chapter  22
Whatever Happened to Progress?
Pages 11

The idea of Enlightenment can be traced back through the centuries, but for the West the idea is rather more specific and has its origins in what used to be known as the 'European Renaissance' , which, beginning in Italy in the fifteenth century, soon spread to the rest of Europe. The quickening interest in the secular world, the world of art and nature, later took in the 'scientism' of Francis Bacon and Galileo and moved on into the eighteenth century, by which time it appeared to have reached its high point. Influenced by the French philosophers and the encyclopaedists, by Comte and Condorcet, the movement began to associate itself with agnosticism and empiricism, on the one hand, and, on the other, with a boundless optimism about the future and a growing concern for social justice. Not surprisingly, it was during this period, and particularly during the second half of the eighteenth century, that this broadly humanistic and humanitarian movement allied itself with the notion of progress as we understand it today: at first, intellectual and moral progress, which fused into a belief in the perfectibility of man; but later, under the impact of the writings of economists - Cantillon in France and, in the first half of the nineteenth century, the philosophical radicals in Britain, and others too numerous to mention - material progress also. The faith in progress, and especially material progress, reached its apogee in mid-Victorian England, and that faith, although less powerful today, has never lost its hold over the minds of the intellectual guardians of Western civilisation.