individual and collective, consists in the grow-
ing ascendancy of our human attributes over our ani-
mal or purely organic ones and that this is achieved
by the increasing command of the intellect over the
passions and of the sympathetic over the self-regarding

Comte's law of the three stages has been subjected
to a good deal of criticism. In Bury's view it is
“discredited.” A more balanced estimate will be found
in the valuable analysis made by J. S. Mill (Auguste
Comte and Positivism
[1866], pp. 9f.), by A. Fouillée
in Le mouvement positiviste (1896), and by L. T.
Hobhouse (Democracy and Reaction, 1904). A few
comments will be offered on points of current interest.
The first concerns the relations between monotheism
and science. There is a widely held view that the basic
assumptions of science, the orderliness or regularity of
nature, were made acceptable by the belief in the unity


and rationality of God (Whitehead, 1926). As far as
the earlier stages are concerned Comte favored the
reverse relation. It was the nascent positive spirit,
encouraged by the emergence of geometry and astron-
omy that familiarized the educated mind with the
conception of invariable laws and thereby facilitated
the transition from the belief in a plurality of arbitrary
and unpredictable gods to the belief in one God, the
source of unity and order, though still capable of
reversing the course of nature by miraculous interposi-
tions (Comte [1875], II, 208). In regard to later ages,
however, Comte maintained that though monotheism
owed its first stirrings to the scientific spirit “it was
itself indispensable to its further progress, both in re-
gard to its improvement and propagation” (idem, II,
339). At this point his argument falters. He overrated
the contribution of Catholicism to the growth of sci-
ence, and ignored the fact that the Arab contributions
were based on the recovered thought of polytheistic

Next, a brief comment on the principle of consensus
governing both social statics and dynamics. In the
former, the state of any part of a social whole is
intimately connected with the contemporaneous state
of all the others. Dynamically, the principle implies
that a change in any one sphere of social life, e.g.,
religion, science, philosophy, the fine arts, the industrial
arts, commerce and government, is likely to be con-
nected with a parallel change in all the others. For
these principles, as for the law of the Three Stages,
Comte made large claims.

His method, however, provided no procedure for
distinguishing between different kinds and degrees of
interdependence, with the result that many of the
connections which he thought safely established, had
no sound basis. This applies to the association or
correlation he sought to establish between the theolog-
ical stage and militarism, between metaphysical modes
of thought and “defensive” warfare and between the
growth of positive science and the phase of industrial-
ism and the cessation of war. He did not foresee the
clashes that would result from the intensification of
nationalism, the industrialization of the non-Western
communities or the complicated interactions between
militarism and technological advances in the arts of
war. Herbert Spencer, who also believed in the ulti-
mate supersession of war by peaceful industry, none-
theless predicted a recrudescence of militarism. Comte
and his followers were confident that at any rate in
Western Europe the period of war was rapidly coming
to an end.

In the event, it was Western Europe that became
the center of the most terrible wars in history. If ad-
vances in industry do not necessarily make for peace,
neither do advances in positive science. The sciences
nowadays tend to be morally neutral or indifferent, and
to be used as readily for evil as for good. It is plain
from these and other examples that Comte had devised
no reliable method for testing alleged correlations, or
for passing from correlations to deeper underlying

Finally, something must be said of the way in which
the theory that the main agent of progress is intellec-
tual advance was received by his contemporaries and
immediate successors. In France a similar view was
put forward by T. S. Jouffroy. The passions of individ-
uals tended, he thought, to neutralize each other by
their opposition, thus enabling general ideas on which
all are agreed to rule with comparatively little resist-
ance. The effects of individual passions are transient
and secondary in the life of communities. “Nothing
great, nothing permanent can ever be produced among
a people, whatever be its government, except by the
force and with the support of the convictions of that
people” (Mélanges philosophiques, 3rd ed. [1860], p.
50). On the other hand, Émile Littré, Comte's most
noted disciple, maintained that developments in indus-
try, morality and art were separate from and ante-
cedent to intellectual development. In England J. S.
Mill stoutly defended Comte's view against the attacks
made on it by Herbert Spencer. Mill's main point is
that Comte did not deny, as Spencer implies, that
intellectual changes were to some extent conditioned
by changes in other elements in society. What he was
concerned to show was that these were themselves
consequences of prior intellectual changes.

