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This article is taken from PN Review 24, Volume 8 Number 4, March - April 1982.

The Idea of Progress Roger Scruton

The idea that the human race, as it moves through history, is always improving towards some ideal state is an old one. In his recently published History of the Idea of Progress (Heinemann, 1980), Professor Robert Nisbet argues that it is as old as Western civilization, if not as old as mankind. Nisbet discerns the idea in the myth of Prometheus, in the pastoral vision of Hesiod, in Roman and Christian antiquity, even in the chronicles of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance ecomiums of classical learning. He consciously opposes the orthodox theory that the idea of progress is distinctively modern, a product of the rise of science and of the secularization of Western culture. It is, he believes, one of the perennial values of mankind, a source of hope in all ages, which is expressed sometimes in secular, and sometimes in religious terms.

Nisbet is an impressive scholar, armed with an effective card-index. He produces carefully chosen quotations to show that men as diverse as St Augustine and Adam Smith, Thucydides and Hegel, Fontenelle and Cotton Mather, all shared a common faith in the progress of mankind. Even Vico, the first great advocate of the cyclical view of history, is said to have had a progressive streak. The evidence for this is that he called his principle work the New Science, and how could he have used those two words, Nisbet asks, if he did not have a lingering attachment to modernity?

The thesis ...

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