The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers, 1776-1816

By Arthur Alphonse Ekirch Jr. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
THE HERITAGE OF THE IDEA

THROUGH the course of its long and important history the idea of progress has been defined and interpreted in various ways. This idea that "civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction" has been compared with the concepts of Fate, Providence, or personal immortality. Like those ideas it is believed in not because it is held to be good or bad, nor because it is considered to be true or false. In the words of J. B. Bury, the leading historian of the concept of progress, "belief in it is an act of faith." Bury accordingly included progress among those ideas not dependent for their fulfillment upon man's will.1 And in this opinion he was supported by many of the European philosophers of the concept. However, in the United States, as we shall see, the American people felt that, although progress was indeed certain, it could nevertheless be impeded or accelerated by human will and effort. It was, therefore, not only a theory of the past or a prophecy of the future, but also an incentive to action. In other words, progress represented a measurable growth in the pursuit of knowledge and in the achievements of science as well as an advance in the ability of men to control for good their own lives and destinies.

This division of opinion over the meaning of progress complicates any effort to trace the idea back even to its approximate beginnings in the realm of time.2 However, the historians and

____________________
1
J. B. Bury, The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origin and Growth ( first English ed. 1920; New York, 1932), pp. 1-7.
2
The meaning of progress has provoked much discussion in the extensive philosophical and sociological literature on the subject. For some examples, see: J. E. Boodin, "The Idea of Progress," Journal of Social Philosophy, IV ( Jan., 1939), 101-120; and his, The Social Mind: Foundations of Social Philosophy ( New York, 1939), ch. 14; Allan Nevins, The Gateway to History ( Boston and New York, 1938), ch. 9, and p. 239; Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, ( New York, 1934), pp. 182-185; H. W. Schneider, Science and Social Progress ( Lancaster, Pa., 1920), pp. 24-26; F. J. Teggart, Theory of History ( New Haven, 1925), Part II, ch. 8, and pp. 222-223; W. D. Wallis, Culture and Progress ( New York, 1930), Part III.

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