Essay: Progress During the Enlightenment

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[. . .] What Adam means by this is that man can be his own God and is fully capable of creating a utopian society -- a belief the thinkers of the Enlightenment shared with Adam. Yet for every great success Adam accomplishes or sees accomplished, a corresponding tragedy or failure isn't far behind.

Adam glories in the Egyptian pyramids, but he discovers that they are built on the misery of slaves. So he rejects slavery and . . . advances to Greek democracy. But then the Athenians condemn a hero, much as they condemned Socrates, Adam forsakes democracy and moves on to harmless, worldly pleasure. Sated and miserable in hedonistic Rome, he looks to the chivalry of the knights crusader. Yet each new reforming principle crumbles before him. (Economist 2011)

Madach's "Tragedy" is a metaphor for the dual nature of the progress of man. Progress is not so much an ascending straight line, but rather a myriad design of ups and downs, dips and turns, periods of stagnancy and conflicting ideals.

While Enlightenment thinkers might not have agreed with Madach, per say, the art created during the Enlightenment seems to suggest an almost unconscious knowledge of the dual nature of progress. For example, consider the jewelry designs of the Enlightenment era. While the designs of the late 16th and early 17th centuries are largely minimalistic, consisting of simple straight lines and uncomplicated patterns (see image 1), as the latter century wore on, more complicated and often overlapping shapes became popular. Specifically, the square inside of a circle was a particularly popular pairing (see images 2-3), in addition to the emergence of ornate religious symbols that often incorporated several conflicting designs and rarely contained a straight line (see image 4).

In conclusion, though Enlightenment thinkers were undoubtedly optimistic regarding the inevitable nature of the progress of man, Enlightenment art suggests that they were not oblivious to man's corresponding potential for digression; or at the very least, the complicated nature of the progress of man. Rise we will, but we will not rise in a straight line. Rather, the rise of man is a series of spirals, dead ends, jagged edges, unavoidable pitfalls and sloping hills. That Enlightenment thinkers knew this, however unconsciously, yet nonetheless remained convinced of the inevitability of the rise of man is exemplary of a tremendous faith in humanity as a whole.


Annabel Chaffer. (2010). The Museum of London's "Cheapside Hoard" Jewelry Collection. Retrieved March 13, 2011 from

Economist. (2011). The Idea of Progress: Onwards and Upwards. Retrieved March 13, 2011 from

Nisbet, R. (1979). On Progress. Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought, 2(1).

Weiner, P. (ed). (1968). Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Studies of Pivitol Ideas. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.






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APA Format

Progress During the Enlightenment.  (2011, March 13).  Retrieved June 20, 2019, from

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"Progress During the Enlightenment."  13 March 2011.  Web.  20 June 2019. <>.

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"Progress During the Enlightenment."  March 13, 2011.  Accessed June 20, 2019.