French Enlightenment Ideas On Progress


We have discussed, in two previous articles here, the views on progress of two different thinkers, Fontenelle and the Abbé de Saint-Pierre.  We will now proceed to summarize the views on progress of several important writers of the French Enlightenment.

If we have devoted much space to France, it is because that country was at the forefront of Western thought during the centuries when the idea of “progress” began to become part of our collective consciousness.  We take it for granted today, of course, and forget that it is a relative newcomer to the history of ideas.


His Spirit of Laws spent much time discussing the influence of climate on history.  A people’s “general mind” or “collective spirit” was a product of climate, religion, laws, precepts of government, and morals.  He placed too much faith in the power of laws and reason to shape the behavior of man, much like his contemporaries.  But implicit in his theory of history was the idea there were no intrinsic barriers to progress:  change the circumstances, and you can change the man.  Humans are infinitely malleable.


The great man’s theory of progress can be found in his Age of Louis XIV and in the Essay on the Manners and Mind of Nations, and on the Principal Facts of History from Charlemagne to the Death of Louis XIII.  Voltaire being Voltaire, he believed that man’s major obstacles to progress were the (according to him) enfeebling influence of religion, war, and tyranny.  If we could only get rid of these things, he argued, mankind would be able to enjoy almost unfettered progress, aided by reason and science.

If Voltaire sounds like a naive modern university lecturer, we must remember that he was writing at a time when France was still in the grip of feudal institutions (the Church and the nobility) who practiced a vigorous censorship of progressive ideas.  He was not deluded by any means; he was quite aware of the scope and parameters of human nature.


Voltaire’s idealism was always tempered with a healthy–perhaps too healthy–dose of cynicism.  He knew that man’s progress was always a fragile thing.  At any time it could regress into ignorance and obscurantism.  Events that were not guided by human reason were subject to chance, and that meant that a great deal that acted on man and his works was outside of human control.


His full name was Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de l’Aulne (1727-1781).  He crafted a very detailed theory of progress which had significant influence.  Although primarily remembered today as an economist, his views on progress are derived from lectures he delivered (in Latin) at the Sorbonne in 1750.  In his view, mankind was “perfectible” in the sense that he could be refined and polished to a more desirable state.

History was nothing but a record of man’s continuing effort to perfect himself; even if there have been periods of darkness or barbarism, the general trend has always been upward.  And it would continue to be so, in his view.


Even the inequalities among men and nations are only the products of arbitrary circumstances.  He was confident that such inequalities would, over a long enough time, fade away into insignificance.  Turgot was canny enough to make a point of noting that man never consciously made perfection or happiness his goal; he has been guided by his baser passions through history.

But the general effect of this following of the passions has been to improve man’s condition.  He was subtle enough, and brilliant enough, to understand that irrationality and injustice aid progress far more than we can imagine.

Unlike Voltaire, Turgot does not lament or wring his hands over the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.  He embraces them, and sees them as necessary for progress.  It is only by making mistakes that man can ever advance.

Turgot may be credited with enunciating two different “laws” of progress:

1.  When a society is moving forward in development, every advance that is made accelerates the rate of development.  In other words, when progress is being made, it happens at a geometric rate.

2.  Societies seem to pass through three distinct stages with regards to how they process knowledge.

In the first stage, theological explanations are sought to explain events that man does not understand.  In the second stage, man realizes that the gods do not really control events, so man looks for metaphysical and abstract ways of explaining things.  In the third stage, science is used, and its principles are employed to explain natural phenomena.


It is easy to see why the French Enlightenment has exerted such a profound influence on the idea of progress.  The Encyclopaedists (most notably Diderot and d’Alembert) were to reinforce these ideas in the publication of the Encyclopedia (1751-1765).  Mankind would, with the help of reason and the rejection of “superstitution” (their code-word for religion), be able to scale the loftiest pinnacles of achievement.

It is a believe that persists, for the most part, to this very day.  We will see, however, that this optimistic picture owed as much to blind faith as did the old “superstition” that the Enlightenment thinkers so much loved to ridicule.


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