Backstory to “The Idea of Progress”


My interest in the idea of progress began in earnest with my studies of the international expositions staged in Paris and San Francisco. Many years before, I read J.B. Bury’s The Idea of Progress. I enjoyed the book, but too its thesis as no more than an account of an academic theme spun out through the centuries.

The international expositions, though, raised the “idea of progress” to near-religious — maybe even religious — import. Here is the definition of progress from the official guide to the French exposition universelle of 1855 (in my translation):

Progress is the application of technology for the moral and physical improvement of the human race. — from the Exposition Universelle Livre d’Or of 1855

The “physical improvement” I could well understand. But moral? Further reading clarified what was meant by the term as the exposition officials used the term. Morality consists in the prevention, amelioration, or cure of human suffering. They looked to technology — the science of Louis Pasteur come to mind immediately — to discover and apply new inventions for the benefit of humanity.

By the mid-twentieth century, “Progress” had lost much of its moral urgency.  General Electric’s slogan — “Progress is our most important product” — symbolizes the decline of a high moral ideal into a mere “pay-off” line to add the color of righteousness to profit-seeking.

Further research into the idea of the meaning of human history led to to discover other, powerful explanations of the fate or meaning of human destiny. The explication and presentation of these theses provided the groundwork for “The Idea of Progress” visual essay on this web site.

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