The eighteenth century introduced the idea of progress in history as people attempted to build new systems of knowledge. The men who supported the idea of progress in history were Condorcet, Voltaire, and Turgot. Condorcet saw man’s ability to reason as man’s emancipation from mythology. He also believed in man’s rationality and goodness, and claimed that the Middle Ages interrupted the progress of reaching happiness.
Voltaire coupled the idea of progress with rationalism. His later theories claimed that science and reason were the driving forces behind societal advancement.
For Turgot, progress directly impacted the whole of culture, its manners, institutions, legal codes, and society. Because of the idea of progress, historians could now put expectations for the future at the forefront and then look back to interpret the past.
Several men, however, opposed the idea of progress in history: Rousseau, d’Holbach, la Mettrie, and Helvetius. Rousseau hated the idea of progress, using the idea of American Indians as the ideal example. Man started out as a perfect being, and society destroyed him.
D’Holbach, la Mettrie, and Helvetius were part of the Materialist Theorists. They believed that man was just a complex animal and events were just a chain of causation. According to the Materialists, free-will did not exist, and everything was based on natural law. In the end, historians did not embrace the philosophies of Rousseau and the Materialists, but rather concentrated their philosophy on the new idea of progress in history.
– Hannah S. Bowers