As to Spencer's argument that feelings rather than
ideas govern the world, Mill replied that while the
feelings supply the motive power they are ineffective
if not shaped and directed by some form of intellectual
conviction. In view of the stress laid nowadays on
“ideologies,” in the sense of beliefs shaped by hidden
“interests,” some of Mill's remarks deserve special
attention. He pointed out that the disturbing or dis-
torting influence of the passions and interests was
confined to morals, politics, and religion, while it is
intellectual movement in other regions than these
which is the root of great changes in human affairs.
“It was not human emotions which discovered the
motion of the earth, or detected the evidence of its
antiquity, which exploded Scholasticism and inaugu-
rated the exploration of nature, which invented print-
ing, paper or the mariner's compass. Yet the Reforma-
tion, the English and French Revolutions and still
greater moral and social changes yet to come, are
direct consequences of these and similar discoveries”
(Mill [1866], pp. 101-04). The issues thus raised are
still actively discussed, as, for example, in the studies


devoted to the relations between Calvinism and capi-
talism or between the Enlightenment and the Refor-
mation (Trevor-Roper, 1967).

Determinism and Indeterminism. Opinions differ
widely on how far progress is necessary or contingent,
and even those who on the whole favored a deter-
ministic interpretation were by no means committed
to the view that the future of man is taken entirely
out of his hands. In France, Renouvier, Cournot,
Proudhon, Bouillier (see below), and many others
definitely rejected fatalistic theories of progress. In
England Walter Bagehot insisted that progress
depended on a rare combination of energy and balance
of mind, hard to attain and harder to keep. The notion
of automatic or necessary progress is wholly foreign
to Hobhouse's theory of social development. On the
other hand, Comte and Spencer both stressed the
certainty or “necessity” of progress. Nevertheless even
they did not believe that progress was “inevitable” in
the sense that it would take its own course no matter
what we do. It was part of Comte's teaching that the
greater the complexity of any order, the more it admits
modification. Since social phenomena are the most
complex of all, they are the most liable to perturbation,
but they are also most open to rational control.

Within limits set by the conditions of social devel-
opment growing knowledge of the positive laws of
social life would enable us to exercise effective control,
just as advances in the physical sciences give us greater
power over the forces of nature. Spencer's argument
goes deeper. The thoughts and actions of individuals
are among the factors that arise in the course of evolu-
tion and they therefore play a part in producing
changes. The analogy of individual development is
instructive. An organism will gradually unfold its
potentialities in a manner characteristic of its type in
an approximately uniform manner. Nonetheless the
process can be facilitated by maintaining favorable
conditions or deranged by neglect. In the same way
social development may be aided or hindered, retarded
or accelerated, “without, however, being in any essen-
tial way diverted from its general course” (Spencer
[1892], p. 401). It is interesting to note that Engels,
from an entirely different approach, reaches a some-
what similar conclusion. What happens in history is
the result of conflicts between many individual wills;
each of these has been shaped by past conditions and
all interact in such a manner that what emerges is
something that no one has willed. Yet each individual
contributes something and his actions must therefore
be regarded as part-causes of the result (Engels, n.d.).

Human Nature and Perfectibility. The belief in
perfectibility was linked by the Encyclopedists such
as Helvétius and d'Holbach with a theory of human
nature derived mainly from Locke and Condillac but
influenced also by Leibniz (Hubert, 1923). According
to this theory the dogma that human nature is un-
changeable must be rejected. Man is by nature neither
good nor bad. Circumstances and institutions, espe-
cially education, determine in which direction he is
to develop. Change the institutions and this will change
human nature. Helvétius further thought, though in this
he was not followed by other Encyclopedists, that men
do not differ in innate endowment.

All differences of intelligence and character are due
to education or other environmental influences. These
may act very subtly: “no two men ever receive pre-
cisely the same education” (De l'esprit [1758], iii. I).
Princes, Holbach tells us, are like gardeners who can
by varying systems of cultivation alter the character
of men as they would alter the form of trees. In
England this doctrine was adopted and developed by
Godwin. But unlike the French philosophers he did
not think that the transformation of human character
could be attained by compulsory state education. State
schools would only strengthen the power of kings and
would be used to perpetuate prejudices and prevent
the growth of independent thought (Godwin, 1796;
Brailsford, 1913).

