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The idea of progress, conceived as the increasing sophistication of knowledge and the improving quality of life, has been the driving force of Western civilization for at least three hundred years. During the 20th century, the same idea has been adopted, with variations, by virtually every culture on earth. In the Third World, development and modernization are taken to be synonymous with progress.

The history of the idea of progress is complex, and even the meaning of the word is fundamentally disputed. Contemporary scholars disagree over whether the philosophers of classical antiquity had any expectation of progress in its modern sense. Robert Nisbet in The History of Progress (1980) finds some evidence that they did. But cyclical theories of civilization's rise and decline were far more common in the ancient world, and continued to be supported into the modern age by such distinguished scholars as Montesquieu, Helvetius, Gibbon, and Spengler. Another tradition of thought about human history is entirely pessimistic, seeing nothing but decline from an earlier golden age.

The idea of a universal history of human progress was developed during the 18th century, in the works of Voltaire, Turgot, Herder, and Kant, among others. With Kant we arrive at the fully developed idea of a unified human race moving towards the ideal of a ‘universal civil society’ founded on justice and based on the maximum individual freedom for all.

It is no exaggeration to say that philosophers in the 18th and 19th centuries became obsessed with the idea of progress. As hopes of a spiritual heaven faded, people's thoughts turned to the dream of heaven on earth, achieved through progress. The 18th-century idea had five elements: the continuing Deistic belief in Benevolent Providence, an essential optimism about the meaning of human life and destiny; the belief that history was not a chaos, but moved through predictable stages according to knowable laws; the belief in posterity, fulfilling the promise of progress and honouring the forerunners who had made it possible; the centrality of knowledge as the driving force of progress; the belief in the ultimate perfectibility of humankind. There was a powerful element of religious nostalgia in all this, and many historians have argued that the whole progressive ideology down to the present day is a mirror-image of Christianity, with the secular utopia substituting for the promise of paradise (see, for example, C. L. Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, 1932).

While the French Revolution dealt a severe set-back to this optimistic 18th-century philosophy, two of the most secular elements were carried forward into the 19th century, with earth-shaking results: the centrality of knowledge and the search for laws of history. Saint-Simon, and more especially Comte, combined these two elements with Kant's vision of a universal human history to produce an enormously influential theory of progress. Comte proposed that humanity evolved as the human mind evolved, and that human history could be divided into three distinct stages based on the level of human understanding. The Theological Stage was characterized by primitive, animist religious beliefs. The Metaphysical Stage (just ending, Comte believed, in his own time) produced more sophisticated and abstract religions. The emerging Positive Stage would be an era completely defined by science and rationality, which would produce an earthly utopia. Although criticized then and later, Comte's grand theory entered into Western consciousness. Its rational, scientific utopia was the very model of modernity.

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Subjects: Arts and Humanities — Sociology.


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