Idea of Progress During the Enlightenment Essay

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Progress During the Enlightenment

The notion of progress is as evolving as the modern society we deem progressive. While some view progress in terms of science and technology, others view progress in terms of government, social equality, economic stability, spirituality and moral sensitivity. In terms of technology, our current society is more technologically advanced than ever before. We can pick up a telephone and speak to loved ones in other cities, states, and even countries; we can compose, mail, and deliver a letter within minutes via the world-wide-web; we can flip a switch and create light where there was darkness; we can turn a key and travel hundreds of miles within a few hours. Meanwhile, our governments no longer treat minorities as second-class citizens, the world wide poverty level and corresponding mortality rates have dramatically decreased, and our views of religion and spirituality are decidedly more eclectic than in times past. In essence, the notion that "civilization has moved, is moving and will continue to move in a desirable direction" seems clear to many2 (Bury 1920).

This optimistic notion of civilization as continually progressing originated during the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Enlightenment thinkers believed that man emancipated by reason would rise to ever greater heights of achievement. The many manifestations of his humanity would be the engines of progress: language, community, science, commerce, moral sensibility and government. (Economist 2011)

It was not, therefore, a question of if civilization would progress, but rather how it would progress. And no doubt, should an Enlightenment thinker be alive today, he could point in any number of directions and cite evidence of "progress." For example, consider the following:

For aeons people lived up to the age of just 25 or 30 and most parents could expect to mourn at least one of their children. Today, people live to 65 and, in countries such as Japan and Canada, over 80; outside Africa, a child's death is mercifully rare. Global average income was for centuries about $200 a year; a typical inhabitant
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of one of the world's richer countries now earns that much in a day. In the Middle Ages about one in ten Europeans could read; today, with a few exceptions, such as India and parts of Africa, the global [literacy] rate is comfortably above eight out of ten. In much of the world, ordinary men and women can vote and find work, regardless of their race. In large parts of [the world] they can think and say what they choose. If they fall ill, they will be treated. If they are innocent [of a crime], they will generally walk free. (Economist 2011)

So, yes; in many ways our civilization has progressed, not only terms of science and technology, but also in terms of how we treat one another, which is in indicative of moral and/or spiritual progress.

Unfortunately, there are, shall we say, two sides to every coin and the notion of progress is no exception. For example, while scientific and technological advances have given us cell phones, light switches, the internet, better healthcare, transportation and national defense, it has also given us the potential for nuclear and biological warfare. Similarly, while thinkers of the Enlightenment assumed that improved commerce would lead to prosperity, which in turn would allow for intellectual and spiritual enlightenment, the recent economic crash is evidence that improved commerce does not necessarily lead to prosperity or enlightenment of any kind. On the contrary, humanity has proven time and time again its inability to successfully regulate commerce in the pursuit of prosperity; though many people are living as well or better than they did fifty years ago, the same people who own Mercedes and condos in the Caymans often are swimming in credit card debt or struggling to pay off school loans for an education that was supposed to help them to prosper.

In other words, civilization's so-called "progress" is often a double edged sword that allows us to make tremendous strides and also potentially construct enormous pitfalls. I think this is what Imre Madach's "The Tragedy of Man" was meant to illustrate; that for every great rise, there is the potential for an equally great fall. After being cast out of the Garden of Eden, Adam decides he will make his own Eden and that "my God…

Sources Used in Documents:


Annabel Chaffer. (2010). The Museum of London's "Cheapside Hoard" Jewelry Collection. Retrieved March 13, 2011 from

Economist. (2011). The Idea of Progress: Onwards and Upwards. Retrieved March 13, 2011 from

Nisbet, R. (1979). On Progress. Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought, 2(1).

Weiner, P. (ed). (1968). Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Studies of Pivitol Ideas. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

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