It will be seen that the belief in perfectibility rests
on two presuppositions, namely that human nature is
plastic and can be molded by changes in the environ-
ment, and that the progress of knowledge necessarily
brings with it improvement in conduct. The first of
these presuppositions harmonized very well with the
empiricist doctrine of mental contents adopted by the
Encyclopedists. The basis of the second, on the other
hand, is vague and obscure. There are according to
them no innate ideas, intellectual or moral. Morality
is based on the capacity to experience pleasure and
pain and to reflect on this experience. But they under-
took no exact investigation of the way in which, under
the influence of ideas and their associations, the feelings
come to be modified. They also made no attempt to
deal with the problem raised by philosophers in the
post-Socratic period and repeatedly since then by reli-
gious teachers, of accounting for the fact that men can
know what is good and choose the bad. To ascribe
moral evil to the corrupting influence of bad institu-
tions and to ignorance only pushes the problem a stage
further back, since it does not account for the evil in
institutions or for the failure to make use of whatever
wisdom is available.

The problems thus raised were not resolved by
Condorcet, though he was more aware than the Ency-
clopedists of the need of accounting for the persistence
of prejudices and bad institutions. His views on per-
fectibility, however, were based not so much on a


psychological analysis of human nature as on his belief
in the possibility of discovering universally valid truths
in the area of morals, politics, and economics as certain
as those reached in the physical sciences and of using
the knowledge thus gained in dispelling prejudices and
guiding action. “Just as the mathematical and physical
sciences contribute to improve the arts that are
employed for our most simple wants, is it not equally,”
he asks, “the necessary order of nature that the progress
of the moral and political sciences should exercise a
similar influence upon the motives that direct our
sentiments and our actions?” (Condorcet, Esquisse...,
Dixième Époque, 1795). Knowledge, if widely diffused,
would make for greater freedom and equality. La
discussion générale et publique conduit à la vérité et
ces mots vérité, liberté, égalité sont synonymes
by W. Alff from an article in the Chronique de Paris,
November 1791; Condorcet [1963], p. 380).

Comte's views of the relations between the intellec-
tual and affective elements in human nature are less
optimistic. The intellect has no energy of its own. It
is moved to action by the instincts and among these
the egoistic or self-regarding are more powerful than
the social or other regarding. Nevertheless, in the
course of development the intellect and the social
impulses tend to support each other. The division of
labor brings home to men their need of and depend-
ence upon one another. Stimulated by increasing social
contact and by the larger problems set before it, the
intellect gains in strength. Reciprocally the altruistic
tendencies are invigorated by the greater command
which the intellect gives man over his passions and
the deeper insight which it makes possible into the
needs of others. A historical survey, Comte argued,
shows that altruistic tendencies have in fact grown in
strength and that this justifies the conclusion that they
have the capacity for “indefinite extension.” Further-
more, altruism is not only a dominant trend in social
development, it is also a supreme ethical principle.
“Living for others” Comte takes to be the ultimate
aim and standard of conduct, rather than the mere
increase of happiness, though he holds that the more
altruistic any man's sentiments and habits can be made,
the greater will be the happiness enjoyed by himself
as well as by others.

Moral Progress. By the end of the seventeenth cen-
tury the applicability of the idea of progress to the
growth of scientific knowledge and its applications was
generally accepted. Whether “perfectibility” could be
extended to other spheres of social life was not so clear.
Thus Fontenelle, who is generally regarded as having
been among the first to formulate a definite theory of
the progress of knowledge, denied that there was a
parallel advance in the aesthetic arts. He was even
more definite in rejecting the notion of moral progress.
Men's passions he thought would always remain the
same, the proportion of “reasonable” men would
always be small; civilization was little more than a
veneer. Among the Encyclopedists, Diderot restricted
the idea of development to the individual. Existing
societies had rules and institutions so contrary to reason
that he could only suppose them to have arisen out
of superstition and lust of power. Societies did indeed
grow larger and more complex. But while this growth
generated new duties and widened the scope of moral
obligations, it also increased the strength of inordinate
desires. “In the state of nature there were few choices
to be made, few desires to combat... the growth of
new arts, of new needs and desires have deadened the
spirit of hospitality and generosity and replaced it by
a spirit of cupidity, venality and avarice” (Diderot,
1751). On the other hand Turgot and more fully,
Condorcet, maintained that intellectual progress was
the cause and instrument of a parallel development
in the arts of life, morality, and happiness. In Comte's
view religion, philosophy, science, the fine arts, the
industrial arts, economic and political institutions were
taken as in close mutual dependence and the progress
of society from one state to another was not an aggre-
gate of partial changes, but the product of a single
impulse acting through all the partial agencies.

