The European Enlightenment: Glossary

Progress


   Perhaps the key term that defines the character of the Enlightenment and the European Enlightenment heritage is the notion of progress, the sense that all experience is future-directed with the specific, calculated purpose of improving or bettering the world, society, and the individual. We all know this term and use it without thinking, so much that it has become integrated into the way we experience the world. It seems almost counter-intuitive to regard the notion as a cultural invention, and a recent one at that. However, it is a cultural invention and has a complex origin and meaning.


General Glossary
Eschatology
Teleology
   The ultimate origin of the concept lies in Christian eschatology, or the "study of the end of the world." Eschatology is a major component of foundation and early Christianity; in the early Christian world view, history was finite, it had an end. When history would end, then the universe would be properly ordered both physically and morally and all human suffering—if one was saved—would come to an end. In other words, the Christian world view was manifestly teleological. Not only did history have a clear end for early Christians, that end was right around the corner. Most early Christian communities lived with the idea that the world would end in their lifetimes . As A.D. time piled up, the eschatological aspects of Christianity became less central, though they never went away. But the Christian world view in the Middle Ages and Renaissance still focused on the future: the purpose of an individual human life was to reach the end of that life and enter heaven, the purpose of history was to reach an end at which the universe would be morally ordered.


Enlightenment Glossary
Classical Mechanics
Deism

European Enlightenment
Philosophes
   As world view began to shift in the 1600's, several innovations had wide-ranging consequences. Isaac Newton's mechanistic universe implied that the universe could be understood without recourse to religion or God, even though Newton himself believed that God created the universe and set it in motion. Eventually, this would lead Europeans to attempt to explain other areas of phenomena with the same mechanistic model—economics, politics, ethics. All of these explanations permitted religion and the divine to be removed from the debate and made the world of material and human phenomena rational, predictable, and manipulable . Human reason could grasp the workings of things and change those workings. Eventually this way of thinking would lead a radical group of French philosophes to develop the idea of Deism, which posited that all phenomenon could be understood solely by the human reason without any divine explanation at all.


Ancient Greece
Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoicism

Early Christian Glossary
Typology
   It is a small step from there to apply this notion to history, that history operates under certain natural laws that are rational and predictable and that God has nothing to do with the operations of history. For the early Christians, history was a product of God's intervention and was a kind of meaningful speech by God to humans, an idea derived from Greek Stoicism and the idea of the logos . This gave rise to a general interpretive historical theory, typology, which served to explain the meaning of history as illustrating God's purpose for humanity. However, Enlightenment thinkers believed that one could explain history as a product of human action rather than divine will. This means that history no longer has meaning and is no longer focussed on a particular end (the final judgement and end of the world). When one takes the end of the world out of Christian eschatology, one is left with a model of history that resembles the Enlightenment idea of progress. History is still future-directed, as it is in Christian eschatology, but now there is no specific goal towards which history is directed. Add to this picture the notion that history is made by human beings following predictable and rational laws , then human beings become not the passive victims of history but its masters. If only the natural processes animating history can be understood, then human beings can manipulate these processes to produce a future that is better than the present, and this combined with the notion that history is directed towards some goal, gives us the Enlightenment concept of progress.


   You should note that progress is not focused on a defined goal, but is a steady and unlimited improvement. The future opens up as a vast field of possibilities; this opens up a vast field of alternatives and the management of those alternatives has become one of the central anxieties of European and European-derived cultures.

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 10-8-97