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History of the Idea of Progress Paperback – January 1, 1994

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About the Author

Robert A. Nisbet (1913-1996) was Albert Schweitzer Professor Emeritus of the Humanities at Columbia University. Some of his books include The Sociological Tradition, History of the Idea of Progress, and Metaphor and History.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 370 pages
  • Publisher: Transaction Publishers; 2nd edition (January 1, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1560007133
  • ISBN-13: 978-1560007135
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #603,333 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Steve Jackson on June 24, 2002
Format: Paperback
Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) was, as I've said before, one of the most important thinkers in recent memory. Although commonly called a sociologist, many of his writings fit broadly into the category of the "history of ideas." One such work is HISTORY OF THE IDEA OF PROGRESS. This work is an invaluable overview of the belief in progress from early times to the present. We might be tempted to say that history has no general direction, it's just a series of "ups and downs." While this view is defensible, it is interesting that the belief in progress (or perhaps more accurately, the inevitability of progress) has been one of the dominant ideas of human history. And, as Nisbet shows, it isn't confined to modern man or the hotheads of the French Revolution. Echoes of it can be found in the Greeks and Romans, and Christianity was a very "progress oriented" religion.
Nisbet proceeds chronologically, discussing the key thinkers and schools. One discussion I found fascinating was that of Joachim of Fiore, a Catholic monk, who was one of the leading religious advocates of progress (and who saw a future age of the spiritual elite.) I was quite surprised to read that many Puritans referred favorably to Joachim in the seventeenth century. (In spite of their pessimistic view of human nature, many Puritans - and some of their offshoots such as the Fifth Monarchy Men - were believers in progress.)
Many Enlightenment thinkers believed in progress as well. One such thinker was Kant. (Incidentally, Randroids will be shocked that according Kant "there must be on every count - moral and political as well as economic - a maximum amount of autonomy granted the individual in all areas of his life." In fact, he didn't design the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Vasilios Lemonidis on April 10, 2008
Format: Paperback
Altough Nisbet's research on the idea of progress offer little that is not in Bury,still remains a stimulating and finely documented study of the history of the idea from classical antiquity to modern era. Comprehensive in scope and well-written is adressed not only to intellectual elite but to general public as well. A true classic.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By J. Smallridge on July 10, 2011
Format: Paperback
This is even more timely following the last shuttle launch. Nisbet examines an important concept in this book and lays out his arguments in a very strong, systematic way. Humans since the beginning of time have been interested in the idea of progress and in ways of showing how achievement is possible. What might be the most important idea after reading Nisbet's work is what happens to societies and individuals when progress is not achieved. In other words, what happens to countries that stop "progressing" by some conceived standard and only survive?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Clay Garner on April 2, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Nisbet provides a through analysis of the 'idea of progress'. Starts with Greeks philosophy and ends with modern environmentalism. Covers Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Bacon, Decarte, Puritians, Leibniz, Adam Smith, Mill, Saint-Simon, the German idealists, Marx, Comte, Spengler, etc. Many receive numerous pages.

Recognizes progress has produced amazing benefits. Nevertheless, Nisbet presents the other side as usual: "The kind of absolute military-political power we find in the 20th century totalitarianisms, left and right, has behind it a philosophy of inexorable progress. So does the kind of racism that flourished in the 19th-century." (8) Trust in progress became trust in regress.

Nisbet presents conclusion that loss of faith in progress, which has produced much good, is dying due to the "dramatic erosion of all the fundamental intellectual and spiritual premises upon which the idea of progress is rested throughout its long history." (9) He wonders if civilization as we know can survive without "the supporting faith in progress." Notes "we shall know shortly."

After a chapter on the Greeks, he covers the early Christians. He focuses on the Jewish belief in a future earthly paradise. This drove the Christian trust in "the role of historical necessity, and the image of progress as the unfolding through long ages of a design present from the very beginning of man's history. . . Added is the emphasis upon the gradual, cumulative, spiritual perfection of mankind. . . With the returned Christ as ruler." (47) This assumption enabled progress.

He explains a pivotal figure in the west is Augustine. His idea of progress influenced the present.
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