In the nineteenth century the moral elements in
progress were emphasized by many French philoso-
phers, notably by Renouvier and by the historian of
Cartesian philosophy, F. Bouillier (1876). E. Reclus,
in the article on Ethnography in the Encyclopaedia
in 1879, sums up current opinion in the
statement that “whilst material and intellectual devel-
opment is not in dispute, this is not the case regarding
moral progress.” He quotes a remark of Mrs. J. S. Mill:
“the world is very young, and has only just begun to
cast off injustice” and another by Dr. Henry Maudsley:
“morality, the last acquired faculty of man, is the first
which he is liable to lose.”

Much of the discussion of the part played by morals
in social development was occasioned by Buckle's His-
tory of Civilization in England,
published in 1857-61.
In this he set out to show that progress in Europe “was
entirely due to its intellectual activity.... In what
may be called the innate and original morals of man-
kind there is, in so far as we are aware, no progress”
(Buckle [1904], p. 128). The debate has been studied
in great detail by J. M. Robertson (1895). In estimating
the outcome of these highly complicated arguments
a number of important distinctions have to be made.

First, we must distinguish between morality in the
sense of conscientiousness, that is, steadiness in acting
in accordance with one's sense of duty, and morality


in the sense of the body of rules and obligations binding
on the individual and the ideals set before him as
models to emulate. It is clear that conscientiousness
does not lend itself to comparative study: we have no
direct access to the inner side of morality. Second, even
as far as outward conduct is concerned, we cannot
estimate with any accuracy the extent to which in our
own times practice corresponds to precept. For earlier
times the evidence would completely fail us. Third,
we have no reason for believing that there has been
any improvement in genetic makeup. Men are not born
with a better moral equipment than in earlier times.
Fourth, if there is such a thing as moral progress it
must consist in: (1) fuller knowledge of the nature of
purposive acts, of responsibility, of the ends of action
and of the order of social relations most likely to be
conducive to their fulfillment; (2) the progressive use
of the knowledge thus attained in the criticism and
reconstruction of social, political, and economic insti-
tutions; (3) the building up of cognitive, emotional,
and affective systems needed to sustain the sense of
moral obligations, to extend the range of imaginative
sympathy and to provide the energy and drive required
for the pursuit of ideals.

As to (1), those who deny the reality of moral
progress must be ready to write off the whole history
of reflection on human nature and its possibilities as
of no significance. The dictum that “morality admits
of no discoveries” can hardly be justified. Hobhouse
has pointed to at least four discoveries of capital
importance. The first is the establishment of the im-
partial rule, the foundation of common sense morality.
The second is the establishment of universalism, the
foundation of religious idealism. The third is the social
personality (if we may use a modern phrase to express
the real center of the Greek doctrine) which governs
the first stage of philosophic ethics. The fourth is the
idea of freedom as the basis of personal development
and social cooperation which emerges in the modern
reconstruction of ethico-religious idealism (Hobhouse
[1927], p. 186). As to (2) and (3), the vast data available
were examined by Hobhouse and Westermarck in the
beginning of this century. Since then no survey on a
comparable scale has been attempted and no adequate
study exists of the impact of moral ideas on changes
in the law, social and economic institutions, or on
religious beliefs and practices.

There are two sets of problems now urgently in need
of clarification. One concerns the ethical aspects of
technological advance and in particular the social re-
sponsibilities of scientists. The other relates to the
moral elements in the “ideologies” now dividing the
communist and Western world alike. Their leaders
speak in moral terms, but it is not at all clear whether
they have different conceptions of the ultimate ends
of life, or of the order of their importance, or of the
types of institutions needed to attain them. In general,
the problem of the causes of the variations in moral
insight and the part played by ignorance or distortion
of the relevant facts and the confusion of factual asser-
tions with moral assertions proper requires much fuller
investigation if further light is to be thrown on the
reality or possibility of moral progress (Hobhouse,
1951; Westermarck, 1906; Macbeath, 1952; Ginsberg,

Marxism and Progress. Marxist writers tend to re-
gard the idea of progress as the reflection, in the social
consciousness of the time, of the forces at work in the
ascendant phase of capitalist production. Likewise they
attribute what they take to be its decline or demise
to the pessimism induced by the failures of capitalism
to solve the problems which it had itself generated.
Accordingly they claim further that it is socialist
thought alone which has kept alive what was rational
in the idea, and which is now proving its validity in
practice by the triumphant achievements of revolu-
tionary socialism. The doctrine of progress now held
by communist writers is set out in some detail in the
official Soviet textbook Fundamentals of Marxism-
(Kuusinen [1961], pp. 238ff.).

