History of the Idea of Progress

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

In this latest work, Robert Nisbet attempts what may be impossible in a short history, “to identify and put in proper perspective the major personages, texts, presuppositions, intellectual climates, and philosophical and ideological uses” of the idea of progress in Western thought from classical antiquity to, in his view, degenerate modernity. The concept and its functions in shaping the course of intellectual history have long commanded Professor Nisbet’s attention, most notably and far more successfully in his Social Change and History: Aspects of the Western Theory of Development (1969), where the idea of progress is a major concern and many of the same authors and works provide grist for his critical analysis.

“Progress,” as it must be in a work of this scope, is broadly understood. The concept includes, among other elements, the convictions that gradual yet inexorable forces, variously construed, are at work creating a historical continuity, that mankind’s earthly lot has advanced in the past from conditions of relative primitivism to conditions clearly perceived as better, and that the process continues in the present and will continue in the foreseeable future. Millenarianism is central to the conception of progress throughout the entire twenty-five-hundred-year span of Nisbet’s history: “the history of the idea of progress centers upon man’s moral and spiritual condition on earth, his happiness, his freedom from torments of nature and society, and above all his serenity or tranquility.” Progress, however else it may distinguish itself, is marked by confidence in the eventual achievement of the perfection of human nature.

Nisbet approaches his task primarily through a series of chronologically arranged commentaries on the luminaries of Western intellectual history and a selection of their works or parts of them which manifest to one degree or another evidence of the idea of progress. These are generously illustrated with quotations and paraphrases from the works themselves and from distinguished scholarly works about them. His summary treatment of these writers and periods and the progressive themes they exhibit is for the most part either conventional or defensible in view of the scholarship of others which guides it. In virtually every chapter there is much which experts or even well-read general readers will find to complain about. Nisbet, for example, more fully asserts than makes his case for the idea of progress in Hesiod. His treatment of Plato is as thin and disappointing as his treatment of Joachim of Flora is full and satisfying. His treatment of the antiprogressive strain in the Renaissance is as annoying in its overstatement and underdevelopment as it is accurate in its general thrust. It is a book about generalities and abstractions which too often and too suddenly sets itself to what almost appears to be philological analysis, only to fly onto another epoch and another set of luminaries without sufficient transition.

With few exceptions, the commentary exhibits the idea of progress in the texts of the given writer and, by extension, the historical period, without extensive discussion of evidence to the contrary or complexities of the historical context. This is not simply a quibble in the interests of balance, for it speaks to the fundamental nature of Nisbet’s undertaking, its virtue as well as its several vices.

Nisbet’s is not a historical narrative which plots the progress of the idea so much as a demonstration of the idea’s existence, nearly full-formed, throughout the course of Western history. He develops his argument, at least rhetorically, in a cumulative rather than an evolutionary fashion. The burden of Nisbet’s discussion reflects his own virtually religious faith in the value of the idea of progress to Western culture. Nisbet explicitly expresses his view that the faith in the idea of progress is the cornerstone of Western civilization and that it is an intellectual or cultural “dogma,” which operates precisely as Cardinal Newman understood that term.The history of all that is greatest in the West—religion, science, reason, freedom, equality, justice, philosophy, the arts, and so on—is grounded deeply in the belief that what one does in one’s own time is at once tribute to the greatness and indispensability of the past, and confidence in an ever more golden future.

Nisbet’s aims and methods are...

(The entire section is 1815 words.)