by Paul Elmer More

In his latest work, The Idea of Progress, An Inquiry into Its Origin and Growth, Professor J. B. Bury has narrated the development of what must still be regarded as the dominant idea of modern times, although several recent books in English and French and German show that scepticism is beginning to make terrible inroads into the complacency of our ante-bellum faith. He shows how and why the idea of Progress was foreign to the Greek and mediaeval mind; exhibits its feeble birth in the Renaissance, and describes its triumphant growth in the eighteenth century.

It does not fall within the scope of Mr. Bury's plan to decide whether the idea is false or true, mischievous or beneficent, although he does argue in conclusion that the conception of Progress, based as it is on the principle of change, is itself subject to change and must in time give way to some other dominating belief. In other words, Mr. Bury's purpose is historical and analytic rather than philosophical and synthetic. No one can quarrel with him for his self-imposed limits so far as these do not affect the object he has in view. But it may be fairly asked whether his exposition has not suffered in just this respect.

The belief or disbelief in Progress goes back to the intuitive answer of the heart to the question: Is man intrinsically good and is evil only accidental to him, or is evil an essential ingredient of his nature, deeply grounded in his being, and continually tending to drag him downwards? Mr. Bury does not fail to pose this question. He quotes Seneca's saying, Erras si existimas vitia nobiscum esse; supervenerunt, ingesta sunt, and indicates some of its corollaries; but he does not lay hold of it as a guiding clue. The various elements which compose the idea of Progress come up in his book in rather haphazard succession, and the impression left by his work as a whole is somewhat disjointed.

It is just the craving for flattery, the itch of an uneasy vanity, a longing to escape from the ancient indictment of the human heart as desperately wicked and deceitful above all things, that has been the driving force behind the whole movement of human thought from the Renaissance to the present day. Bacon felt this when he announced that the "happiness of mankind" was to be attained by discrediting the restrictive wisdom of the past, and by setting out on a course of physical discovery which should look to "the endowment of human life with new inventions and riches." Mankind had suffered, he thought, not from any innate overreaching after power, but from its mere lack of knowledge. Give men power over nature and the heart will take care of itself. The deists felt the same pull when they taught that "social evils were due neither to innate and incorrigible disabilities of the human being nor to the nature of things, but simply to ignorance and prejudice." Let men once be told that the universe is totally reasonable in design and of course they will be reasonable in their conduct. Saint-Pierre was victim of the same illusion when he propounded his innumerable projects of government reform: only remove the oppression of bad laws and society will blossom with instinctive virtues. Rousseau made it the principle of education when he showed how a child, if left to develop its own nature without restraint or discipline, would grow up into a perfect man. And at last the philosophers of evolution gave it the sanction of science when they declared that, as one species is transmuted into a higher species by the operation of a mechanical law of fitness, so the generations of mankind grow from better to better by the mere gravity of an innate propensity, without taking thought and without painful self-direction. The idea of Progress as it was finally formulated in the nineteenth century might be described as organized vanity decking itself out in the flummery of science: l' amour-propre est le plus grand de tous les fiatteurs.

The consequences of this formulated flattery are dear enough. On the credit side must be placed a spirit of hopefulness, a courage not easily dismayed, a consolatory trust that the future will make good the sad mishaps of the past. But against this must be set a terrible debit--the contemptuous attitude towards the past, the abandonment of the school of experience for the pleasanter Kindergarten of impulse, the restiveness under any form of discipline or restraint, the feeling that one man is as good as another--"and a deal better too!"--the introduction of a sort of down-at-the-heels laisser-faire into morals; all of which may be coupled with a fine intolerance of any benighted souls who profess to follow other lights than those shining at the moment and are indisposed to face with the current of the tide.

These consequences, good and bad, are seen in a way by Mr. Bury, and are indicated here and there in his comments. But he does not bring them to a psychological focus; nor does he mention what is perhaps the most striking result of all, the almost universal resurgence of youth against age, the common belief that the world is for the young and that the old are merely dogs on the chariot wheels of triumphant Progress. Naturally, if in the nature of things the present is an advance on the past, the coming generation by virtue of its date is wiser and better than the passing. Why should a scholar pay heed to a teacher droning out of the backward and abysm of time? Why should a child listen to the admonitions of a parent grumbling from the shelf where he properly belongs? And the odd thing is, not that scholar and child should think thus, but that teacher and parent should submit so patiently to this rule of moral parricide. If there is any truth in the saying that civilization is only the imperfectly exercised control of youth by age, then the idea of Progress is the voice of barbarism.

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