The main points as understood are formulated in this
way: (1) progress consists in the growth of man's power
over nature and of his ability to reduce or eliminate
man's power over man (cf. the Saint-Simonians). (2)
This growth depends upon and is correlated with the
development of the forces of production. A society is
progressive if it opens up fresh possibilities for the
development of the productive forces and ensures a
faster rate of growth, and if these changes in the forces
of production are followed by social changes tending
to reduce the various forms of personal dependence
and oppression of the working classes. (3) The main
difficulty in reducing man's power over man lies in
the private ownership of the means of production. Only
under socialism passing into communism is liberation
possible. (4) It is taken as established that the develop-
ment of the productive forces and the resulting changes
in social relations has been of necessity progressive,
since at each stage the level of the productive forces
has grown and every advance has opened up possi-
bilities of further development. From this it is deduced
that “the forward movement of society is a historical
necessity... that neither individuals nor classes can
halt this movement or change its direction.” Despite
this “necessity” communists do not abandon the belief
of the early rationalists that man can make himself.
They look forward confidently to an age “when the
true realm of freedom will blossom out of the realm


of necessity in the fully developed communist society
of the future.” (5) The ultimate goal may be defined
in the words of the concluding sentence of the second
section of the Communist Manifesto: “an association
in which the free development of each member is the
condition for the free development of all.”

On the evidence it is clear that the Marxists have
not succeeded in revealing “the economic law of mo-
tion of modern society.” Capitalist states have revealed
powers of reconstruction and adaptation not foreseen
by Marx. Furthermore, experience of communist
societies has shown that the problem of power is not
resolved by transferring the ownership in the means
of production to the state. For this results in a concen-
tration of political power and economic power, and
renders the individual more helpless than in capitalist
systems in which power and responsibility are more
widely diffused. Finally, in Western societies property
for power is of less importance than it was when
political power was directly linked with property, and
freedom of association was limited or nonexistent.
Nowadays the direct power of employers over workers
is kept in check by trade unions, and workers have
learned to use the political machine to remodel the
economic system (Korsch, 1938; Meissner, 1963).

Evolution and Progress. Of the three main ideas
which enter into the theory of evolution, namely vari-
ation, heredity, and selection, it is the last that has had
the most profound repercussions in its application to
human affairs. Darwin himself made no extravagant
claims for natural selection in his account of the evolu-
tion of man. He maintained that while in the formative
period man had acquired his intellectual and moral
faculties under the influence of natural selection, their
further development owes much more to training,
education, and tradition. In dealing with the “civi-
lized” nations Darwin attached only subordinate
importance to natural selection, since “such nations do
not supplant and exterminate one another as do savage
tribes.” He added that it is very difficult to say “why
one civilized nation rises, becomes more powerful and
spreads more widely than another, nor why the same
nations progress more quickly at one time than an-
other” (Darwin [1909], p. 216).

Darwin's followers made no such reservations. Thus
Karl Pearson confidently asserted that “selection is the
sole effective process known to science by which a race
can continuously progress.” Similar statements were
frequently made by writers belonging to the movement
misnamed “Social Darwinism.” This movement took
various forms: (1) It purported to provide a biological
basis for theories of race and class as the main agencies
in the rise and fall of civilizations, and, readily passing
from what is or is coming to be to what ought to be,
it pretended to find in biology an ethical justification
for existing inequalities and for condemning all efforts
at mitigating struggle within and between groups as
“interference” with natural laws. (2) In its milder forms
the ideas underlying Social Darwinism gave rise to the
various forms of the Eugenic movement, the main aim
of which is to replace natural by rational selection.
(3) Politically its teaching was highly ambiguous. It
was used by some to justify laissez-faire individualism
on the ground that competitive struggle is the key to
progress. For others it provided a scientific basis for
socialism on the ground that societies being organisms,
it was necessary to subject all their parts to central

It is now clear, after many years of controversy, that
Social Darwinism suffered from an uncritical use of
the notion of natural selection. In the main social
change is not effected by the selective elimination of
genetic variants and their replacement by others, but
by changes in organization and tradition having little
to do with the transformation of biological types.
Changes in the structure of the family, in the forms
of government, or the class system can be brought
about without changes in the inherited structure, under
the influence of selection.

