Editor's comment

This scholarly survey first appeared in 1932. But the development of this idea is so well portrayed that it deserves to be preserved.

It has become so much a part of the general mental outlook of educated people that it appears to have been always with us. Bury's analysis enriches our understanding of this relatively new idea.


Bury, J. B., The Idea of Progress Dover Publications, New York 1955 [abridged— 1000 words] — belief in progress is an act of faith

This idea means that civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction. But in order to judge that we are moving in a desirable direction we should have to know precisely what the destination is. To the minds of most people the desirable outcome of human development would be a condition of society in which all the inhabitants of the planet would enjoy a perfectly happy existence. But it is impossible to be sure that civilization is moving in the right direction to realize this aim.

Certain features of our “progress” may be urged as presumptions in its favor, but there are always offsets, and it has always been easy to make out a case that, from the point of view of increasing happiness, the tendencies of our progressive civilization are far from desirable. In short, it cannot be proved that the unknown destination towards which man is advancing is desirable. The movement may be Progress, or it may be in an undesirable direction and therefore not Progress. This is a question of fact, and one which is at present as insoluble as the question of personal immortality. It is a problem which bears on the mystery of life.

Moreover, even if it is admitted to be probable that the course of civilization has so far been in a desirable direction it cannot be proved that ultimate attainment depends entirely on the human will. For the advance might at some point be arrested by an insuperable wall. Take the particular case of knowledge, as to which it is generally taken for granted that the continuity of progress in the future depends altogether on the continuity of human effort (assuming that human brains do not degenerate). This assumption is based on a strictly limited experience.

Science has been advancing without interruption during the last three or four hundred years; every new discovery has led to new problems and new methods of solution, and opened up new fields for exploration. Hitherto men of science have not been compelled to halt, they have always found means to advance further. But what assurance have we that they will not one day come up against impassable harriers? The experience of four hundred years, in which the surface of nature has been successfully tapped, can hardly be said to warrant conclusions as to the prospect of operations extending over four hundred or four thousand centuries.

Take biology or astronomy. How can we be sure that some day progress may not come to a dead pause, not because knowledge is exhausted, but because our resources for investigation are exhausted—because, for instance, scientific instruments have reached the limit of perfection beyond which it is demonstrably impossible to improve them, or because (in the case of astronomy) we come into the presence of forces of which, unlike gravitation, we have no terrestrial experience? It is an assumption, which cannot be verified, that we shall not soon reach a point in our knowledge of nature beyond which the human intellect is unqualified to pass.

But it is just this assumption which is the light and inspiration of man’s scientific research. For if the assumption is not true, it means that he can never come within sight of the goal which is, in the case of physical science, if not a complete knowledge of the cosmos and the processes of nature, at least an immeasurably larger and deeper knowledge than we at present possess.

Thus continuous progress in man’s knowledge of his environment, which is one of the chief conditions of general Progress, is a hypothesis which may or may not be true. And if it is true, there remains the further hypothesis of man’s moral and social “perfectibility,” which rests on much less impressive evidence. There is nothing to show that he may not reach, in his psychical and social development, a stage at which the conditions of his life will be still far from satisfactory, and beyond which he will find it impossible to progress. This is a question of fact which no willing on man’s part can alter. It is a question bearing on the mystery of life.

Enough has been said to show that the Progress of humanity belongs to the same order of ideas as Providence or personal immortality. It is true or it is false, and like them it cannot be proved either true or false. Belief in it is an act of faith.

The idea of human Progress then is a theory which involves a synthesis of the past and a prophecy of the future. It is based on an interpretation of history which regards men as slowly advancing in a definite and desirable direction, and infers that this progress will continue indefinitely…

It may surprise many to be told that the notion of Progress, which now seems so easy to apprehend, is of comparatively recent origin. It has indeed been claimed that various thinkers, both ancient (for instance, Seneca) and medieval (for instance, Friar Bacon), had long ago conceived it. But sporadic observations—such as man’s gradual rise from primitive and savage conditions to a certain level of civilization by a series of inventions, or the possibility of some future additions to his knowledge of nature—which were inevitable at a certain stage of human reflection, do not amount to an anticipation of the idea…

It is from its bearings on the future that Progress derives its value, its interest, and its power. You may conceive civilization as having gradually advanced in the past, but you have not got the idea of Progress until you go on to conceive that it is destined to advance indefinitely in the future.

Ideas have their intellectual climates, and… the intellectual climates of classical antiquity and the ensuing ages were not propitious to the birth of the doctrine of Progress. It is not until the sixteenth century that the obstacles to its appearance definitely begin to be transcended and a favorable atmosphere to be gradually prepared.