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The Enlightened Concept of Progress

Fete de l’Etre suprême au Champ de Mars (20 prairial an II - 8 juin 1794)
by Pierre-Antoine Demarchy (1794)

French philosophes of the pre-revolutionary era framed the concept of Progress leading to a state of ultimate perfection. The perfect state, in the minds of enlightened French patriots in the 1790s, had one universal civic religion in which all citizens worship Liberty, Reason, and Truth. The epic portrait of the Festival of the Supreme Being shows the citizens of Paris pouring out their joy as they watch a symbolic form of The People, holding Liberty and Equality, process past Hercules towards the tree of Liberty a the top of the hill. This weekly celebration was conceived by Robespierre shortly before he was beheaded. Napoleon Bonaparte abolished it - along with France's first republican government - soon after declaring himself Emperor.

The Enlightenment was a series of events that occurred in a three-dimensional continuum over approximately six generations. 
 The stage was set for this monumental age of  transformation in the way men viewed themselves in the world in the second half of the 17th century. This occurred when a few scientific virtuosi applied a revolutionary new empirical method of investigation to discover that general laws govern the processes of Nature. By demonstrating the true nature of the world, they succeeded in replacing Aristotelian Natural Philosophy with modern Natural Science. 

Sir Isaac Newton surrounded by symbols of some of his greatest findings by Jean-Leon Huens (c1975)
Courtesy of National Geographic

The Enlightenment's English Dawn:

Latitudinarianism, Deism, Pantheism, and Natural Religion

By the end of the 17th century, a few freethinking English non-conformists had begun to challenge the orthodoxies that underpinned the Christian faith and to lay the foundations for a relationship between man and god that did not rest on superstition or the mediation of a corrupt priesthood. In this process they replaced Organized Religion with Natural Religion in which the relationship between God is dictated by reason.
Portrait of John Locke by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1697)
The Scottish Enlightenment:

​The Metamorphosis of Morality

By the second quarter of the 18th century, cosmopolitans in Scotland had begun to explain right behavior in terms of utility—those modes of behavior which conduce to the common good of men in society. In this process they replaced Moral Theology (right behavior as the Will of God revealed in Scripture) with Moral Philosophy (right behavior discerned through the application of human reason). 
Portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsey (c. 1760)
The Enlightenment in France

The Apotheosis of Reason 

By the middle of the 18th century, a few energetic lumieres in France were undertaking to teach their fellow citizens what is true and what is false. In this process they came to realize that the accumulation and application of scientific knowledge would over time solve all problems facing man in society and lead mankind to a perfect state. This thesis was implicit in the work of Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot. His protégé, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, subsequently crystalized it into the Doctrine of Progress.

Anne Robert Jacques Turgot
 contrôleur général des finances or controller general of finances
Artist unknown (c. 1775)
The men who organized and managed the American War of Independence were neither natural scientists nor philosophers. They were not concerned with moral law or perfecting society. Most of them were lawyers and legislators who wanted to define the common good of the American people and make the law themselves. Their contribution to the Enlightenment and progress was to show theorists in the old world how to transform ideas about natural right and the sovereignty of the people into political realities. They did this by rationalizing popular resistance and rousing their fellow citizens into a rebellion against monarchical absolutism.


The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull (1819)

The American Enlightenment: Rationalizing Popular Resistance