Recently some biologists have claimed that the con-
cept of progress can be fruitfully used in biology and
even that from evolutionary theory an ethic can be
derived. Various criteria have been proposed. Evolu-
tion is said to be progressive when it produces types
that are more dominant or varied and abundant; have
greater control over the environment and greater in-
dependence of its chances and changes; or develop
powers of awareness which enable them to respond
with greater plasticity and discrimination to their en-
vironment. Such criteria are obviously useful in
describing certain lines of evolution. Whether they can
provide the basis for an ethic is quite another question.

It is clear that progress in the sense defined is not
a universal law of evolution, since the history of life
provides examples not only of progress but also of
retrogression, degeneration, and decay. In social
change as in biological change, many trends can be
traced. Among these we have to choose, but the ground
of the choice cannot be deduced from the trends. An
independent value judgment has to be made. Thus we
cannot say on the grounds of general evolutionary
theory that human society is moving inevitably to
collectivism, as Joseph Needham claims (Integrative
1937), or that the progress of man requires the
maintenance of class distinctions, as William Bateson
suggested (Biological Fact and the Structure of Society,
1912), or that totalitarianism or authoritarianism is
wrong, as G. G. Simpson maintained in The Meaning


of Evolution (1950). Assertions of this kind assume that
the laws of social change are already known and they
imply ethical judgments which may or may not be
valid, but which cannot be shown to follow from gen-
eral evolutionary theory.

A survey of the history of the ideas of evolution and
progress from Spencer onwards shows the importance
of keeping them distinct. Progress means the realiza-
tion of an ethical order; evolution is ethically neutral.
Increasing complexity or growing differentiation are
not necessarily progressive. A caste system may be a
product of social evolution and may become highly
complex and differentiated, but whether it is good or
not cannot be decided by tracing its history. There is
an evolution of imperialism, of socialism, of national-
ism, of militarism and of many other trends, but the
fact that they have evolved is no evidence of their
value. The verdict of T. H. Huxley holds that from
the facts of evolution, including the evolution of
morals, no ethics of evolution can be derived (Hob-
house, 1928; Richard Hofstadter, 1945; Sorley, 1885;
Julian Huxley, 1947).

Doubt and Disillusion. From the end of the nine-
teenth century onwards doubt about the reality of
progress began to be heard more and more frequently.
The writings of L. T. Hobhouse—a staunch believer
in a humanitarian ethics—are of great interest in this
context. In 1904 he drew attention to the widespread
reaction against humanitarianism which was affecting
every department of life and thought. He traced the
rise of jingoistic imperialism and brought out its impact
on domestic policy. In the world of thought he pointed
to the various movements which, on the one hand,
tended to erode the claims of individual personality
and, on the other, to glorify self-assertion and to hold
up to derision everything that savored of altruism and
social justice (Hobhouse, 1904). During the first world
war he contributed a series of articles to the Man-
chester Guardian
(later reprinted in The World in
1915) in which he examined in some detail
the changes in outlook which were to be observed
everywhere in his own life time, the growing impa-
tience with reason, the glorification of “action,” vital
impulse, or instinct, the greater readiness to resort to
violence as an instrument of politics both within states
and between them. He was not, however, without hope
that the outcome of World War I would be a restora-
tion of the fundamental rules of justice, and faith in
the principles of humanitarianism. In this he was to
be disappointed. Reviewing the international situation
in 1924 he thought that the forces making for a peace-
ful world policy and those making for growing tyranny,
confusion, and the renewal of ever more destructive
wars were evenly balanced. In 1927 his doubts per
sisted. There was the danger not only of the cessation
of progress but of the break-up of our distinctive civili-
zation. “Humanity would have to go back upon its
traces, as it has done before” (Hobhouse [1927], p. 232).

Hobhouse died before the Nazis had done their
worst. There can be no doubt that it was the horror
and savagery of the Nazi period, all the more terrible
for its cold-blooded and systematic ruthlessness, that
shook or shattered the hopes that many still entertained
for future progress. What importance is to be attached
to this period in estimating the long-range trends of
Western civilization is a problem on which opinions
differ. There are those who, like Peter Geyl, hold that
Mussolini and Hitler came to power only with the aid
of exceptional political and economic circumstances
which confused the masses and that their regimes were
overthrown without having any lasting impact on the
mentality of their peoples (Geyl, Encounters in History
[reprint 1961], p. 293). Others are more skeptical and
would agree with Arnold Toynbee, who argues that
what happened in this period points to a radical
inadequacy or weakness which will not be remedied
by a revival of the ideals of the eighteenth century
(Toynbee [1961], XII, 532).

