The Theory Of Progress Of The Abbé de Saint-Pierre


I have lately been testing the durability of the idea of human “progress.”  It is a subject that has interested me now for some time.  We recently examined the idea of progress advocated by Fontenelle.  We will now turn to another important French thinker who played a significant role in the idea of progress, a man whose name is unfortunately almost forgotten today.  His name is Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre, but this is usually shortened to Abbé de Saint-Pierre (1658-1743).

He was an extremely progressive and visionary thinker for his day.  Like so many great French thinkers of his and subsequent eras, he was educated by Jesuits.  He eventually entered the priesthood, but he held many views that were decidedly unorthodox for a clergyman.  He did not believe, for example, in priestly celibacy.  Though connections with important figures he was able to have access to figures close to the court of Louis XIV; he even was able to get himself elected to the French Academy in 1695.

But the salons of the time took note of him.  His views–by today’s standards mainstream, but in those days liberal and progressive–eventually got him expelled from the French Academy.  He believed, for example, in a fair income tax system (a graduated tax), an international court to arbitrate disputes among European nations, universal education as an obligation of the state, the government obligation to further trade and commerce, and constitutional checks on the powers of a king.  Obviously these were not the type of ideas that Louis XIV’s court orbiters wanted to hear, but at least the Abbé had enough integrity to declare them openly.  He was a man of ideas, and had no interest in toadying up to court lackeys.

Many of his ideas have continuing relevance.  He believed that the same sort of effort that went into scientific and technological research should go into the “human sciences” of politics, governance, ethics, and war.  Living in the era of Louis XIV’s many frivolous and ruinous wars, he was acutely aware of the need for rulers to be wise.  Leaders should be advised and guided by a “political academy” that contained people expert in such matters.  Until now, he thought, men of genius had been too much focused on literary, artistic, or scientific endeavors.


But it was his work (which appeared in 1737) the Observations on the Continuous Progress of Universal Reason which truly developed his theory of progress.  He did not like the analogy of mankind as an “individual” who had an infancy, youth, maturity, and old age; he believed, rather, that mankind would always be generating new and youthful emanations.  Francis Bacon liked to use this analogy, but the Abbé was decidedly against it.

Civilization was only about five or six thousand years old (and this he got precisely right!), but mankind was still only emerging from his primeval barbarous condition.  The achievements of man that will appear in the next few millennia will make the earlier ones look like dress-rehearsals for man’s progress.  All man needs, he optimistically thought, was time.  This grand perspective was something unique to him; other thinkers before him had pirouetted around this point, but he was the first to truly make something of the idea.

Although modern thinkers on morals and ethics had made significant advances since the days of Plato and Aristotle, they might have made even greater strides had their progress not been blocked by wars, ignorance, and the suspicions of rulers who did not appreciate being counseled on the art of governance.  He was not an idealistic believer in the natural equality of mankind when it came to ability:  some men and women, to be sure, were far better than others.  Not only this, but some nations were much more advanced than others.

Perhaps even our apparent advances in political science are an illusion.  The Abbé was careful to distinguish speculative reason from practical reason.  Speculative reason was confined to the world of the abstract, but practical reason involved the actual art of governing men.  And here is where the Abbé truly shone.  He notes that even though our best men may know much more than the ancient Greek or Chinese sages, they are still not significantly more “virtuous” than those ancients.  In other words, our ethical and moral progress has limped far behind our scientific progress, and this imbalance has impeded the progress of mankind.


Ethics and politics are just as important–indeed, on a daily basis, far more so–as the physical sciences for the average person.  And yet these subjects do not seem to attract the attention of men of genius to the same extent as the arts and sciences.  There are no intrinsic obstacles to human progress; if the right methods and tools are used, there is no reason why it should not be nearly infinite.

All in all, this was an incredible performance for one mind.  And it is strange that the Abbé has faded so completely into obscurity.  Perhaps the appearance of so many other luminaries in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries blinded posterity to his contributions.  But here, for the first time, we have a well-reasoned and legitimate theory of progress.  Of course, its faults are not hard to point out.

Like many intellectuals, he placed too much faith on the power of “reason” to solve human problems, and he did not really articulate how genius operates in the real world.  But at the same time, he was no speculative idler.  His proposals (noted above) have been put into practice in one way or another, and he definitely influenced thinkers after him, especially Rousseau.  He deserves a prominent place in our discussions here on progress.


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