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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The History of an Idea, June 24, 2002
This review is from: History of the Idea of Progress (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.) Even thinkers who seem quite pessimistic - such as Malthaus - have their progress-oriented side.
In the founding and early years of America, we see the combination of two types of progressivism - a combination of a secularized version of Puritanism and Enlightenment rationalism. This deserves at least some of the blame for America's interventionist foreign policy.
Nisbet also notes that although a faith in progress has been disastrous in many ways (such as Marxism) it has also been beneficial. Many of man's achievements have been nurtured by the belief that things can and will get better.
This is a fast-paced and exciting overview. A work that deals with similar topics from a different perspective is Passmore's THE PERFECTIBILITY OF MAN. Eric Voegelin has a political take on the idea of progress in THE NEW SCIENCE OF POLITICS.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars history of the idea of project, April 10, 2008
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This review is from: History of the Idea of Progress (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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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Progress, and How It Progresses, July 10, 2011
By 
J. Smallridge (Kansas City, MO USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: History of the Idea of Progress (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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7 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Idea in exile, April 27, 2004
This Transaction reprint of Nisbet's book is well worth reading although it is not the most classic treatment of the idea of progress, for which see a work such as J.B. Bury's Idea of Progress. Nisbet's book has an ironic history, having been written with a sudden conservative slant just as the postmodern critiques of the idea were in the ascendant. It left the author wondering in the second edition preface why rotten tomatoes were sailing overhead.
The obsessive rant by Darwinians against evolutionary progress is another factor in the twilight of view of history, more likely the twilight of the culture that can no longer handle such a foundational discourse whose lineage stretches back to the Battle of the Ancients and Moderns, or indeed, as the work by Edelstein cited by Nisbet suggests, the Ancient Greeks. Here the conservative rewrite of the idea of progress shows through Nisbet's treatment as he tries to bring in an Augustinian claim on the idea for the Middle Ages. That misses the point that the idea of progress gained strength as an affirmation of creative modernity, able finally to surpass the ancients. Despite a slight wiseacring thus Nisbet's book is always interesting and points to the immense literature on the subject, a la Bury, that has been unjustly sent into exile.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars, July 21, 2014
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This review is from: History of the Idea of Progress (Paperback)
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History of the Idea of Progress
History of the Idea of Progress by Robert A. Nisbet (Paperback - January 1, 1994)
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