Next we must note yet another wave of skepticism
and disillusion. In the thirties there were many in
Western countries who looked forward hopefully to
the achievements of the Russian Revolution. They
believed that Marxism-Leninism provided not only a
theory of progress but a technique for promoting it
in the event “their God failed them.” They realized
that the means employed defeated the ends of the
Revolution, and that there were grave dangers of new
and self-perpetuating forms of tyranny as difficult to
control as those they had displaced. In this context too
the state of later opinion is far from clear. It is interest-
ing to note that in 1927, with the experience of the
emergent dictatorships before him, Hobhouse ex-
pressed the opinion that these would prove unstable,
and that some measure of political freedom could be
deemed the norm for the advanced nations. He might
have strengthened his case by stressing the fact that
the dictatorships had only arisen in countries in which
democracy had no deep roots. The Soviet dictatorship
appeared to him as a normal stage in the development
from autocracy to democratic institutions (Hobhouse
[1927], p. 223). Tending in the same direction was
Toynbee's opinion (in 1961) that “Communism as well
as Liberalism was a product and expression of the
modern Western civilization and the difference be-
tween the Liberal and the Communist way of Western
life might be expected to diminish progressively with
each additional decade of 'coexistence'” (Toynbee
[1961], XII, 546). This view, however, is widely


disputed: there are many who think that the two ways
of life differ radically and are not reconcilable.

Finally, those who believe that the growth of
knowledge is the chief or sole determinant of social
progress have to face the charge that advances in
science and technology can be and have been used for
evil as for good, and indeed that they may bring man-
kind to the point of self-destruction. As against theories
of “inevitable” progress, or of step by step corre-
spondence between intellectual and moral progress,
arguments of this sort have their importance. But as
a basis for estimating the role of intellectual develop-
ment in the history of civilization they are far from
impressive. They fail to take into account the enormous
contributions to human well-being due to the growth
of knowledge and its applications, and they underes-
timate the strength of the movements for peace and
for the control of nuclear power. More generally, they
make no allowance for the resilience and re-
sourcefulness of our age, shown by the success with
which the peoples of the world have recovered from
two devastating wars, by the development of policies
of social welfare, and by the liberalizing forces at work
in the communist world.

Conclusion. Looking back on the elements of pro-
gressivist thought which have been most influential,
we may consider first the idea of the unity of mankind.
This had a double significance, methodological and
ethical. Methodologically it implied a belief in the
possibility of a universal history as distinct from the
history of particular peoples. In fact the data used by
the early progressivists were, as judged by modern
standards, grossly inadequate. The Encyclopedists gave
some attention to the ethnographic material then
available and, for the civilizations, they relied mainly
on what they could learn from the Greek historians
about ancient Egypt. Comte confined his synthesis to
the “elite” nations of Europe and ignored China, India,
and even the Muhammadan peoples. Nowadays there
is an abundance of data, archeological, historical, and
contemporary and, though we do not hear much about
“universal” history, comparative sociology, which rests
on the same presuppositions, is actively pursued. It is
true that much emphasis has recently been placed on
the distinctiveness of civilizations; but this does not
necessarily preclude the notion of the development of
mankind as a whole (Toynbee [1934], III, 390).

On the ethical side, the unity of mankind was con-
ceived as an ideal of equal justice for all men, inde-
pendent of class or race distinctions. Unity as an ideal
was often combined with the belief that in fact human
nature was in essentials the same in all men, and that
the differences between them were not such as to
justify relegating any of them to perpetual inferiority,
or to disqualify them from playing a useful part in the
progress of mankind. Of the vitality of this idea there
can surely be no doubt. It is true that group morality
persists; it survives in race discrimination, in war and
the precarious rules supposed to govern its conduct,
in chauvinistic nationalism. Still, universalism has
grown; the scope of common principles and the
impartiality shown in their application have expanded
despite setbacks and reversals.

