J. Bury, The Idea of Progress

  1. Appleby et al. write: ‘Before there could be moderns, there had to be ancients’. Did Enlightenment writers think that theirs was a new age or epoch, no longer dominated by antiquity and tradition? How did they distinguish their age from the ‘past’?

Enlightenment writers believed that to some extent arts are brought to perfection by experience and long labour (i.e. progress) and therefore the modern age must, as a result, have the advantage over that of the ancients. On the other hand, some argued that this was not the case because the same arts and studies are not always uninterruptedly pursued by the most powerful intellects, and so can decline or even be extinguished.

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In distinguishing their age from the past, Enlightenment writers often spoke of their time as a ‘great age’, comparable to the Age of Augustus. Few of the Enlightenment writers would have preferred to have lived at any other time. J. Bury states that ‘the Enlightenment of the present age surpasses that of antiquity:

La docte Antiquité dans toute sans sa durée

A l’égal de nos jours ne fut point éclairée’.

  1. Appleby et al. also write: ‘Progress and modernity…marched hand in hand’. Did Enlightenment writers invent the idea of progress? What did they think progress consisted ...

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