Next in importance is the belief in perfectibility, in
the power of reason not only to utilize the forces of
nature in the service of human needs, but also to bring
about improvements in human relations and in the
conduct of men. It is this belief which has aroused the
sharpest criticism. Thus it has been argued that the
increase in man's power over nature can be and has
been used for evil and for good, and that there is no
ground for confidence that they are more likely to be
used in the future for the latter than for the former.
Arguments of this sort, as noted above, vastly underes-
timate the great contributions of the natural sciences
to human well-being, and their resourcefulness in deal-
ing with problems of their own making. Furthermore,
they ignore the fact that what the early progressivists
relied on was not only progress in the natural sciences
but also in the moral and political sciences and the
influence that these might have on the motives direct-
ing action (Condorcet, 1795).

The real difficulties lie deeper. It is not at all clear
whether the early thinkers believed that the social
sciences could of themselves provide an ethic or
whether independent moral judgments were involved.
Thus Condorcet's principle of equality is stated as at
once an ideal and a historical trend. Is the one derived
from the other? Comte passes readily from the indica-
tive to the imperative mood. His view that in the
course of development altruistic tendencies gradually
predominate over the selfish is stated not only as a fact
but as a guide to action. In these and in many other
cases the relation between progress as an ethical ideal
and as statement of fact remains ambiguous.

A further, and even more serious weakness is to be
traced to the failure of the early theories to inquire
more fully into the relations between knowledge and
feeling, between reason and passion. They were much
too ready to take it for granted that “enlightenment”
would bring virtue and happiness with it, and they
made no serious effort to deal with the sources of
irrational behavior. In this context Comte is an excep-
tion. In his view the preponderating power in human
conduct belongs not to the intellect but to the instincts
and emotions. The intellect has no energy of its own.
It is moreover inherently anarchic and egoistic. It can
be of service to humanity only under the influence of


the altruistic emotions. Comte is thus not open to the
charge of overstating the power of reason. The
difficulty is rather that his analysis provides no assur-
ance that the intellect has sufficient strength to ensure
the triumph of benevolent over egoistic impulses.

In the last resort the validity of the belief in progress
turns upon the question whether we can form an
intelligible conception of a good common to humanity
and have the ability to shape the conditions needed
to secure this end. Bury, in introducing his historical
analysis, insisted that the question is not one of ideals
but of fact, “which man's wishes or labours cannot
affect any more than his wishes or labours can prolong
life beyond the grave.” This fatalistic attitude is the
precise contrary of the view taken by progressivists
who see no cause of progress except in the human will.
The facts are relevant insofar as they can throw light
on the possibilities open to mankind. But Kant's verdict
still holds good, that the short periods of history so
far studied are not sufficient to establish laws of social
development. It is further now generally held that we
cannot pass directly from facts to values. The question
therefore remains: By what standards is progress to be
estimated? Those who reject the idea of progress do
so because they believe that all such standards are
“subjective” or “relative,” and must always remain so.
Rationalists, on the other hand, believe that principles
of appraisal are available, and that our knowledge of
them is itself progressive. In other words they believe
that our knowledge of the nature of ideals and of the
principles of justice and the conditions of their fulfill-
ment has grown and will continue to grow. On this
view the belief in progress consists primarily in the
belief that man makes himself, that he has the power
and the duty to control and direct future development.
The history of the idea shows that in this sense it is
relatively new and that it stands in need of develop-
ment before it can direct development. Obviously,
there can be no assurance of ultimate success, but there
can be no real test of progress through conscious effort
until the effort is made on a world scale. The ideas
inherent in the belief in progress, the ideas of freedom,
self-determination, and the rational use of natural
forces to meet human needs have spread all over the
world. This has meant a release of energies; but as
usual, has also brought with it collisions, violence, and
the justification of violence.

The immediate task is to rid the world of the now
palpable irrationality of war. Once freed from the fear
of war, the problem of world unity will assume a
different character. Cultural diversity will be seen to
constitute no danger. Peoples will feel free to develop
each in its own way and to cooperate in the problems
of common concern—the conquest of disease and pov
erty and the removal of the barriers that divide men.
It may then become possible to work out more fully
the practical implications of the conception of a self-
directing humanity, to deepen our knowledge of the
causes making for conflict, or onesidedness and dis-
crepancies in development, and to use the knowledge
thus gained in guiding future developments.


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[See also Causation, Final Causes; Cycles; Education;
Evolutionism; Justice; Law, Natural; Nationalism; Perfect-
; Primitivism; Prophecy; Socialism.]